PAUL SAFFO - Interviewed June 12, 1995 in Palo Alto, CA.

Paul Saffo is a director of the Institute for the Future, a consulting group that studies technology and future trends.

Q: Is the information revolution really a revolution?

PS: It really is a revolution and it really is big. There are revolutions large and small but one this big probably hasn't come in at least a hundred years and in the end we may look back and say this was the biggest thing since the advent of the printing press in the mid 1400s. One qualification though: it's very important to keep in mind that revolutions take time and this particular revolution we're in is going to take several decades to unfold and so it's important not to confuse the local phenomena, current events, the advent of the Internet and Mosaic and web browsers as the revolution itself. The revolution is something deeper and bigger and occurring over decades.

Q: Define the revolution for me.

PS: The revolution really is a shift in the nature of our media from analogue media that had been largely print based to digital media that is electronically based and the underlying technologies behind that. So it's a changing cast of technological characters. Just as things look like they're about to settle down, something new comes along and off we go again.

Q: What does the revolution mean for society? It's not just about machines.

PS: If this was just a revolution of machines it would be a revolution that mattered to about 15 propeller heads in Silicon Valley and the rest of us could get on with our lives. Quite simply digital technology is the solvent leaching the glue out of old much cherished social, political and business structures. We're in a period where everything is changing, everything is up for grabs and nothing makes any sense and probably won't make any sense for two or three more decades. Now the good news is that all of that uncertainty also spells opportunity. It's created new opportunities for businesses, new kinds of jobs. This is a full employment act for everybody touched by information technologies. At a social level though it could be very good, but it could also be very bad. We really are performing a great unwitting experiment on ourselves and it's anyone's guess how it's going to come out.

Q: What kind of opportunities are you talking about?

PS: Periods of opportunity are always periods of great hazard as well. The simple fact in the business environment is most companies fail. I think that's why successful companies get on the cover of Business Week or Fortune because they are the rare exceptions and in a period of change as great as this most companies will fail but they'll fail in interesting ways that others will build on and build larger businesses.

Q: That's not much consolation to a company.

PS: Yes, but you know failure of companies in Silicon Valley is a little different than elsewhere. If a company fails it's not like their money evaporated into nowhere. It went into the pockets of employees who supported other economies and business, there's a high level of recycle of cash in this business and also a high level of recycle of ideas. The simple fact is that progress is not built on the spires of successful technologies. Rather it's built on the rubble of failed technologies that went before. The Macintosh and later Windows were built on the vision of a computer at Xerox in the mid 1970s that was never built and had a whole series of horrendous business failures but when it became real, it became real in a way that touched and changed our lives in fundamentally unpredictable but wonderful ways.

Q: So failure is part of the learning process?

PS: It's part of the discovery process. And specifically that process is the process of taking in raw untamed technology and turning it into a compelling medium that actually touches and changes our lives. That's what the Internet really is about right now. It is taking the raw untamed technology of communications and turning it into a powerful medium where people can interact with information and, very shortly, not just interact with information but interact with each other in information rich environments.

Q: Do these companies understand the risk they're taking?

PS: These companies understand that they're taking risks and they also believe they're going to succeed, they're the ones that beat the odds. If any of us really knew the consequences of what we're doing nobody would do anything at all. And Silicon Valley has no shortage of arrogance. So these companies go out and they do their best and mostly they fail. There's a little saying about venture capitalists, that venture capitalists sleep like babies; they sleep for 2 hours, wake up and cry, sleep for 2 hours, wake up and cry. But that's how innovation happens.

Q: Who are the people who are going to lose?

PS: The only victims in this environment are the people who decide they want to have nothing to do with trying to make sense of digital technology. The victims are people who say my job won't change, my manner of relating with other people won't change and I don't want to pay any attention to them. Those are the people who are going to be big losers in this revolution. This is common sense and people with common sense have an open mind about change and will end up being thfe big winners.

Q: There is still this relentless onslaught of hype urging me to join this info revolution. Why?

PS: The hype and the excitement around new technologies are the central part of the innovation process. It's a way to create an intellectual lightning rod and if some new term appears on the horizon, new media or multi media, nobody knows what it is but everybody gets annoyed by the term or excited by the term. And they all shout and and wave at each other and try and figure out what part of it's real. And so hype is a central part of the process. We all have to pay attention to not taking it too seriously and constantly sort out what's real versus unreal.

Q: But it seems so excessive.

PS: Well hype is excessive because in fact change is extraordinarily fragile. It happens to feel like this revolution and the change of technology is this ongoing juggernaut that's unstoppable. Quite the opposite is true. The technology is fragile, it's unpredictable, it's extraordinarily susceptible to being stopped and the hype is part of the process of getting through that. Mark Twain put it very nicely as a commentary on human nature when he said "I'm all for progress, it's change I don't like." And even the people in Silicon Valley running these companies don't like change. Not when it forces their companies to go out of business.

Q: Do we really need all the things we're being offered?

PS: There's this myth that we're satisfying consumer needs with information technologies. Eventually we do satisfy needs but long before you even begin to touch a need, what the technology does is really satisfy desires. Let's face it, information technology is so far away from the basic needs of food and shelter and companionship that it's an optional desire. It's only after it's been in our lives for a decade or two that it becomes a real need. The telephone in 1900 was a desire. The telephone in 1995 is a desperate need. If you switched off the tiny phone network in 1900 nothing would have happened. Shut down the global phone system on this planet for 30 seconds or even a part of it and you'll probably have airplanes flying into each other, hospitals not getting the plasma they need to keep people alive. You know you will kill people by shutting down the phone system today. And today personal computers are for the vast majority of people who own them optional desires. They could happily get rid of them and never miss the device in their life. In fact their life would probably be better and more peaceful without them. I guarantee you within 10, 15 years, those devices on our desk tops will be such essential needs that you could not take them away from people without killing someone in the process.

Q: So the revolution is unstoppable?

PS: The revolution cannot be stopped but the revolution can be directed. We are, we are all revolutionaries, every time we chose to buy something or not buy something or complain about something or use something. This is, this is truly a democratic revolution in that everybody participates in it and we all vote with our pocketbooks and our feet and our actions. This is not a revolution being controlled by a visible or invisible few. There are no conspiracies here. It's such a rapidly changing environment, everybody is equally clueless. Bill Gates, John Malone, the regulators in Washington. Nobody knows how this is going to turn out. It is truly democratic. It's a democracy of ignorance.

Q: What happens to the media giants after the revolution?

PS: The big news companies are going to adapt to this. Only the slowest of the big media companies are going to fail to adapt to this process. The issue is not whether the big news companies go out of business. They will find a way to survive. The right way to frame the question is to ask yourself where does the dollar invested give the higher return? ---given to a big media conglomerate or put into the hands of some small start-up company run by a couple of engineers with crazy ideas, shoestring budget and not a lot of adult supervision. We are going to see the nature of our communications media change profoundly. It's already happening and it's unstoppable. As the novelist William Gibson likes to say, "the future has already arrived." It's just not evenly distributed yet. And for a small but very rapidly growing field, the future in the form of Internet and services on the Internet really has arrived.

Q: You just described Yahoo perfectly.

PS: Well Yahoo is a fabulous example of how innovation occurs. It is truly a couple of guys with a crazy idea and a shoestring budget trying to make something real, with no idea where they might end up. It is also an indicator that the information that matters the most in electronic environments is not information, it's meta information, it's information about information. Yahoo has no information of its own. What it is is pointers to interesting sources of information on the net and that's a fundamental change. When information was scarce in the battle of days of analogue media, you could charge money for that information itself. But when information is hyper abundant, the information itself is free. The thing you pay for is the index and the table of contents and the pointers to the things you need. You charge a premium for the meta information and the information comes free.

Q: So the Information Age is really the Information About Information Age?

PS: The phrase "information age" is so profoundly wrong headed that we will look back 70 or 80 years from now and just be staggered by the fact that anyone used the term information at all. And the problem is of course that we don't have a better term. If we had a better term the revolution would be over and we'd be on to the next thing we don't understand.

Q: What would be a more accurate term?

PS: Well I really think that the more accurate term doesn't exist because the process of discovery is underway now but there are multiple terms that we should think about. The classic definition of knowledge is knowledge is information that makes a difference and, fuzzy words like wisdom and understanding that there are lots of different kinds of information in our lives and not all information is created equal. In fact you can look back as far as four centuries to the advent of the printing press and most of the material produced at any given moment in time is complete drek, you know 95% is junk.

What did we do after we printed the Bible? Exactly what we do today. Pot boilers, thrillers, how-to books, salacious material. The Canterbury Tales was medieval smut and people snapped it up and it became immortal. It no longer seems shocking to us because we've forgotten the vocabulary but that was enough to get the Catholic Church very upset back then. Well the same thing is happening today. The information revolution is producing about 95, maybe 99% cyber drek. But the one percent that remains around really is information that will change our lives.

Q: Will the shopping mall disappear because of online commerce?

PS: More and more commerce is going to occur in electronic environments but what will happen is that as we do more electronically there will be more and more happening in the real world. But again we're reinventing the shopping experience today. Malls are in trouble. People want to come back to urban cores but the fact is that the more and more you move bits around on the Internet and online systems, the consequence is you're going to move more and more stuff around on the planet. Companies like Federal Express are setting up new logistics operations precisely to respond to the expected increase in the movement of stuff. So it's not like the real world of buying and selling that we do face to face will disappear, it's just that we're going to do even more buying and selling electronically and we'll still do things in the real world.

Q: Do businesses have to be online?

PS: Businesses really do have to be on line. If I were running a company in just about any business category today, I would be saying how do I build a presence on the Internet and, either use it directly to run my business and develop commercial opportunities or say I'm going to use this as a way of understanding what might be working over the horizon for me. It is business malpractice to ignore what's happening on the Internet today.

Q: Are there privacy isues we should be concerned with?

PS: The privacy implication of what's afoot is profound and unsettling but the simple fact is that it's a continuation of the same trade offs we've been making for decades. You trade the possibility of having people get your credit card number and know about your buying behaviors for the convenience a credit card delivers. The advent of things like the Internet and enhanced phone systems will also create similar trade offs. You will discover that the companies know more about you but you also discover there are ways to control that. If someone doesn't want their information to be in the TRW database today, there's a very easy solution. Use cash. But it's a funny thing, consumers get upset about the databases, but the credit card is so convenient that they're really doing the calculation in their head and they're saying "Yeah, I worry about privacy but I like the convenience more." So that's why I'm actually an optimist on this front. To me the new technologies give more and more control to individuals who want to take it. But in another sense though, this technology was designed to sort of be liberating to people, giving you more control of your free time. And it seems to me that in some cases that has the opposite effect. Your phone calls are chasing you around. You can be reached wherever you are, work always follows you.

Q: There are good sides and bad sides.

PS: Experiencing the impact of these new technologies on our lives is like climbing the slope of a sand dune. You're gaining things and you're losing things and then you try to figure out how to regain what you had lost by simulating it in the new medium. And so this is why we all have to pay attention to the calculus of choice the technology presents us. A good example is the use of encryption on computer networks. Allows individuals to have access to the same kind of privacy and security that once you know generals at the Pentagon only dreamed of. And that is picking up speed.

Q: Sometimes it feels like technology is being looked to as the cure for society's problems.

PS: There is a consistent pattern in the history of technology innovation that is being repeated today and that is every new technology when it first arrives is held up as the cure for all our ills at the time. The airplane was going to enlighten us and ennoble us and make us realize there were no boundaries between nations and we'd be better people for them. It took us 40 years before that idea was literally bombed in the ground by the airplanes of World War II. The same thing is happening today. We're seeing digital technology is going to cure all of our ills and it won't. It'll create some problems and it'll solve some other problems.

By the way it's a very consistent pattern in this business that collectively as a society and as individuals we all suffer from what I call macro-myopia. A pattern where our hopes and our expectations or our fears about the threatened impact of some new technology causes us to overestimate its short term impacts and reality always fails to meet those inflated expectations. And as a result our disappointment then leads us to turn around and underestimate the long term implications and I can guarantee you this time will be no different. The short term impact of this stuff will be less than the hype would suggest but the long term implications will be vastly larger than we can possibly imagine today.

Q: Makes for sort of an unpredictable outcome.

PS: Oh, this revolution is more than unpredictable. We are performing a great unwitting experiment that is changing our social structures, our governmental structures and our business structures, everything, absolutely everything is up for grabs and nothing's going to make any sense at all for a couple of decades so we may as well sit back and enjoy the ride.

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