Technology and Our Search for Meaning

By John Naisbitt, with Nina Naisbitt and Douglas Philips

Broadway. 274 pp. $25


By Andrew L. Shapiro

Public Affairs. 286 pp. $25

Reviewed by Deborah Shapley

This is John Naisbitt's sixth book since his 1982 bestseller, Megatrends, which championed technology and its benefits. But now he finds that "Americans are intoxicated by technology," which "feeds our pleasure centers" but "is squeezing out our human spirit, intensifying our search for meaning."

The first part of the book is vintage Naisbitt, glib yet insightful. The "high tech high touch" of his title, one of his original megatrends, means that the more we embrace high tech, the more we get anxious and thus try to escape from it. The paradox is still true. Today, he shows, the high-tech crowd seeks escape in extreme sports, adventure travel and even "war tourism." And who would have guessed that as more women went into the work force, at higher pay, sewing and bulb-planting would be all the rage? Why, Martha Stewart, of course. Naisbitt shows how she rides the trend: selling fantasies of time-consuming domestic craftmanship to time-stressed women.

A less benign trend has to do with screens, which surround us on computers and TVs and in movie theaters. As we get so much experience via screens, we "blur the distinction between real and fake," Naisbitt argues. Furthermore, "the number one genre of choice is violence," and media violence, especially in video games, is terribly warping our children.

We learn that there are 27 million casual gamers in the country and 6 million "hard core" players addicted to the roller-coaster emotions that games deliver. According to a professor at Simon Fraser University, one in four children playing them is addicted.

Naisbitt warns parents not to fall for the games' cute packaging or industry ratings. Parents should actually play them, to see how many hundred beings their children will "kill" by the hour (33,000 pedestrians are run over by the end of one game, for example). He notes that parents pay $2,500 for a game machine, which they let children play on average for an hour and a half each day, with the rationalization that this will improve the kids' hand-to-eye coordination. But for $1, he argues, "you can go get them a ball." Naisbitt pleads with readers to stop accepting "violence as normal" and to start believing that "what's on the screen is real" because the consequences of assuming otherwise have been devastating: "Why do we turn a deaf ear," he writes, "when fully three-quarters of all homicide deaths in the entire industrial world among children fifteen and younger take place in the United States?"

A third section on the genetics revolution warns of the coming danger of changing our genes. He quotes several theologians asking whether, by giving our children higher IQs and immunity to disease and even handsomer looks through genetic alteration, we would not be playing God. A final chapter shows how artists exploit the tools and insights of biology -- for example, Marc Quinn, who molds 3-D likenesses of his own head using his own blood, frozen in a clear glass case.

John Naisbitt's evolution from technology booster to worrier about what technology is doing to our species could have made a really good book. Alas, this one is more like a piece of "specimen art" that he describes: fascinating elements in need of rework to give a clear message.

Andrew L. Shapiro, a lawyer and senior adviser to the Markle Foundation, is also cautious. But he offers a balanced, carefully edited guide to the issues posed by the Internet. His bottom line is that citizens, lawmakers and regulators have a lot of work to do if the "control revolution" of his title is to live up to its promise.

That promise is for greater individual freedom and a richer democracy. But many forces could tip the Net's proclivities in bad directions -- the government, Microsoft, marketers trading in personal data, and users' tendency to go overboard in what he calls "oversteer." Shapiro disagrees with early Net enthusiasts who wanted cyberspace to remain an unbridled frontier. Law must apply there: If you lose money to an online con artist, for example, your loss is just as real as if you trafficked in physical space. We will need certain middlemen, such as news filter sites to evaluate the latest rumors from Matt Drudge and peer-reviewed journal sites to check with now that any quack can post medical claims online.

Shapiro's most memorable device is a fictional character called Paine. He's a guy with opinions, and in the real world he can declaim, hand out leaflets and share his thoughts in the marketplace of ideas. But if cyberspace became "a world of total filtering," which each of us can "cleanse of all interactions save those [we] explicitly choose," there's no way somebody like Paine can be heard there. Without some active correction, Shapiro warns, the self-selecting made possible by the Internet will fragment society into cliques, which grow smaller as people disagree and leave -- which is easier than in the real world. Social cohesion and democracy, he believes, will suffer.

We could make ourselves encounter "offensive" speakers like Paine by clicking on an icon on the desktop or browser. The link would take us to "an endless digital public forum" of postings and chat sites which Shapiro calls PublicNet. It might be attractive, he suggests, "to be exposed now and again to an unplanned encounter that we would find interesting and valuable."

In our brave new world of filtered solitude and medical art that can make us look perfect -- or at least not different -- don't we need more of this kind of technology?

Deborah Shapley writes on communications, technology and international affairs. Her most recent book is "Promise and Power: The Life and Times of Robert McNamara."