Paul Saffo spends a lot of his time thinking about the past. That might seem a bit odd for a man who makes his living as a futurist, but perspective is critical, argues Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future, a Silicon Valley think tank that contemplates the way things will be.
“We’re adjusting better to technology than people think,” he explained in an interview last week. He acknowledges the fears articulated by Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, and Bill Joy, the founder of Sun Microsystems whose ruminations on the darkness ahead have unsettled the valley. But Saffo believes “the unease we feel is part of the process of evolution.”
In a time when a new wonder-technology is unveiled every three months, the model for the digital lifestyle is updated every six months and when the power of a chip doubles every 18 months, Saffo opts for the long view. “There is a new wave every 30 or 40 years,” he said. “At the turn of the century it was chemistry, then it was physics, then information technology. Now, we’re on the cusp of the biological revolution.
“It takes us about a century to figure out what a technology means. Take Charles Babbage. He invented the computer at the end of the 19th century. We’re only now beginning to understand its significance. But it doesn’t take us nearly that long to start using it.”
Cultures need a cushion to adjust and adapt to new technologies. The integration of the two can be messy; most revolutions are. But eventually technology is modified to suit its applications, or behavior changes to get the most efficient use out of the technology.
The classic example is the way the automobile changed life in the United States. By increasing mobility, it permitted suburban sprawl, the rise of new population centers (shopping malls) and decimated many cities. IT will have a similar impact — eventually.
The long view also makes it clear that technology is not value-neutral. Its meaning is dependent on context; it comes with social values. To put it another way, technology is culturally biased. Its uses are determined by the setting in which it is deployed.
For example, Americans and Europeans have vastly different approaches to technology that tracks and identifies individuals. For the most part, Americans are far more willing than most Europeans to relinquish privacy in exchange for consumer benefits. Saffo believes part of the explanation lies in the past: Americans did not live through the Holocaust, a systematic attempt by government to eliminate an entire group of people on the basis of ethnic identity.
That example does undercut the general tone of optimism with which Saffo sees the future. And he conceded that the world will be a vastly different place. “The novelty today is the scale of the destruction. Terror will be deeper and more subtle than we can imagine. But we can’t do anything about it.”
The problem is the vast power at our fingertips. There is more computing power in a single smarmy greeting card than existed in the entire world in 1946. New model PCs are the equivalent of the last decade’s supercomputers. Japan was unfortunate enough to get the world’s wakeup call in 1995, courtesy of Aum Shinrikyo. “The danger isn’t Big Brother, but Little Brother.”
This immense power requires a counterbalance. What is needed, said Saffo, is a new global cultural ethic. “Technology overwhelms us with choices. The great the technology, the greater the burden upon us to choose well,” he explained.
The problem is that taking time to weigh the consequences of actions — or merely learning how to do that — requires us to give up some choices as well. We might slow down, but technology marches on. Saffo conceded as much. “There is no silver bullet. We need long-term thinking. “
Saffo points to the Clock of the Long Now as one device to help us along the way. The clock is the brainchild of Danny Hillis, one of the inventors of the supercomputer. It will tick once a year, chime once a century and the cuckoo will come out once a millennium. It is designed to make us think about the future, to reframe our perspective in the same way that pictures of the Earth taken from outer space changed the way we envision our planet and our place on it (for more information, go to www.longnow.org). Saffo is a member of the board of directors of The Long Now Foundation.
“We’re victims of our frame of reference,” said Saffo. “We need, in the words of Jonas Salk, ‘to learn how to become good ancestors.’ “
According to Saffo, two concepts are key to our collective future. The first is interdependence. Increasing technological sophistication is increasing the linkages among individuals. “Blanche du Bois used to say that ‘I have always relied on the kindness of strangers.’ Well, she was right,” said Saffo. “Only now, the strangers are computers.” We will all have to become comfortable with that notion.
The second concept is transparency. In one sense, this is the flip side of privacy; the two frequently trade off. Choices have to be made plain. What are you willing to pay for privacy? More accurately, what will you pay to give up parts of your privacy? What are the details of your life worth? To make those determinations, we need accounting systems that include all costs, not merely those traditionally put on the balance sheet. Saffo believes the key issue is consent.
It also means that the process by which decisions are made has to be visible. There must be reciprocity: The watchers must be visible to the watched.
Transparency will also encourage responsibility. Anonymity, noted Saffo, can be corrosive. “Anonymity takes away our sense of shame. We have to reveal linkages and show causality. The Internet can play a useful role in showing those connections and making us aware of the consequences of our actions.”
Of course, that trail can only be traced so far before dead-ending at the ubiquitous message “404: URL not found.” Taking the truly long view requires that we push away from the computer screen and extend our gaze both into the future and back into the past.