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Leslie Walker
Leslie Walker
Leslie Walker's .com Live
Discussion with Paul Saffo, Director, Institute For The Future
1 p.m. EDT: Thursday, May 18, 2000

Welcome to DotCom Live. This week, my guest is technology forecaster Paul Saffo. As Director of the Institute For The Future, Saffo specializes in long-term technology trends and their impact on business and society.

Paul Saffo
Paul Saffo
Saffo will answer questions about how the Internet has affected our lives and how communication amongst people in our society has changed.

In 1997, Saffo was a McKinsey Judge for the Harvard Business Review. That same year, he was named one of 100 "Global Leaders for Tomorrow" by the World Economic Forum. He holds degrees from Harvard, Cambridge, and Stanford Law School.

Here is a transcript of today's discussion.


Leslie Walker: We know now how dramatically the automobile changed where people lived. (Of course, no one had a clue back in Henry Ford’s day that the internal combustion engine would give birth to the suburbs.) What kind of changes do you foresee the Internet having on where people live in the future?

Paul Saffo: Well, actually, the parallels to the later history of autos and suburbs is very\y relevant. This time around, the combination of broadband, the Internet, and wireless plus changes in the nature of work is likely to trigger the biggest shift in living patterns since the automobile-enabled rise of the suburbs after wwII. This time, the move is to the exurbs and a return to urban cores. the big losers will be those ugly suburbs that people have hated all along.

Leslie Walker: Hello and welcome to Paul Saffo. Let’s start with big-picture views of how the Internet is reshaping society. There are so many changes going on in every segment of society, it’s hard to tell which matter most. Could you describe a few common threads you see among the Internet’s many impacts—-the forces and changes you think will become increasingly important in the future?

Paul Saffo: The biggest impact is quite simple: in cyberspace there is no distance between two points. This suite of technologies (internet, web, info appliances, wireless) will at once shrink and expand the world.

Washington, D.C.: How do you think we should be changing the focus of our educational system to help young people cope with the technology of the future?

Paul Saffo: Actually, I think the more immediate challenge is finding ways to reshape our educational system to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the new technology. I am less concerned with helping youth deal with new technologies (they generally do this better than their elders). The web has demonstrated that it can be a potent tool for learning, but we are still struggling to figure out how to really use the web and the net effectively in teaching.

Washington, D.C: How fast do you think electronic books are going to catch on? And, how will they change our reading experience?

Paul Saffo: "Electronic Book" is an unfortunate oxymoron -- after four centuries of co-evolution between paper and text, books are inextricably tied to print-on-paper. And it will be a long time before we match the best of print in an electronic package. That said, we are already inventing new print-centric media forms in electronics, and that is what excites me. The first generation "electronic books" are pretty sad devices, but they point the way to some exciting new media experiences -- just as soon as their inventors stop trying to copying books, and get on to something more original and imaginative.

Washington DC: Is there a human downside to all of this 'instant connectivity?

Paul Saffo: Socrates once observed that nothing new ever arrives without a hidden curse. And today's new technologies are no exception -- there are ample downsides that come in with the new opportunities they also deliver. But the downsides are rarely what we expect. In the case of internal combustion, everyone anticipated the auto, but no one foresaw the traffic jam.

Washington, D.C.: How fast do you think the Internet will be embedded in devices other that the computer as we now know it?

Paul Saffo: Good question. It is starting to happen now, and will pick up speed. The fastest growth will be in non-PC devices -- "information appliances" that are successors to cell phones, Palm pilots and the like. But look also for internet connectivity to get embedded into devices like washing machines, refrigerators, and of course automobiles. The internet today is synonymous with people talking to other people and accessing information. The fastest growing future part will be machines talking to machines on the behalf of other people.

Potomac, Md: How about the individuals that do not know much about technology? What is their future?

Leslie Walker: I’m curious, too, about what you see as the impact of the so-called digital divide, those who learn about technology and have access to it, versus those who don’t. Will this gap worsen or improve over time?

Paul Saffo: "Digital Divide" makes me uneasy -- it is too pat a term, and it seems to discourage rather than invite examination of what is really going on. I am deeply worried about the people excluded from this revolution, but feel we really need to look closely at the factors that have caused the exclusion. It is not merely that people don't understand technology.

Washington, D.C. : Everbody was trying to create new electronic money systems, but none caught on. Instead, credit cards did just fine. What do you see as the long term future for electronic money?

Paul Saffo: It is still early. I'd be surprised if we didn't have a change on the scale of the invention of ATMs and debit cards sometime in the next decade.

Laurel MD: Let me cite three examples I personally encounter:

1. I almost never buy anything over Internet that I could get in a store, because there's no one at my house when UPS or the mail carrier comes

2. I use voice recognition at home but not work because I don't have a private office

3. A friend can't boot his PC if his audio CD is playing, because his 1930's house can't handle the electrical load

What these have in common is: low-tech limits on the implementation of technology. These are just minor problems in using home PC's; but what are the major barriers encountered by business and home users in getting the maximum use of their computers by non-high-tech factors, and what non-high-tech societal changes are underway to overcome them?

Paul Saffo: the novelist bill Gibson once observed, "The future's already arrived -- its just not evenly distributed yet." YOur points are good examples of this. And impacts vary from region to region. Out here, ups will leave items off without a signature. Or re offices, think of the people who go to work solely bec they have broadband access in their office, but not homes.
There are lots of surprising barriers that we will encounter. In our homes, the most severe is the need to rewire to take advantage of broadband -- and in the case of some, even electricity!

Leslie Walker: You said inventors of "electronic books" should move on to "something more original and imaginative." What's the potential they're not tapping yet?

Paul Saffo: Well, really taking advantage of interactivity for one. Second, designing for today's small, lo-res screens -- electronic haiku instead of long novels?

Washington, DC: Paul, how valuable do you think a MBA degree is in today's workplace? I'm trying to decide whether or not to go back and get one or just jump head first into the .com world. What do you think? Leslie, what do you think?

Leslie Walker: I am a big believer in the value of education, but this is a close call. Last year I would have said forget the MBA--business schools are behind the times. But in the past year, business schools have made significant strides toward acknowledging the business revolution underway. And the luxury of learning the fundamentals and how to think --outside the chaotic crush of the marketplace-- is an invaluable experience. I could go either way, but would lean toward the MBA.

Paul Saffo: I agree. MBA programs have done a tremendous job reorienting themselves around the dot.com revolution and are looking more relevant than ever.

Potomac, Md: Paul,

Do you think that the internet fever will last through 200?

Paul Saffo: YOu mean 2001? If so, yes. But with some changes. Lots of folks are now sadder but wiser after the recent market carnage -- and it seems that we are not out of the woods yet. But meanwhile, traditional companies are quietly making some very big moves into the internet space, really incorporating it into their businesses.

Leslie Walker: You’ve written that the Internet creates big opportunities for new “middlemen,” rather than simply killing off all the old middlemen in the world of business. But I’m curious about just how much dislocation you think the Internet will cause in the old industrial guard.

Will some industries collapse and many companies go out of business? or do you think most of the “old guard” of business will be able to adapt?

Paul Saffo: Lots is already happening among traditional businesses. Note the buying coops that are emerging in detroit and other industries. The big players now fully understand that the internet is no fad, but the leading edge of a new order. And they understand that they must adapt and evolve or get left behind. But understanding that one must change, and actually changing are not the same -- some significant portion of companies won't make it. They will become interesting acquisition candidates for those who do.

Arlington, VA.: How has the Internet changed your personal habits and lifestyle?

Leslie Walker: Good question--I'd also love to hear about how much you're using wireless technologies.

Paul Saffo: Well, I've had an email address on my business card since 1983, so it is kind of hard to answer. Without a doubt, digital technologies have made my work much, much easier. At the same time, it has made getting sleep much harder, as the temptation to work 7/24 is so overwhelming.

Washington, D.C.: Can you recommend some good books about the future of technology and its impact?

Paul Saffo: Gosh, that is a hard question. There are lots of books out there, but very few really grab me. Neil Postman's
"Technopoly" is terrific. McLuhan always makes for interesting reading (start with "understanding media."

Washington, DC: How do you see e-commerce affecting the internet and technology as a whole?

Paul Saffo: E-commerce has resulted in a huge infusion of venture money into technology. I think this is a good thing, as it is catalyzing a huge number of new startups. But at the same time, the Internet has become so commerce-oriented that one misses the earlier days when things were a bit more altruistic and utopian. Of course, there is a strong counter current -- consider napster and nutella.

ALEXANDRIA, VA: What worries me is that the internet, paradoxically, is creating emotional distance between people. You can hide your feelings in the technology.How do you see the internet effecting inter-personal relations?

Paul Saffo: Interesting point. For some people, it creates isolation and distance; for others the experience is the opposite. In the 1920s as the national phone network arose, the same sort of concerns were voiced. I think we worked things out with the phone, and I am hopeful that on balance, things will work out for the better this time. consider one example: college students communicating with parents back home -- my take is that the Internet has enabled a huge increase in the quality of connection between students and their families.

Leslie Walker: WE are halfway through today's dialogue. Keep your questions rolling in!

Leslie Walker: Are there policy changes you would like to see in the United States to set boundaries on the electronic collection of personal data---anything you think needs to be done globally, too? I guess I'd like to hear your damage assessment for personal privacy in the future.

Paul Saffo: This is the new battleground. So far, I am surprised by how quickly our traditional regulatory apparatus has swing into action to help protect privacy. But I would love to see someone come up with a new, overreaching theoretical framework for privacy protection in this digital age.

And that said, I think the deeper and more important issue is not privacy, but identity -- how are these technologies changing our sense of who we are.

New York: Good afternoon, Mr. Saffo: Clearly, the Internet has enabled formation of electronic communities, which are independent of geography. But what will the impact of the Internet be on physical communities? Isn't a potent common interest of a community physical proximity? Will we return to a predominance of gated communities, as in medieval Europe? Will the Internet enhance or detract from personal contact and intimacy? What will be the future medium of collaborative enterprise? Many thanks.

Paul Saffo: Neat question. John Perry Barlow once observed that the big difference between virtual communities and physical communities was that in physical communities, you couldn't choose who was part of it, but you still had to get along.
I wonder when virtual communities will become more like that.
And it is important that community participation in virtual space can increasingly lead to physical contact. I have seen ample examples of that here in silicon valley where people here and in tech centers in India and china are now flying across the pacific.

Washington, DC: Will computers ever be as smart or smarter than humans?

Paul Saffo: I'd be surprised if it didn't happen eventually, but I doubt we will do it with silicon, and thus it is some decades off at the earliest. Others disagree -- Hans Moravec has written a very provocative book on how we will be replaced by robots. And Ray Kurzweil ("the age of spiritual machines") is also a strong advocate for this happening quickly.

Leslie Walker: What, to you, has been surprising about how the Internet developed and the impact it's having on society?

Paul Saffo: Well, the details have been the most surprising. The general trends have been about as expected (one of IFTF's founders was the inventor of packet switching, and IFTF was founded the same year the ARPAnet was switched on, so we have been following it for a while). Compared to what the pundits thought was likely in 1988, the rapid emergence of the web as a ubiquitous global hyperdocument system was surprising.

Leslie Walker: Please tell us more about how technologies are changing our sense of who we are. What are the key changes? Which ones worry you most?

Paul Saffo: I am not sure "worry" is the right term. Personally, I rather like rapid change. The internet is above all a new medium, and media have profoundly changed our sense of identity. % centuries ago, the advent of cheap vernacular books utterly atom-smashed social orders -- bibles allowed people to read for themselves, rather than rely on a church hierarchy. copernicus and Galileo tore apart the cozy universe of ptolemy and cast people adrift. The same is occuring now -- little wonder that some people are turning to religious fundamentalism

Arlington, Va.: What impact do you see the internet having on National and International bounderies and identities?

Paul Saffo: I think it spells the end of the monopoly of the nation-state as the leading actor in the international arena. National boundaries won't disappear, but they will become less and less relevant. It is already happening in europe -- Belgium probably won't exist in any meaningful way (other than a line on a map, and an office building of bureaucrats) in a decade or two. And we will continue to have more nations than ever.

Leslie Walker: I’ve read your predictions that this will be the decade of “sensors,” a time when computers use “sensor” devices and acquire the ability to become much smarter about their environment. Can you give us an example and explain more about what this might mean?

Paul Saffo: Sure, but also there is a longer essay on the topic on my web page (www.saffo.org). The 80s were shaped by cheap microprocessors, and the PC was the dominant device. The 90s were shaped by cheap lasers that led to new abundance of bandwidth, and the web was the symbol of the decade. Now, we are headed into a time when cheap sensors are proliferating -- we are giving our devices and networks the ability to observe and manipulate the physical world on our behalf. A modest but dramatic example are Furbies -- a device containing 10x the processing power carried aboard the apollo command module, and loaded with sensors. A $30 device that scared the hell out of the NSA and CIA...

Alexandria, VA.: Is information overload going to get a lot worse before it gets better? What can we do about it?

Paul Saffo: Info overload is an old friend -- scholars complained about it a decade after Gutenberg invented the printing press. It is a function not of the sheer volume of information sloshing around in our lives, but the gap between information volume and the sense-making tools at our disposal. We are barely keeping up now, so even though the tools are getting better, it is going to continue to be a source of anxiety for some time to come.

Oklahoma City Oklahoma: Do you expect that the expanded content will rapidly grow as more home users get faster internet service through cable modems and DSL service?

Paul Saffo: Absolutely. The next big things are IP.tv and IP.telephony. Over the next two years, everyone is going to get very excited about video over the web.

washington dc: There is a site out there - speakersdirect.com - that allows people to book a celebrity speaker on-line....the same model could be used for more than speakers, etc...will the net be a place for negotiation between people for services soon?

Paul Saffo: It is happening all over the place -- take a look at guru.com and sites like it.

Woodbridge, Va.: What's the next big thing in technology?

Leslie Walker: In addition to sensors, are there specific emerging technologies you can mention that likely will have huge ramifications in the future?

Paul Saffo: Well the biggest thing is biology. All the wonders of the digital revolution are really the closing chapters in a revolution begun with the invention of the transistor 50 years ago. Meanwhile, a new wave based on biology (genomics is but one small part) is building. We will look back from mid-century and realize that biology was much bigger than info tech.

Paul Saffo: Leslie-
thanks for inviting me to chat this afternoon. Terrific questions and lots of fun!

Leslie Walker: It was great to have you -- thanks for answering so many questions. That’s all we have time for today, folks. We appreciate all your thoughtful questions--sorry we couldn't answer each and every one. Bye for now!

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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