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After Banner Decade, Peering in on the Future of Technology

January 4, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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After looking back at technological advancements during the last decade, Ray Suarez talks to an expert panel about how technology may shape our lives in the next ten years.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, Ray Suarez looks back and ahead after a decade in which technology transformed our lives.

RAY SUAREZ: Back in 2000, fewer than half of Americans were online. Today, 77 percent of adults are. Last year, more than half used wireless Internet, according to the Pew Research Center. Desktop computers were increasingly replaced by laptops. Smartphones, like the BlackBerry and iPhone, allowed users to access information and each other instantly.

The decade saw the rise of search engine Google. Apple transformed the music industry with the iPod. Media, from music to newspapers to television, became available on demand, giving consumers more control over what they saw and when they saw it.

Social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, created virtual spaces for people to connect with one another. Cell phone videos and online communities have helped spread news from closed societies, such as the recent anti-government protests in Iran.

Now for a look at the impact of those technological shifts and others, we’re joined by Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and author of the forthcoming book, “You Are Not a Gadget,” Esther Dyson, chairman of EDventure Holdings, which invests in technology startups, and Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster and consulting professor at Stanford University.

Esther Dyson, the tools we use to communicate have gotten smaller and faster and smarter. As you look back at the last 10 years, what was the biggest development or the biggest change?

ESTHER DYSON, chairman, EDventure Holdings: The biggest one was not just the Internet, but the Internet becoming accessible everywhere, whether it was Wi-Fi at work, on your cell phone as you traveled. People had it at home with broadband. There was a big change.

It used to be people used the Internet primarily at work, because that’s where they had a good connection. Now they’re using it at home. And the second big change is, they used it not just to get information, but to communicate with one another. And, so, it became not simply an information exchange, but a personal exchange, a communication mechanism.

People started talking and sending out information, as well as receiving it.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Saffo, the biggest change or advance of the last 10 years?

PAUL SAFFO, Stanford University: Well, I think Esther got it right. It’s just the sheer magnitude of what happened, which really came down to search, social media and smartphones, the fact that search was free and that social media was everyone talking to everyone else.

But don’t underestimate the phone size. Remember, in 1999, there were 500 million cell phones on this planet. Today, it’s at 4.5 billion. And that number looks to grow at about a billion a year. And all of them are going to be smart.

RAY SUAREZ: And, finally, Jaron Lanier, what stands out for you from the last 10 years?

JARON LANIER, author, “You Are Not a Gadget”: Well, people’s technology now is equalized, in the sense that what they can do themselves, when they make a video, it looks about the same on the screen as a video that comes from a traditional television source. So, there’s this sense in which everyone has become part of the conversation. And that’s extraordinary.

RAY SUAREZ: But, by everybody being in on the conversation, does it become harder to consume. If everybody is a filmmaker, a music video producer, a desktop publisher, does the feed tube just become too stuffed with stuff?

JARON LANIER: Well, you know, when it was all getting started, at least what I hoped is that everybody would turn out to want to be a creator, which did turn out to be true. Many people thought that wouldn’t happen. And I think that’s the happiest surprise.

But, on the other hand, the inner sort of consumer identity got the best of people. And everybody just wants things for free. And that’s created this strange kind of cheapness to everything, where everything becomes throwaway. And people, I think, have started to undervalue things, maybe because there’s too much, maybe because it’s too easy to make, but I think mostly just because, somehow, that’s the pattern that got set. And I think that’s regrettable.

RAY SUAREZ: Esther Dyson, is there peril or promise in a world where more and more people are creators?

ESTHER DYSON: Well, it means that, if the past decade was the decade of searching and finding and looking for stuff, this coming decade is going to be the decade of filtering and going to your friends for recommendations.

People are going to have to create smart defaults, so that other people still have a choice, but, if they find it all too confusing, or they just want someone else to make a choice for them, there’s a default that works pretty well. That’s this concept of libertarian paternalism. And it’s handy.

It’s — people need to understand that the technology is for them. It’s not to them. It’s not over them. People still sometimes want to be led a little too much. And, so, they have to understand that they can reject it. They can turn off their cell phone. They can stop looking at their e-mail. It’s there if they want it. It’s not being forced on them.

And it’s — it’s seeing it as a tool, not as an overwhelming obligation. I just spent seven days answering all my e-mails, so I shouldn’t be talking. But that’s what you should do.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Saffo, is that the way it’s really working out? Do people feel that they can turn everything off, or is it changing the way we live and the way we interact with the tools, the machines that we use?

PAUL SAFFO: Well, what’s really going on here is, this is a media shift. It’s comparable to what happened in the 1950s and the birth of electronic mass media back then.

This is the birth of a new kind of personal media, where, instead of we’re all watching one program, we’re all watching each other. And the history of media makes it really clear. Whenever we have a big innovation, the first wave of stuff we do is pretty crummy. The printing press gave us pornography, cheap thrillers, and how-to books. Television gave us Newt Minow’s vast wasteland.

And this new landscape of personal media has given us a vaster wasteland of cyberspace. But, luckily for us, there’s some really wonderful stuff in it. And if history is any guide, as the media matures, the quality will continue to go up.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Jaron Lanier, there is a shakeout? Along with the cheapness that you mentioned and the transition that Professor Saffo mentioned, where’s the endpoint? Do we reach it in the next 10 years?

JARON LANIER: Well, you know, I would like to see us shake-in, instead of a shakeout, in the sense that it’s true that there’s a lot of junk online, and we have to filter it and so forth.

But, you know, the thing that really disappoints me is that we didn’t create enough jobs, just to be very blunt about it. Ten years ago, what I thought was that the Internet was becoming a major new American industry, and what that would bring with it was, in a way, a replacement for the fading American industries, like our auto industry and our display industry.

And we have reconceived of it as something that is in a sense de-economics. We treat it as this sort of frivolous way to send things around for free. And it’s all in the service of advertising.

RAY SUAREZ: Ah, but, Jaron Lanier, you keep using the word “for free.”

JARON LANIER: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: Isn’t that why it didn’t create any jobs? If you turn people into unpaid journalists, photographers, painters, music video producers, that’s it. It’s unpaid. How could it create a job?

JARON LANIER: Or bloggers or popular tweeters, for that matter.

I think we really made a mistake in separating the Internet from capitalism in a certain way that is bad for our country. I mean, remember, just before that, we had made a — sort of a national decision that we wanted to be this intellectual property country, where we would have things manufactured in China, but we would do the design, we would do the creative stuff.

And now what we have done is, we have forgotten that that’s what we wanted, and we’re making the intellectual stuff more and more free. And, so, we’re sort of left with less and less. And it’s just not tenable. We have to decide one way or the other and really do something to earn our keep. And I think that’s a huge problem right now.

RAY SUAREZ: Esther Dyson, for governments that want to do so, is it possible to shut off the flow of information, or is information going to squirt out from every nook and cranny, no matter what a totalitarian or authoritarian government wants to do?

ESTHER DYSON: Let me answer that question as, no, governments can’t stop it, but they can try hard, and go back to what Jaron was saying.

And I want to respectfully disagree. The Internet is an incredible business tool. First of all, the Internet/the cell phone — the cell phone is just another way to get at it — I think is having a huge impact in Africa most particularly, where it enables people — suddenly, they know crop prices. They can communicate. It makes their lives more efficient.

And, so, the — it’s not that you have jobs on the Internet, but the Internet makes it possible for more people to build their own jobs. What it does is, it erodes the power of institutions. It used to be you needed an institution to have a job. But, if you look at the three of us on this show, I don’t think any of us is really employed by an institution. We run our own lives.

We make bookings through e-mail. We — the Internet has given each of us the power that you needed three secretaries to have and an institution behind you. So — and it’s not just if you’re a pundit. It’s, if you’re a carpenter, you can go online and find customers. If you are making jams at home, you can go online and sell them to people.

So, the great thing is, it allows you to create your own job, not just look for jobs other people are going to give you. And that, combined with the American spirit, I think, is going to help us come out of the recession faster than other countries. And I think it’s going to help Africa come out of, you know, a century of slump.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, jumping off from what Esther Dyson just said…

JARON LANIER: Could I respond to…

RAY SUAREZ: We have got about a minute-and-a-half left.

ESTHER DYSON: Sorry.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s lean forward and look at the next 10 years.

Professor Saffo?

PAUL SAFFO: Well, the hidden revolution in this decade has been the arrival of sensors. We invented our computers in the ’80s. We networked them together in the ’90s. Now we’re giving them eyes, ears and sensory organs. And we’re asking them to observe and manipulate the world on our behalf.

The next big thing some time in the next five years is going to be robots. In the same way that the Web amazed people in the early ’90s, and the P.C. amazed people in the ’80s, there’s a robot revolution brewing just over the horizon.

RAY SUAREZ: Jaron Lanier, what do you see in the next 10?

JARON LANIER: Oh, I think this is going to be so fun.

If you think about the “Avatar” movie, which many people are enjoying, imagine, in 10 years, that you will be able to make up stuff at that level of intensity yourself. And I think, in 10 years, no kid who can’t make up something like “Avatar” in an afternoon is going to be able to get a date. And I think that is going to be just great.

RAY SUAREZ: And, finally, Esther Dyson?

ESTHER DYSON: I think what Paul said is right, but a lot of those sensors are going to be on us. And, so, we will be monitoring our own blood pressure. I hope, instead of needing health care, we will, at least some of us, be able to manage our own health, and reduce the need for health care, rather than try and fight the cost of it.

RAY SUAREZ: Esther Dyson, Jaron Lanier, Paul Saffo, thank you, all.

ESTHER DYSON: Thank you.

JARON LANIER: Hey, thanks.