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Week's Clue: Days of Future Past
(Note - While I'm on vacation, there's no need for you to completely miss your Clues, even though I'll miss the week's news. Instead, I've prepared two essays with general guides for looking at the past and future of technology, the kind of background on which all sound Clues should be based.)
A friend got a great book deal. He was asked to look at how the Web economy will change the real economy, in unexpected ways, over the next 10 years. But he felt a bit lost, especially after I presented him the (wrong) futuristic visions of Jules Verne and Edward Bellamy.
In his "Paris in the 20th century," originally rejected by a publisher in 1863, Verne correctly foresaw the rise of the business class, and the slow death of the French language under a barrage of techno-speak. He even saw the rise of motorcars and high-speed subways. But he missed the computer completely - his hero worked with a quill pen. Bellamy's "Looking Backward," written in 1888, has its heroes shopping at a store much like "Service Merchandise," and using payment mechanisms that sound a lot like credit cards. But Bellamy's book is mainly a socialist utopia. It fails to see how the conservatism of workers' power frustrates change. It underestimates the physical sciences' impact in favor of social science. In fact the most dynamic and successful societies are based on (relatively) free capitalism and its resulting inequalities. As Joseph Heller's Milo Minderbender said in "Catch-22," think of them as evolution in action.
As a coffee table book I saw once put it so well, "The Future Isn't What It Used To Be." Isaac Asimov's "I, Robot" story had an 8-year old girl commanding her own personal robot-playmate in 1997. In that year I had the requisite 8-year old but felt cheated - she had to make do with flesh-and-blood friends. Donald Fagan's "Nightfly" album had a great song called "I.G.Y.," about the 1957 International Geophysical Year, and its futuristic messages. It saw underground trains going from New York to Paris in 90 minutes, spandex jackets for everyone and added that "by '76 we'll be A-OK."
The main Clue here is that our visions of the future say more about us than what's really to come. Most futurists failed completely in foreseeing the Web. The Internet already existed when William Gibson's "Neuromancer" came out, the original "Star Trek" series depended heavily on mainframes, and the vision of the 1955 Tracy-Hepburn comedy "The Desk Set," research staffs replaced by computer terminals, still has yet to come true.
SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion)
It's summer reading season for you, summer writing season for me. Last summer I created a little ditty called "The Time Mirror: Or What Can You Do With a Pentium II" and we've got it posted here. We're also serializing the sequel, dubbed "Time Stands Still," continuing the adventures of Rice University professor Richard Smalls. Hope you enjoy it, and if you think it's worth killing trees over let me know.
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And now back to our show...
Many have commented on how much darker our visions of the future are compared to those of our parents' generation - the contrast of "Star Trek" to "Deep Impact." It's especially stark when you examine how much wealthier (and healthier) we are than the people who dreamed those brighter dreams. If I'm not shot or caught in a car crash, I can reasonably expect to live until age 80, in good health. We expect to have electric lights, flush toilets, microwave ovens and air conditioning - all unimaginable luxuries in our grandparents' time. Yet when we look at the 21st or 22nd century, we mainly see environmental disasters, falling meteors, or Bruce Willis working as a cab driver ("The Fifth Element.") Except for that last, it's pretty bleak stuff. Instead, it's our non-fiction writers, like John Naisbitt ("Megatrends") and Alvin Toffler ("The Third Wave"), who are left to predict good times ahead. And they mainly extrapolate the future based on the recent past - as we've seen, that trick never works.
While talking with my friend - the book author - I came up with both positive and negative possibilities, all based on today's economics of the Internet and the World Wide Web. On the bright side, you can now compete from anywhere (even your dining room). On the negative side, Indian and Irish programmers who'll be happy with 10% of your salary can now compete with you. On the bright side, online stockbrokers let you make a fortune in minutes. On the negative side, those same systems guarantee the next stock market crash will hit like the New Guinea tsunami.
Many Clues from Wall Street, in fact, show precisely why our ability to predict the future is so limited. Any stock market system, even Warren Buffett's, winds down when applied by everyone. Trends that are allowed to become bubbles always bust, and take those who followed the trends with them. Going against the trend is also no guarantee of success. Most market busts are followed by a short recovery, then a second hard fall.
Both social and political trends can be reversed, and superseded, by experience and new technologies. Bellamy's Utopian Socialism became Lenin's Worker's Paradise, while the capitalism built by J.P. Morgan did indeed trickle down, in time, to today's world of freeways and Costco for all. Early 20th century visions, dominated by big machines and mechanical technologies, look quaint beside the real present of PCs and networks.
Evolution offers the most important Clues. Successful structures - dinosaurs, mammals and (in Tasmania) marsupials, expand to fill most every niche. But this "climax" state is inherently vulnerable to sudden, unexpected changes (forest fires, meteors, man), which scrambles the board again. Our diminishing bio-diversity (plants and animals are becoming extinct faster today than in the aftermath of the meteor that wiped-out the dinosaurs) is such a "climax" state. Just as a swamp in this state is vulnerable to forest fires that destroy everything, so man today looks for an Apocalypse Now - will it be a meteor, a nuclear winter, or global warming?
Yet we know that change can come from anywhere, and that innovations now seen by only a few of us will radically realign everyone when brought to the whole market. When I started doing business in 1983 as "Have Modem, Will Travel," a reporter dependent on a laptop and modem for stories and production seemed laughable. So did the idea of a successful freelance journalist who seldom left the comforts of his home. I'll claim no credit for making today's world come about - I simply saw the Clues and went for it.
That's what we should all do. We need to seek out the Clues that show us the future we want and then take the risks that might get us there. We may fail, but if the 20th century has taught us one thing, it's that all that leaping and striving is what makes the best possible future happen.
Next week, we'll look for Clues in new technologies that might give us a Future radically different from what we live in now.
My alma mater was quaint and old-fashioned 20 years ago. While they've brought 10 Mbps networks and broadband Internet access to the campus, life there is still a physical, hands-on experience for those who are nominally adults, but still forbidden a legal drink.
The big cyber-excitement seems to come from MIT requiring online applications to some programs, and Stanford offering a master's of electrical engineering online. But it's not enough, because there's a basic misconception on the part of college administrators concerning what education is about.
Rice president Malcolm Gillis says it's about growing up. It's not. It's about passing knowledge, and certifying that passage. Research, the main business of most state schools, is a great cash cow that obscures this basic fact. Most schools are living on their prestige and endowments, thinking minor league football and basketball make them necessary.
The whole field is totally Clueless, and ready to be taken down hard by entrepreneurs, like the University of Phoenix and Western Governors' University. But until a prestige college sells its name (in exchange for high standards) to such an enterprise, the entrepreneurs are left with niches. CyberState University occupies one such niche, selling Microsoft and Novell technical accreditation courses, for which it gives credit through the Information Technology College Accreditation Program (ITCAP). Companies that have already hired workers don't need prestige, but they'll pay for training of assured quality, and the move by CyberState is clued-in.
However, the other shoe doesn't drop (as I said before) until a name school offers real degrees in real volume. This, I predict, is where the words "innovative" and "Republican" could get used in the same sentence.
Clued-in is Autoweb.Com . In some ways, they follow the better-known AutoBytel.com. But by low-balling ABT on dealer costs and making the relationship non-exclusive, they get a bigger network. They rely on services like finance, insurance, parts, and service to make up for what they don't get from dealers. A tight rein on costs also helps. The Clue here may be it's the workhorse, not the show horse, that will win the marathon.
Clueless are House Republicans. Let me count the ways (just in the last month). We've got the son of CDA, the Internet gambling ban, and the bill to legalize spam (which spammers are already taking advantage of). Their statism, in this age of the Internet, has become as bad as that of the Democrats they criticize most fiercely. The first party to reform takes the next century. As Winston Churchill said, democracy is the worst possible way to organize a society - except for everything else.