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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?

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Futurist warns against digital alienation

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  • 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," Saffo says.

    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 others.

    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 danger."

    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 nation.

    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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