Internet's future debated at PopTech conference
CAMDEN, Maine Hijacked by fear, uncertainty and doubt, the Internet's future is no longer clear. The FUD factor has specifically raised doubts about the aspiration for a person to be online, anywhere, all the time, according to the majority of speakers at the PopTech conference here.
The FUD factor manifests itself in the fear of companies being left behind in developing their part of the Internet, uncertain of the future of the information glut, and doubts in the minds of many about the Internet's usefulness.
Reflecting on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which they said brought out the best and the worst of the Internet, speakers rambled on topics as diverse as privacy and security to designing simple user interfaces. Some 400 attendees heard from industry executives, academics and civic leaders who praised the Internet's immediacy and expressed uncertainty about its impact and future.
Keynoter John Naisbitt, a former IBMer widely known as the author of "Megatrends," said that FUD made computer vendors spend millions of dollars on mainframe technology in the 1960s just to avert being upstaged by competitors. This led to duplicate efforts and drove many suppliers out of business within a decade, Naisbitt said.
"We are between eras, in a time of parenthesis," he said, "where we are more obsessed with technology upgrades rather than thinking of the human consequences of those upgrades." As with the start of the automobile era, which saw 2,700 American car companies in the '50s dwindle to the current Big Three, and the telephone era, which saw 11,000 companies at the turn of the last century fizzle to a few large players, the Internet will follow the same history, Naisbitt said. "Maybe a thousand companies will survive, and 100,000 will not," he said.
On a philosophical note, Naisbitt chided those who use the Internet as an end in itself as a tool of self expression. "Today's e-mail is more about typing than writing; the art of writing is losing out to the need to answer every e-mail prompt with curt, sometimes incoherent replies," he said.
"I don't think anybody is ready to buy the book 'The complete e-mails of Bill Gates' yet," he added glibly.
Naisbitt said he fears that the Internet is outpacing the march toward globalization, and that technology's constant pace of innovation is usurping global cooperation on the human scale. "The more universal we become, the more tribal we behave," he said. And while virtual communities of all sorts are being formed via Net, real communities among the neighbors tend to disband. This will lead to a self-organizing "natural selection process" that will heal itself through networking via the Internet, Naisbitt said.
Two prominent industry leaders heatedly debated the ideal computer user interface, taking diametrically opposite points of view. Don Norman, author of "The Invisible Computer," and Marc Canter, developer of Macromedia's ShockWave software technology, were like David and Goliath in arguing their respective points. Canter, physically large, epitomized the ever-expanding application world of the PC, while Norman, a diminutive bearded man, called for a simple, elegant design. "This is a tool," said Norman, holding a fountain pen. "I can do a lot with this tool, when I want to, to whom I want to, at the time I want to and in the place I want to."
Norman challenged Canter's view and vision of increasingly sophisticated software applications for generating and presenting all kinds of video, audio and data. Canter retorted that it's not about the utility of the tool but the rich experience one gets from it. In the PC's case, it's more like a tool chest, he said.
To buttress his point, Canter's new startup, named MagicCarpet, is developing software tools that will be used to build personal portals that adhere to an individual's personality traits.
Norman, while admitting that Canter's tools were "interesting," nonetheless extolled the notion that designers must think about the process of design in sequences. "It's the step you need to take after the first design step that you need to think about," Norman said. Computers are notoriously clunky in implementing desired tasks, he said. "The user is left with unsuitable steps or unwanted steps that keep him from reaching his goal," he said.
Norman implored his audience to think very early about making designs elegant, starting at the education level. "We need to teach the next generation what I call 'natural' designs," he said.
Norman pointed to one lofty endeavor, The Learning Federation, that is trying to do for technical education "what Sematech has done for the development of the semiconductor industry," Norman said.
The Learning Federation is a center for post-secondary students to learn how to apply technology to human needs. "Our goal should be to make life more humane," said Norman.
One step further
The argument about behavioral issues involving technology and the Internet was taken a step further by Michael Schrage, a research associate at MIT Media Lab. "I study what people ought to do versus what the actual behavior is," Schrage said. From these studies he said he concluded that "we design technologies to persuade others, but rarely design technologies that persuade ourselves." He called for tools that would be instrumental in developing technology one wants to use and play with.
Governor Angus S. King Jr. of Maine echoed those sentiments. Noting that everybody buys 1/4-inch drill bits, King said users don't need the bits as much as the holes they make.
"The Sept. 11 events are teaching us a lot about technology and the Internet the good, the bad and the ugly," King said. But eventually information will help win the battle with ignorance using technology, he said. To that end, Maine will have a notebook computer available for every seventh-grade student for the next school year, the governor said. But providing access to the Internet is not an end in itself, he said. "The Internet is like a newspaper without a publisher or an editor," he said. "We should strive to bring value and perspective to the information we unleash."