|SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion)||This
Week's Clue: Clues For The Future
(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.)
When I was at Rice, more than 20 years ago now, I had a very shy friend. She found the most obscure majors possible, and when she graduated, she also found an obscure major in law school. In Texas, in the 1970s, that meant learning bankruptcy law. When the oil boom busted, of course, she made a fortune.
The Clue here is to expect the unexpected. Don't just extrapolate the future from looking at the past. Somewhere, an obscure researcher in an obscure corner of the world is doing something that will completely change the world. This I can guarantee.
Of course, it's always safest to fish where the fish are. Look at where basic research is being done, with a sense of urgency, and you can expect something important to result. We know that World War II brought us the first Eniac computer, but it also gave us basic cryptography. The Cold War brought us the Internet itself, borne of the need by military researchers to interact with their academic colleagues (and dependents). The Apollo program gave us Velcro, Tang, and the advances in semiconductor technology from which the silicon chip was born.
If we want our society to advance, then, we need basic research, as well as high, specific goals for researchers, and a sense of urgency driven by a big goal. We need a manned Mars mission if we're to mine the asteroids. We need a manned Venus mission if we're to get more from the Sun. If idiotic movies like "Armageddon" stimulate more spending on space research, ostensibly to deflect asteroids and comets, you won't get a complaint here.
There is also a huge need, without a fixed deadline, for basic research that can save us from extinction. One reason our view of the future is so cramped is because, increasingly, men and women have decided in their hearts that man may not have a future. Global warming is a reality, not just a theory, and the destruction of rain forests throughout the tropics has an effect. The way we treat our own land is even more shameful - Atlantans don't know how their water flows, and developers don't care, which means we're poisoning ourselves. Tearing down pine forests for subdivisions 50 miles from town is just as Clueless as burning the Brazilian rain forest to plant grass for cattle. You can't 'Save the Children' just so they can choke the grandchildren on their own waste of air, water, and land. (We condemn our parents for what they ignored, and so our children will condemn us.) And we won't get out of this bind based on government action or popular agitation - we need science, and science needs money.
Recently, I wrote a story combining some of these elements. It's about an obscure professor at Georgia Tech who discovers a cheap plastic that sheds heat, resists wear, yet can be easily molded, retaining the shape of the mold. With a colleague, he develops a way to make "rails" from the material, embedded with a fiber cable and a power source. It's essentially a measurable, controllable "third rail," developed under contract with a transit agency. Vehicles that connect, via a stiff wire, to both the power and information lines can buy the electricity needed to make them go.
Now at first the transit agency uses the rail to extend its lines to neighborhoods that oppose trains, using lightweight buses, but the technology is generally applicable. It can quickly be extended to all the city's bus lines, then to the Interstate Highway network, where cars with "smart card readers" can purchase "gas" as they go. In time the nation's transportation system is transformed - no more accidents, no more auto pollution. (There are also unintended consequences - cops can know in real-time who's going where, and stop them.) Now, who's to say that man (or woman) doesn't exist now? Who's to say they won't be stimulated, on reading such a story (perhaps from a better writer) into developing such a system? Who had thought of communications satellites before Arthur C. Clarke put one into a book?
The point is all of us - fiction and non-fiction writers alike - have our parts to play in creating the future we want for ourselves and for our children. Mark Twain, not known for science fiction, did write one such story, called "The Mysterious Stranger." The stranger told his subject (and us) that the world we live in is all in our imagination, admonishing us to "dream other dreams, and better."
How can the Web help in all of this? How can it not? All our dreams (and nightmares) can be contained, and to some extent controlled, right here. It might lead some of us to seek the human contact of cities, lead others to doing their work from remote cabins. It may make markets rise, or crash, in nano-time, allowing the quick rise of dictators, and the rapid development of opposition to those dictators. I'm not sure which it will be - no one is. But at least now we can all look for a better, or at least a different tomorrow, together. Not a bad thought, really, on which to end a century that began with a dream of electrical and telephone networks available to all. We're finally getting a return on that investment. Now, invest in other things, and better.
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 (http://www.a-clue.com). We're also serializing the sequel, dubbed "Time Stands Still," continuing the adventures of Rice University (http://www.rice.edu) 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...
Upside contributing editor Michael Malone's "The Rise of Techno-Fascism" in that magazine's August issue is flawed. That's not a criticism. All views of the future are flawed, my own included. But as I read it, it occurred to me that Malone's vision may not only be real, but immediate.
If you didn't read the story, Malone fears that the assumptions of our time - that computers will make us smarter and richer, leading to a new utopia - are too-widely believed, and therefore dangerous. (He also has a general, healthy skepticism for utopian ideas of any sort.) Just as Communism, Fascism and Nazism began with high ideals, strongly believed-in, he writes, so cyber-libertarianism has become so ingrained in our high-tech culture that tyranny may be justified in its name, once that dream is threatened.
My point is the danger may be more immediate and more real than Malone imagines. The fact is the billionaires of the Internet revolution - from Bill Gates through Scott McNealy to Jerry Yang - now control the world economy. Microsoft is probably worth more than General Motors' as you read this, in the wake of GM's strikes. Economic power, and the resulting political power, has moved in this decade from the East Coast to the West - only the fact that banks and stock exchanges still live in the Big Apple has obscured this.
But with power comes responsibility, and for the most part the new Mega-Rich have abused or ignored theirs. As Malone makes clear, all men like McNealy, T.J. Rodgers of Cypress Semiconductor and Gates want is to be left alone. Except, of course, when it suits their purposes for government to act. Then McNealy demands protection from Gates, Rodgers demands protection from Japan, and Gates demands higher imports of foreign programmers. The promise is all this wealth will trickle down, but one in four U.S. children today live in poverty.
Let's look at the new class system created by Gates, McNealy et al. I see four classes. The best paid tell money what to do. Once you've had your IPO, you're in the new class. You've joined the bankers, the venture capitalists, and the big brokers at the top of the pyramid. Next come those who order computers about. My wife's a winner here. Since she writes transaction-processing programs, she has skills that are in high demand. I'm a big winner, too, because I write about it. All this makes it much harder for the truth of the new class structure to come out - everyone covering the revolution has been bought-off.
Third, and falling in power, are folks whose careers involve ordering people around. The middle management squeeze hasn't ended. Network computing has made it worse. These people can still make a living, they're still in the middle class, but unless you've got a fast-growing small business your time has passed. Last, of course, come those who take orders, increasingly, orders from computers. These are the "end users" we hear so much about on PC software brochures. Sure, writers, managers and venture capitalists use computers too, but for the true "end user" it's the receipt or rote input of data that becomes the job. Whether you're a FedEx driver controlled by a mobile terminal or a "new collar" worker taking orders at a desktop, you're a bottom-feeder, along with the workers at your kids' day care center, the teacher at their school or the GM assembly worker. You're replaceable - you get the leftovers.
Those who made their fortunes building this Brave New World have a responsibility for what results, and no amount of rhetoric will change that fact. The responsibility has been obscured by today's economic boom. But the end of the boom (and all booms end) will bring it home like the business end of a clenched fist. What will be at stake after the boom will be the survival of the Middle Class. Those at the top often forget that the strength of our society still lies in the fact that most of us consider ourselves stakeholders in it. What happens when the billionaires start laying-off programmers, when more middle managers become redundant, and when armies of order-takers hit the bricks?
A century ago, that anger was directed against Wall Street. The genius of two Roosevelts eventually deflected it, although Republicans of those times never credited it, and Republicans of today refuse to believe it. Next time, it will be directed against Silicon Valley, and Redmond - the reaction of today's plutocrats will determine our fates. History may yet call this the neo-Victorian era, the calm, quiet time before the great explosion.
There are three ways this can work out. Another Roosevelt may find a compromise (or the appearance of one) between the demands of the newly poor and the New Plutocrats. Peaceful reform is the best we can hope for. Second, the dreams of Scott McNealy (or the nightmares of Michael Malone) might come true, and Techno-Fascism might come to pass. Third, the little people could revolt and create their own form of tyranny, as ignorant of economic reality as Communism, Fascism or Nazism. Whichever future comes, your Clue is it'll come faster than you expect (via e-mail, not the Web) - and for that you can thank the Internet.
Clued-in is Upside, the only financial publication I've seen in many years willing to speak truth to power. The best journalism challenges conventional wisdom, and challenges readers.
Clueless is Wired, the creators of "cyber-libertarianism," They once had some good ideas, but the business never ran as a business, and since its sale to Advance the long fade is well underway.