Friday, February 27, 1998

Looking Forward

This article appears in slightly different form in the March/April 1998 issue of IEEE Micro © 1998 IEEE.

Everything I've reviewed this time looks forward -- to the year ahead and to the years beyond.

Macworld Expo

I have a sentimental attachment to the Macintosh. I've had Macs continuously since 1984, and for a long time they were the computers I used for most of my work. That began to change in the early 1990s, and today I use Windows-based systems most of the time. My ten-year-old Mac SE/30 isn't good for much of anything any more.

As guest editor for Micro's special issue on PowerPC (October 1994) I've been hoping the line of Macs based on PowerPC would do well. It was beginning to look as though it wouldn't happen without my help, so as part of my year-end shopping spree, I bought one -- directly from the Apple website.

I was surprised how easy it is to spend money on the web. Apple did a good job setting up the Apple Store ( I like to know all the options when I shop. I want someone to answer my questions as they come up, but I don't want anyone hovering over me or rushing me. Other websites I visited -- Micron, Broderbund, HP -- are helpful, but the Apple Store supports this shopping style especially well. I recommend it to anyone who wants to buy an Apple product.

As a proud new Mac owner, I thought I'd better head for the annual Macworld expo at Moscone Center in San Francisco to see what's new. I got there bright and early to catch Steve Jobs' keynote. He put on a good show.

Jobs is mellower than he was in the insanely great days, and he seems to focus more on business issues. The surprise announcement that everyone speculated about beforehand was a $45 million quarterly profit -- about 3% of gross revenues, but a lot better than the previously projected loss. The meat of Jobs' presentation, though, was mostly about software, and the most exciting part was Microsoft's contribution: Office98 and Internet Explorer 4.0.

Office98 hasn't yet appeared for Windows, so Mac users will have the latest software for a change. The expected boos and hisses greeted the Microsoft representative who came to the stage to demonstrate the product, but by the time he left, he had the audience cheering wildly. The product has the look and feel of a Mac application, and the features he showed off were spectacular. I haven't had a chance to work with the actual product yet, so I can't say how good it really is.

Internet Explorer 4.0 for the Mac is ready, and Microsoft gave away copies on CD to anyone who came to their booth. The Mac operating system 8.1, which is about to appear, integrates closely with Internet Explorer. That should add a new twist to the browser wars.

Oracle, another Apple partner, also figured prominently in the keynote presentation. Oracle has ported its main business applications to Java, while Apple has put Java support directly into version 8.1 of the operating system. This means that business users are no longer forced to rule out Apple as a potential supplier for their computer systems. Whether Apple will actually regain lost market share in the business sector remains to be seen.

After the keynote, I toured the exhibit floor. It wasn't as crowded and daunting as it has been in the past, but there were plenty of people and plenty of interesting exhibits. The greatest emphasis, not surprisingly, was on tools for multimedia and web design.

I don't know if you should run out to buy a Macintosh, but I'm glad I did.

Books about Trends

I read three interesting books that seek to make sense of our technological society and help us see where it's headed. Two of the authors are enthusiastic about where technology is taking us. The third sees growing reaction to and refutation of some of technological society's underlying assumptions.

Release 2.0 -- A Design for Living in the Digital Age by Esther Dyson (Broadway Books, NY, 1997, 318pp, ISBN 0-7679-0011-1, $25.00)

For more than twenty years, Esther Dyson has lived and worked at the center of the personal computer and telecommunication revolutions. She is a journalist, conference organizer, analyst, entrepreneur, and informal ambassador. Because they respect and trust her, heads of industry and government seek her advice and counsel. She doesn't have to knock on doors to find out what's happening -- people who know what's happening compete for her attention.

Release 2.0 is a thoroughly accessible book. Most teenagers can probably read it without difficulty. It is, nonetheless, an informative book. Most readers -- even the most technologically aware -- will find new information or unexpected viewpoints.

Dyson perceives and seeks to fill a need for guidance about "the Internet and our roles as citizens, rule makers, and community members." You can think of her book as a seventh grade social studies textbook for the digital age. Fortunately, Dyson is better informed, better organized, more intelligent, and more free from outside pressure than the typical social studies textbook author. Her book is lively and interesting.

You can also think of Dyson's book as an attempt at large scale personal mentoring. The most gratifying review compliment I ever received about my books was from an aspiring young programmer who said "I felt like the author was sitting beside me when I read Inside BASIC Games." I think many young readers will feel that way about Dyson's book. She writes in the first person, talks about her personal life and history, and, most important, makes herself vulnerable. She displays what she explicitly encourages: courage, openness, disclosure, identity.

Esther Dyson has strong opinions. At the same time, she exhibits detached objectivity and fairness -- not just in this book, but in her other public pronouncements. When she talks about subjects like questionable content, unsolicited electronic mail, encryption, or Microsoft -- topics that often generate more heat than light -- she sidesteps the rhetoric and gets to the issues. Then she states her opinions.

In laying out a design for living in the digital age, Dyson addresses nine areas: communities, work, education, governance, intellectual property, content control, privacy, anonymity, and security. We have all heard a great deal about these subjects. Dyson gives overviews of the issues, talks about promising approaches to the associated problems, and shows how it all might work in 2004. Dyson's scenarios for 2004 are pretty lame science fiction, but they are concrete and well grounded in technological reality. They communicate in a way that facts alone can't.

Dyson closes her book with a set of design rules for living. I won't list them out of context. Many were good rules before anyone ever heard of the Internet -- always make new mistakes for example. Some have entirely new significance. For example, you've probably received messages warning you about the Good Times virus or asking you to send postcards to dying children. The normally sensible people who forward such messages need to remember Dyson's rule use your own judgment.

This book is an easy read. Everyone should read it.

The Death of Distance -- How the Communications Revolution Will Change Our Lives by Frances Cairncross (Harvard Business School Press, Boston, 1997, 320pp, ISBN 0-87584-806-0, 888-500-1016, $24.95)

Frances Cairncross is a senior editor on the staff of the Economist, where she has worked since 1984. In recent years she specialized in communications and media.

The Death of Distance explores the consequences of the premise that geography, borders, and time zones will soon be nearly irrelevant to the way we conduct our personal and business lives. Cairncross starts with thirty pithy predictions (she calls them developments to watch) and spends the rest of the book exploring them in the contexts of telephone, television, the Internet, commerce, competition, regulation, society, culture, people, government, and countries.

While this book seems to cover the same ground as Esther Dyson's the two books are quite different. Dyson concerns herself with how individual readers can live in the digital age. Cairncross focuses mostly on technologies, business strategies, and government action. Dyson maps the surface of the digital age. Cairncross takes core samples at interesting places.

Cairncross's predictions are interesting and largely believable -- especially since many of them have already begun to come true. For example, she believes that companies will adopt the model of Hollywood studios -- bringing in top stars at high prices for specific projects. I think she's right about that. She predicts a worldwide leveling of wages, and that too has already begun to happen. She predicts the rise of English as a global second language and the simultaneous strengthening of less widespread languages and cultures. Again, these things are happening already.

I don't entirely agree with Cairncross's prediction that email will lead to better writing skills. Email is asynchronous, that is, non-interactive, and it is written. The fact that it is asynchronous won't go away, so perhaps that will force people to express themselves more clearly and completely. The requirement that it be written is already disappearing. People who dislike written communication may soon be able to communicate electronically by voice and gesture instead. In any event, being forced to do something doesn't guarantee excellence -- or even improvement.   

Cairncross's predictions about company size ring true: more minnows with scarce resources but global reach; more giants offering high quality local services. On the other hand, her predictions about social and political issues seem naive to me. I think that the outcomes she predicts will instead be influences -- competing with many other social and technological influences to produce outcomes that no one can yet predict. For example, she predicts that we will have little true privacy and little unsolved crime. I say maybe so, maybe not.

This reservation aside, I think Cairncross has written an important book. It is well researched and thorough, and it covers the ground. I recommend it.

The Resurgence of the Real -- Body, Nature, and Place in a Hypermodern World by Charlene Spretnak (Addison Wesley, Reading MA, 1997, 286pp, ISBN 0-201-53419-3, $22.00)

Charlene Spretnak comes out of a very different tradition from the other two authors featured in this column, but she is just as deep a thinker. Over the last twenty years she has written about the women's spirituality movement, green politics, and a cosmological basis for comparative religion. In each case she found an overarching framework to help herself and her readers understand the subject. These frameworks, she claims, are not her inventions. Rather, their inherent coherence, wisdom, and healing potential led her to discover and embrace them.

In The Resurgence of the Real, Spretnak applies this same technique to various social trends of the 1990s. In doing so she provides a strong counterpoint to the other two books in this column. While the disembodied citizen of cyberspace represents the ultimate evolution of rationality, Spretnak sees growing signs of reaction to this and other manifestations of modernity's mechanistic world view.

Spretnak begins her analysis as follows. I've shortened it for reasons of space, so imagine that the text is sprinkled with ellipses:
We are told that the world is shrinking, that vast distance has been conquered by computer and fax, and that the Earth is now a global village. It feels, however, as if distancing and disconnection are shaping modern life. If anything is shrinking, it is the fullness of being experienced by the modern self.

For most people today the web of friends, nearby family members, and community relationships is a shrunken fragment of what previous generations experienced. "Leisure time" is now spent at a second, low paying job or in a numbed state of recuperation alone in front of a television.
This sounds pretty depressing, but Spretnak is an optimist. She immediately cites signs of hope: alternative medical therapies, complexity theory, and independence movements. These are examples of the resurgence, respectively, of body, nature, and place, the components of what Spretnak calls the real.

This is an academic book, and, not being an academic myself, I jumped immediately to the appendix, in which Spretnak spells out the system of beliefs, assumptions, and ideologies that social scientists call modernity. She calls the appendix Modernity is to Us as Water Is to a Fish. She means that we don't even notice -- let alone question -- these ideas, because they seem natural to us. In my case at least, she's pretty much right about that.
Spretnak spends a great deal of the book exploring the roots of modernity and the absorption or marginalization of schools of thought that opposed it. It's a fascinating story.

Her final chapter, Embracing the Real, contains a utopian, or at least optimistic, vision of the future in the form of a time-traveler story. William Morris, an actual nineteenth century writer who resisted modernity and who wrote time-traveler stories, visits the world of 2024, where he is a hero. Body, nature, and place figure prominently in this world. Computers do not.

Morris is fascinated by two shallow arches, side by side, leading only into the brick wall of a school building. The inscription over them says "Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here." His guide explains "Those are our Bill Gates. The faculty designed them as an irreverent monument to computerized education -- which was actually used in elementary schools back in the 1990s!"

I don't know if I agree with everything Spretnak says, but this is a good book. I'm glad I read it, and I hope you read it too.