Technology Pundits Are Gazing Into the Future -- and a Few Need Glasses By Gary Chapman

Copyright 1997, The Los Angeles Times

'What Will Be," a new book with an arresting title, has just been released, written by Michael Dertouzos, director of MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science. Its subtitle is "How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives."

This book is part of a new and popular genre that includes the best-selling book "Being Digital" -- by Dertouzos' colleague at MIT Nicholas Negroponte, the director of MIT's Media Lab -- and Bill Gates' even bigger blockbuster, "The Road Ahead."

Reading these books, and especially contemplating their titles, one is apt to think of the mantra of the Borg, those "Star Trek" villains who are half-robot and half-human: "Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated."

Essentially, what Dertouzos, Gates (who wrote the forward for Dertouzos' book) and Negroponte press upon us is that digital technologies and digital "information" -- an exceedingly vague term -- will fill every nook and cranny of our lives in the coming years. Dertouzos writes, "The Information Marketplace will touch essentially all human activity." Gates suggests that Microsoft will be part of everything we do and know, from using digital cash to educating our children. Dertouzos speculates on sending an electronic "caress" over the Internet, using full-body sensors at each end.

The books also follow a pattern. They spend some time setting up the credentials, experience and stature of their authors by relating 'insider" views of the recent history of computing. The implication is that the descriptions of future technology that follow are not just wild speculations: These are things that these men and their colleagues are building, and will build. "The Road Ahead" is more than just a dilettante's futurist fantasy. When Gates, in particular, writes a book about what the future will look like, we'd better pay attention.

The main attraction of these books seems to be their chapters on what technological marvels await us in the Information Age. Gates spends an entire chapter on his mammoth and technology-saturated house, complete with guest badges and digital displays of artwork.

Dertouzos floats the prospect of "bodynets" in our clothes that will allow us to "make phone calls, check your e-mail, watch TV, and pay your bills as you walk down the street." (Why walk?) Everything will be different, except, of course, people "will have to work smarter -- and harder -- to keep their jobs," he says.

All three authors stress the "freedom" that new technologies will give us, but their idea of freedom is so pinched and atrophied that it sounds Orwellian. "The impact of new technology," writes Gates, " . . . will give us more control over our lives, enabling us to tailor our experiences and the products we use to our interests."

Gates doesn't see the corollary: Human beings will be locked into a global system of electronic devices and so shaped by forces out of their control that freedom will be reduced to consumer preferences and choosing "information filters" to manage the fire hose of data aimed at each of us.

The idea that people might choose their own destinies seems to be lost in the past. This is the message of these books' titles: "Get used to this, there's nothing you can do about it." What kind of freedom is that?

Finally, all three of these books are spectacularly shallow, adding up to book-length brochures of high-tech hype.

Dertouzos, at least, attempts to confront the arguments of critics, which he calls, alarmingly, "humies," or humanists worried about the ambitions of "techies," or technologists.

But his humies are cartoon representations of the most serious critics, most of whom are dead. The big guns of technological criticism -- such as philosopher Martin Heidegger, social theorists Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer and Jacques Ellul and, yes, even Karl Marx -- are too difficult for most readers and they never show up in these books.

Indeed, the fact that the most formidable critics are both dead and unmentioned is part of the point of these books: The texts are so ahistorical they read as if we're starting human history from scratch, tomorrow. They're carelessly ignorant of the great debates about technology that came before us, such as after World War II and the war in Vietnam.

Unfortunately, the humies of today are weak substitutes for their forebears, straw men (and women) comically impotent against the onslaught of the technological juggernaut. It's easy for Dertouzos to chide them in a patronizing way. "Humies," he writes, "tone down your fears of technochange. Step outside your precious castles."

Dertouzos believes this "is the big challenge before us at the dawn of the 21st century: to embark on the unification of our technology with our humanity."

But he misses a big point. Technophiles like Negroponte, Gates and Dertouzos are blind to the effects of technology on consciousness itself. They don't see that our very values and means are distorted by the cornucopia of technology that they celebrate. They forget that old saying about technology: "When all you have is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail."

Are we going to be consumers or citizens, slaves to gadgets and systems or truly in control of our lives? What if the advantages of status and earning power that accrue to people with cutting-edge technical skills are incompatible with democracy?

A question like "Is it good for society for anyone to be as rich as Bill Gates?" would stump these guys. It's out of bounds, a non sequitur. The question, "What can Bill Gates do to manage his information flow?" would set them chattering for hours. But the answer to the second question is inconsequential, while the answer to the first question is critical to the kind of society we want to live in or pass on to our children.

Moreover, it's all too easy to imagine a "new man" of the Information Age in his "bodynet," walking down the street paying his bills and checking his e-mail, jabbering in cyberjargon, juggling his stock portfolio, planning his next start-up, etc., while, at bottom, he's living an empty life in a culture that has turned to bland mush.

No one with an ounce of sensitivity about the human condition believes that our chief problems are either not enough information or too much. What we lack are meaning and purpose, individually and collectively, which technology can never provide.

Who will go down in history, the person who successfully surfs each technological wave, or the person with a timeless moral vision, a courageous leader, a bearer and challenger of human aspirations? Which one will determine "what will be"?

Gary Chapman is director of The 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at gary.chapman@mail.utexas.edu.