Sunday, December 24, 1995

City of Bits, Inside the Tornado, Future Does Not compute

This article appears in slightly different form in the November/December 1995 issue of IEEE Micro © 1995 IEEE.

Three Views of Where We're Going

I enjoyed comparing the three books in this article, because they start from the same facts about how technological advances are changing our world, but the three authors react to these facts in different ways:
  • William J. Mitchell, an architect, sees a new electronic world and wonders how to design its roads, theatres, libraries, and marketplaces.
  • Geoffrey A. Moore, a marketing consultant, tells businesses what to expect and what to avoid during sudden paradigm shifts and massive infrastructure changes.
  • Stephen L. Talbott, a technical editor and deep thinker, wonders whether we're crippling our human consciousness by striving to accommodate ourselves to systems.
City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn by William J. Mitchell (MIT, Cambridge MA, 1995, 225pp, ISBN 0-262-13309-1, 800-356-0343, $20.00)

William Mitchell is an architecture professor and dean of the school of architecture at MIT. Like an impressionist painting, his book helps us see aspects of the electronic world that we look at every day.

Mitchell examines the way technological advances affect communication, personal identity, commerce, and institutions. With vignettes from his personal experience he sketches scenes in the electronically mediated world. He talks about the traditional counterparts of these scenes, often going back to ancient times for his examples. Agoras and helots provide insight into cyberspace and intelligent agents.

When Mitchell steps back from sketching scenes and drawing parallels with traditional venues, he tries to identify the issues that the architects of his city of bits must face. He looks at the reading room of the British Museum library as the user interface to a database server, with huge iron book stacks providing the storage. He wonders what needs to change in a 10-million-volume digital, online humanities research library. He looks at famous art museums and theatres and asks the same questions about their electronic analogs.

This is not a book of answers. Like a good artist, Mitchell is trying to train you to see better. Like a good thesis advisor, he points to the problems and hints at the solutions. If this sounds interesting and exciting to you, you'll enjoy this book.

Inside the Tornado: Marketing Strategies from Silicon Valley's Cutting Edge by Geoffrey A. Moore (HarperCollins, NY, 1995, 0-88730-765-5, $25.00)

Geoffrey Moore, who started as an English professor, was a partner at the public relations firm Regis McKenna, Inc, and a sales and marketing executive in the software industry. He now has his own consulting firm. His earlier work, Crossing the Chasm (Harper, 1991), deals with a stage in the development of high tech markets. The chasm is the transition from having a few visionary customers to having hordes of pragmatic ones.

The tornado is what snatched Dorothy and Toto from the plains of Kansas and set them down in the fabulous Land of Oz. Similar tornados have snatched Compaq Computers, Oracle Corporation, Cisco Systems, Microsoft, and others from drab beginnings and set them down in a fabulous land where annual revenues are measured in billions of dollars.

As followers of the evening news know, most tornado victims reach a different outcome. Tornados are dangerous and unpredictable -- in real life and in the business world. The tornados Moore talks about are market forces caused by  discontinuous innovation, also known as paradigm shifts. An excerpt from City of Bits gives a good picture of the underlying dynamic. Mitchell is sitting in an airport lounge, using his laptop to write his book. He says:
When it can no longer connect me to the electronic environment as effectively as some competing product (even though it still works perfectly well), I shall simply transfer my software and data and throw the superseded carcass away; the information ecosystem is a ferociously Darwinian place that produces endless mutations and quickly weeds out those no longer able to adapt and compete.
What's true of hardware is even truer of software. It takes a small investment and a few moments to replace one web browser or spreadsheet program with another. As the power of the underlying silicon advances exponentially, the tradeoffs that made yesterday's software successful now hang around its neck like a millstone. Somebody introduces a whole new way of doing things, and another tornado rips up the playing field.

Moore's book addresses the obvious questions: how do you predict and prepare for tornados, what do you do when you're in one, how do you predict and prepare for the tornado's end, and what do you do after it's over.

Moore can't answer these questions completely, but he sets forth some guidelines. If you're interested in learning how to be a gorilla among the chimpanzees and monkeys, reading Moore's book is the way to do it. But there's more to it than that. Moore mixes the animal metaphors with good practical advice. Much of what he says complements and reinforces what business writers like Tom Peters have been saying for years. This is an interesting book, and if you're involved in high-tech marketing, you have to read it.

The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst by Stephen L. Talbott (O'Reilly, Sebastopol CA, 1995, 502pp, ISBN 1-56592-085-6, 800-998-9938, $22.95)

Talbott asks us to step back and get some perspective on the technological whirlwind that swirls around us. We haven't really mastered tornado riding, and those of us who do reach the Land of Oz may find a great humbug ruling the Emerald City.

While many pundits sing the praises of the coming global village, Talbott wants us to examine their unspoken assumptions. Many seem to be saying that simple technological tools can guarantee freedom and privacy, make learning and personal growth easy, and build strong democratic communities.

Talbott sees this as wishful thinking, magical automatic solutions to complex human problems. He sees the effects of the new technology as an extension of a trend that runs through most of the twentieth century. We spend more and more of our lives "running on automatic."

Einstein said "The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophes."

Talbott says "If we continue assimilating our lives to computers according to the tendencies already broadly active in society -- and those tendencies show every sign of retaining their grip upon us -- then we will finally lose ourselves."

Einstein knew, and Talbott knows, that you can't put the genie back into the bottle. Humans must assimilate the new technology and learn to use it to their advantage. But assimilation takes time. If we can't keep the technology under control during the learning phase, we can do ourselves permanent damage.

Talbott spends most of his book analyzing and refuting the often heard justifications for rushing headlong into a completely online world. Simultaneously he exhorts us to find ways to remain fully human as we plug ourselves in.

I can never find my copy of McLuhan's Understanding Media when I want to quote from it, but I believe McLuhan talks about a critic who told him the book contained too many new ideas. Talbott's ideas aren't all new, but many of them are new to me. It makes the book slow reading. My review doesn't begin to do justice to it.

Talbott has thought hard about problems we all face but few of us want to think about. Take some time out of your busy life to read this book.