December 29, 1999
Four experts discuss where technology could be headed in the 21st century.
RAY SUAREZ: It's the end of a century of extraordinary technological change. From the mass-produced Model-T on a dirt road, to e-commerce on the information highway, rapid change has ridden along on a torrent of innovation-- television and tupperware, rockets and refrigerators, antibiotics and atomic bombs-- changing our lives for better and worse. Time to ask, what hath technology wrought? Where are we headed?
Four people who think about humankind's inventive streak and what it means to all of us join us now. Jaron Lanier is a scientist, composer, visual artist, and author. Andy Lippman is associate director of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Nana Naisbitt is co-author of the new book, "High-Tech, High Touch: Technology and our Search for Meaning." And Regis McKenna heads an international consulting firm in Silicon Valley. Andy Lippman, we hear quite often the old saw that change is a constant but it's just much faster now at the end of the 20th century. Is there some wisdom to that?
|Is change coming faster?|
ANDY LIPPMAN: Oh, it's absolutely faster. One of the ways I like to think about it is that the rate of change of any society is a function of the age when you gain access to the dominant technology of the time. So if you think about the dominant technology being the automobile, well, it takes 16 years to learn how to drive. And so the rate of change of society is roughly every 16 or 32 years. Well, the dominant technology now is the personal computer, and the entry level age to that is two to four years old. So things really do change more quickly because there's literally new generations of people using it every two to four years.
RAY SUAREZ: And what consequence does that speed-up have for us, if we think of humans at the end of this century as opposed to the end of the last?
ANDY LIPPMAN: Well, it has a consequence in terms of a number of ways. One of them is where the inventions are coming from. You know, for the last 20 or 30 years, things like the consumer electronics industry have always paid lip service to the notion of designing things for kids because us old fogies are over the hill. Well, nowadays, you have to really do that for real, and further, it's the kids who are becoming the designers themselves.
RAY SUAREZ: And Jaron Lanier, who is in the driver's seat? Who is pushing the accelerator?
JARON LANIER: Well, you know, I think Andy's kind of right about kids, and I happen to really like that. I work with kids a lot, and what I'm seeing is a whole lot of very happy, very smart, very empowered kids. I mean, when I think back to when I was the same age as some of the Internet kids, if I wanted to assert myself, if I wanted to express myself, I had to be a little bit naughty, you know. And these days, kids are able to assert themselves by being smarter than their parents, and it's enormously healthy. And I think it actually accounts for some of the decrease in the crime wave that we see in this country. I'm enormously enthusiastic about it.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Nana Naisbitt, maybe you can be the fly in the ointment. You've written about "technology intoxication." What's that?
NANA NAISBITT: Yeah, I was just listening to the other two guests, and one indicated one of the symptoms that I actually see of our living in what I call a technologically intoxicated zone. And that's that we love technology as a toy. And that it's really moved from a luxury to a necessity to a toy. And the other thing I don't always see is simply happy kids. I see a lot of kids that are really immersed in our culture of violence and who are left often unprotected in an electronic war zone.
RAY SUAREZ: Regis McKenna, let's ask, who benefits? We hear that technology is very closely equated with progress in this society. Do we examine closely enough what our technology means to the way we live?
REGIS McKENNA: Well, I don't think we necessarily examine it. I think it happens to us and we adapt. You know, I like to tell the story of my father, who lived to be 85 and passed away about in the mid-80's. And he used to come here to Silicon Valley and talk about the marvelous changes and say, "I don't know how you people adapt." And then I pointed out that anyone who lived for the first 80 years or 85 years in this century went through enormous change, not only technological change, but also social and political change. And so I think that, you know, our adaptation to the new technologies is going to happen irrespective of what we think consciously about it. It happens in quite an unconscious fashion.
NANA NAISBITT: Actually, could I...
RAY SUAREZ: Go ahead, Nana Naisbitt.
NANA NAISBITT: I'd like to advocate that we change that relationship; that that paradigm of catching up with the consequences of technology is potentially a dangerous one, particularly as we move into genetic technologies; and that really as a society we have a responsibility to begin to anticipate the consequences of emerging technologies, and to have a public dialogue that includes philosophers, theologians, artists, policy makers in anticipating what those consequences might be so we can better apply those technologies as they become available.
REGIS McKENNA: When we tend to look backwards, we tend to want to reshape the way people think or what is happening or reconstruct it. And, in fact, much of these technologies happen to us. For example, the enormous changes that have happened in globalization have come about by the satellite. I didn't have anything to do with the satellites being put up there. There are roughly 250 communications satellites and plans to put about 1,500 more up there in the next decade. The consequences of that come upon us, and we have to deal with that as it happens.
ANDY LIPPMAN: Can I add a bit to that?
RAY SUAREZ: Sure, please.
ANDY LIPPMAN: Look, I think it's all well and good to have a broad discussion of what the impact of any technology can be, but when you talk about certain ones-- and I'm not sure that that discussion is necessarily wanted-- in particular, in the domain of communications technologies, these are fundamentally empowering things. These are things that give people voice at any age and at any place in the world, and it's the kind of technology that is immediately out of the control of the inventors, and as soon as it's invented, in the control of the people who use it. And to my way of thinking, that's the kind of technology that simply has to be watered and allowed to grow. And for some of us to predispose what might happen with it or whether the impact will be good or bad is missing the point of what that kind of technology is. That may not generalize, and I'm not necessarily advocating that one take the same approach to either genetics or nuclear energy, for that matter, but there are some things that I think you really want to just let out there.
RAY SUAREZ: Jaron Lanier?
JARON LANIER: Yeah, I think Nana is talking about love for technology as if there is something wrong with that. And I think having playthings that we love, having things that occupy us and charge our imaginations is absolutely essential, both for our happiness and really for our survival. In a sense, the Internet and all of the activity with that gives us something wonderful and creative to do collectively, and I fear for what would happen if we didn't have such pursuits that involved so many of us. I think it would be a very dangerous situation. I actually think that our salvation is in finding healthy things to love, and this is... These communication technologies are precisely that.
|The rush to multitask|
RAY SUAREZ: But along with people surfing the Web and having a good time and finding out new things, there are also people who are getting a rush for multitasking, watching something come out of a fax machine as they search for something on the Web, and their beeper is going off, and their cell phone is being answered by an automatic answering machine. Jaron Lanier, these labor-saving devices aren't really saving us any labor, are they?
JARON LANIER: No, of course they're not saving us labor. The whole point is to busy ourselves with things we love. I mean, I believe that information technology does not save labor. It creates new tasks for all of us, and I think that that's a good thing. I mean, Karl Marx had this horrible fantasy that once technology got good enough, everyone would not have to work and people would sit around practicing archery and reading the classics. And that's an inhumane vision. We should feel our lives with new labors that we are actually enthused about. And I don't want to judge people. If somebody loves the thrill of watching their beeper and their fax machine go off at the same time, I say that is marvelous. I truly...
NANA NAISBITT: One of the things we have to consider is that American children spend on average about five hours a day in front of screens. And it's just something that I think as parents we need to consider whether that is the best activity or whether that should be balanced. And often these electronic toys can serve as distractions from life's... From play's important relative leisure, in which...
REGIS McKENNA: We also know, though, that the children are taking away from television to look at that computer. And we also know, I mean... You know, I have five grandchildren, and those children are just as active in sports and studies and reading books. And the computer just enters their life. It's not, as we see it, which is it's a new thing and therefore has to be managed and controlled and judged. The way the children look at this thing is that this is a natural element in their life. It's one of many other facets that they simply adopt.
RAY SUAREZ: But aren't these changes that you're talking about, Regis, happening at a tiny point at the top of the world's income pyramid? Are we having a conversation about these multitasking, chip- driven professionals that really has nothing to do with a herdsman in Somalia or a farmer in South America?
REGIS McKENNA: Well, I think you have to compare that to the technologies of the past, which I think were terribly isolating, whereas technologies of the future, probably the key word is "interconnection." We... All of the technologies of today are interconnected. They are based on communication. And if you look at the growth of communication technologies today, we will reach a billion people through wireless and through Internet connections in about 15 years, and we've only reached one billion people with wired telephone service in over 100 years. So the proliferation of new technologies around the world, there's six billion people in the world. Only one-sixth of them in effect have communication access. We're going to expand that in probably the next quarter century to about half of those people.
|The next Industrial Revolution?|
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Andy Lippman, maybe we can talk a little bit. Jaron mentioned Karl Marx, and one of the things that Marx and others were writing about at the end of the last century was how industrialization made it possible for a man to make in one day more shirts than he would wear in a lifetime. So that changed the relationship between the worker and the things he made forever. Well, now that we just make services for each other, how will technology change our relationship to the things we make?
ANDY LIPPMAN: Oh, boy. I don't... I think you've got to change the way you think about it a little bit. First of all, I wouldn't bill technologies, at least the kinds we work on, as labor-saving devices. I bill them as expressive devices. And I don't bill them as something that's first world or top-of-the-pyramid phenomenon at all, but rather as something that -- whose literally highest form and goal is to reach those people in Somalia that you were talking about. And indeed we've done experiments in exactly that area and built technology specifically designed for the third world. They don't have a screen because those people don't express themselves by sitting in front of a Northern European or Northern American workstation. They express themselves in the fields. They express themselves large on canvases that consistent of the things that are around them. I think what happens when you bring at least communications to people in those corners of the world is that you give them access to place it outside of themselves, and that is a fundamentally sort of wonderful first step that you can take. For example, you know, with farmers in Cambodia, they get, what, 40 percent of the value of their crops. If you do nothing more than give them a telephone and they can find out what the value of those crops is in Phnom Penh, then the price they get goes up to 65 and 70 percent. So you have direct economic consequences by bringing those people online.
RAY SUAREZ: Are there any other members of the panel who are optimistic about this being a broad-based technological century that's on tap?
JARON LANIER: Well, you know, you keep on confusing technologies in general with information technologies, which is what we've been talking about. I mean, certainly biotechnology could be utterly horrifying, and I don't want to confuse the two. Information technology is the really happy story. Information technology is the one that expresses a faith in human nature; that if you empower and connect people, it's more for the good than for anything else. Biotechnology is where we start to change human nature. It's where we start to redefine ourselves. And we have to do that for our health and well being, but it will be fraught with enormous danger and controversy and difficulty.
RAY SUAREZ: Nana Naisbitt?
REGIS McKENNA: All technology has that issue associated with it.
NANA NAISBITT: I think with technology in general, we have to begin to ask what it is, what are its consequences? I think we have to begin to no longer think of it as neutral, and we need to begin to understand that it embodies its consequences, both good and bad. And information technologies have an incredibly wonderful power to them, but they do also deliver violence steadily to children, so it also has its darker side. Genetic technologies are truly the most revolutionary of the technologies that are coming along. It is the thing that is going to shape the next century. And the most fundamental question for us in the next 100 years is really, what does it mean to be human? We need to put these technologies in the human context to understand how they can best be applied.
RAY SUAREZ: Regis McKenna, you wanted to say?
REGIS McKENNA: Yeah, I was... You know, technology and society really interact as if they are dancing partners. It really isn't that the technology is purely accepted, nor is it that it is purely market-driven. The technologies... One of the most wonderful things about the new technologies is the concept of programmability. It adapts. So from programmable designs to programmable manufacturing to programmable instruments that we ourselves use, we are constantly able to adapt the technology to specific uses. And so this interaction of society with technology really changes the paradigm. It isn't simply something that's thrust upon us. We also are able to feed back and change it and adapt it. So, you know, when we look at biotechnology or medical sciences in the future, I think that it addresses human needs and concerns in its first phases. And I think that it's always going to be a feedback mechanism that changes in relationship to the market opportunities.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, let's save this tape for 100 years. I hope somebody's able to play it a century from now. Thank you, panel.
NANA NAISBITT: Thank you.
REGIS McKENNA: Thank you.
ANDY LIPPMAN: Thank you.
JARON LANIER: So long.