Futurist warns against digital alienation
February 3, 1997
Web posted at: 1:30 p.m. EST
From Correspondent Brian Nelson
ATLANTA (CNN) -- In the '90s, we can communicate digitally by
either voice or image across the world we call the Internet.
And while these may be the trappings of the new digital
kingdom, for those of us inside the castle walls, the
question remains: Is life any better?
For noted futurist Paul Saffo, the answer is mixed.
"The only thing that technology will not deliver is a life of
leisure," he says.
Saffo, of the Institute for the Future, says technology does
deliver the opportunity to waste vast amounts of time,
whether it's by playing games or repairing an operating
system. It also delivers the need to always be connected.
"That's clearly the social problem of the nineties -- how to
find peace and quiet, how to resist the temptation of being
distracted away by a computer or the ringing of a telephone,"
Another danger of a technologically bound culture is a
fraying of the bonds that used bind us. Whether it's a cell
phone glued to the ear or enough Web sites and newsgroups to
satisfy every possible taste and interest, we see less and
less opportunity for shared experience as we each pigeon-hole
ourselves into separate worlds of interests.
Do we care, or have to time to know our neighbors anymore?
There seems to be less and less of that kind of "Leave it to
Beaver" interaction, but Saffo believes technology creates
the solutions to its own problems.
"In the next five years, you are going to see the emphasis
shift away from people accessing information and instead
toward people accessing other people in information rich
environments," Saffo said.
Online chat rooms, for example, may lose their anonymity
thanks to video cameras that soon will be built into every
new computer. Those same cameras will benefit education as
children join in watching real-time archeological expeditions
from their classroom computers.
As always, however, change is a boon to some and a bane to
For example, don't expect all governments to be pleased, not
all nations to benefit equally.
In China, authorities already fearful of the tidal wave of
democracy have erected electronic walls to filter out much of
the Internet experience for their citizens.
French language watchdogs are suing the French campus of a
U.S. university for failing to give the French language
prominence on its English Web site.
The French, of course, are among the "have" nations in this
digital revolution, but there are many "have nots." The gap
leaves many to wonder if last century's "great unwashed" are
to become the next decade's "great unwired."
"Having access to the global network will be crucial to
regional competitiveness in the next decade as say, having
access to a harbor was at the turn of the last century,"
Saffo says. "And the governments that fail to aggressively
make those links are going to find their countries in great
It is not the French, nor Americans, but the Finns who are
the most "wired" people on the planet, with more Internet
access and the highest penetration of cellular phones of any
On the other end of the digital scale are the completely
un-wired in under-developed countries more concerned with
running water than streaming bits.
To those with access to it, however, technology can be a
great equalizer, as an order of Benedictine monks in New
Mexico has proved.
No phone lines or power lines scar their isolated
environment, just a small field of solar panels and a tall
cell phone tower providing just enough to power their
computers placing the monks online as electronic scribes for
Corporate American and the Vatican.
So what's ahead?
Well, some jarring changes, says futurist Saffo.
"This is really just the end of the beginning," he said. "The
real action is going to be over the next 20 or 30 years."
So, for all you techno-phobes, get ready for changes and
opportunities greater than we can imagine.
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