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JJOE HALDEMAN: Alarms and Excursions

Took a weird little trip to Pittsburgh. A group of business school students at Carnegie Mellon put together a one-day conference to "explore the future of computing." So of course they invited me, a guy who writes with a fountain pen and rarely says the word "computer" without a sprightly adjective.

Anyhow, it was "T3: Tomorrow's Technology Today," and it was an interesting mix of people--students, lawyers, venture capitalists, tech media people, and computer companies.

I was on one panel and went to three other things. Bad planning on my part; there was a trade show room that would have been pretty fascinating, but I didn't know about it until the thing was over.

There was a good rambling keynote speech by George Vradenburg, AmericaOnLine's Senior VP for Global & Strategic Policy. There was kind of a scary 900-pound-gorilla aspect to some of the things he said. I don't happen to be an AOL guy, but it felt like everybody else in the audience was, and at the rate they're expanding, they'll have everyone in the world by 2014. Except me, gibbering in the far recesses of a cave, trying to dial up Earthlink on a rotary phone.

They deliver 1.5 times as much mail as the USPOD. Including spam, of course; I don't know whether the post office includes catalog tonnage in its number.

One thing he said was fascinating, and related to what I was going to talk about. They're joining with other companies and wealthy individuals to form a coalition of wealth that will ultimately be fed to nonprofit organizations. The organizations submit proposals and, if they're judged worthy, get the money, no strings. There's a pleasant subversive aspect to it: wealth channeled into the public sector without the government as a mediator.

Then I went to a panel called "From Country Roads to the Autobahn: Speed and Speedbumps on the Information Superhighway." Pure Greek to me. They spoke mostly in acronyms; I peter out somewhere around ISP and BPS. (The panel started out with the moderator saying "Can anybody tell me what's special about 1996?" Somebody shouted out an acronym, and he said "That's right!" and it went sideways from there.)

I did absorb one interesting anecdote. New York City has a network of 18" cast iron pipes underground, laid down in 1900 to run high-pressure water for firefighters. They're perfect conduits for optical fibers, and a Japanese firm has manufactured "sewer rat" robots to run the fiber bundles through the pipes.

The last question to the experts assembled was "What company would you buy stock in right now?" The partial list I scribbled down seems to be Cisco (duh), OnFiber, Sycamore, Diamond, and InCipher. I present this list as a public service; I don't micromanage my own investments. But these guys seemed pretty canny.

Then an uninspiring steam-table lunch and off to the panel I was on: "To Be or Not to Be: Government's Role in Technology." The moderator was Tom Petzinger, who worked for the Wall Street Journal for 22 years and now is CEO of LaunchCyte, "a Pittsburgh incubator for technology convergence of the life sciences and information sciences." (When he introduced me, I realized he'd gotten his information from an eight-year-old commercial Website that still shows up on search engines. Have to figure out how to shut it down.)

Dave Ries spoke first. He's a lawyer specializing in environmental issues and e-commerce. He gave an impressively complete outline of the legal problems associated with e-businesses. Then Sonjay Chopra talked about his company, OnlineChoice--he basically gets together thousands of consumers who want the same thing, and approaches various manufacturers or providers, and says "What's the best price you can give me for 2,000 units?" It's usually a pretty good price.

Both of them were involved in the complications involved in patenting, or trying to patent, business practices. The prime example is's "One-Click" purchasing utility, which they managed to patent, but which is being challenged. The basic question is whether you can patent, as new, a business practice that is arguably only a cybernetic analog to an established practice.

Then Jack Collette talked about an interesting group he's starting up for soldiers and veterans and their families:'s a possible universe of about seventy million people who have a lot of things in common, and could wield considerable clout. That was related to my talk as well.

Which came next. I said I came out firmly on the "not to be" side of the proposition. I feel that high technology has made government obsolete, and even dangerous. Not governance; we'll always need some mechanism to administer to our collective concerns. But government is inextricably bound to politics, and politics is bound to passion, and there is no room for passion in an organization whose "interface" with us includes a variety of terrifying weapons of mass destruction.

I'm not advocating revolution, or even any kind of directed evolution. The process has already started, although it shows itself in oblique and unlikely ways. Net-based special interest groups like Jack's are part of it, and so is that corporate charity scheme that takes government out of the loop.

Take two aspects of modern government that are easy to be angry or cynical about, depending on your personality: lobbyists and opinion polls. Both of them are powerful drivers of political action that emphatically were not in the Founding Fathers' plans. Lobbying is more or less prettified graft, and the use of opinion polls turns political leaders into followers, tail-sniffers. There's not much good you can say about lobbyists and polls--except that they seem to work. They get the government through from drear Monday to the relief of Friday.

And they resemble commerce more than politics. I have something you want, so you buy it from me. I have a product to sell, so I find out what the consumers want.

I suspect that the thing that replaces politics--I don't know what its name will be; it may well be "politics"--will be an outgrowth of management science and information technology, driven by commerce but, I hope, kept in check by humanistic concerns, which need not be more sincere than the ones that keep our present leaders in check.

There won't be a takeover date which future generations will celebrate, waving their flags full of ones and zeros. There will just be a day when we look around and realize that all the presidents and senators and prime ministers are in the same relatively trivial position as kings and queens--symbols of regional solidarity, conduits to the past. While the world is being run by people who approach the job dispassionately, as a job.

A less exciting world, to be sure. But we already live in a world where we can't afford some brands of excitement.

(I've had this notion for a long while, certainly before there was a Web or a Net to soak up all our free time. But the Internet is a striking model of this slow development and crystallization of a concept: the people who put together Arpanet had no idea that in a very few years it would blossom into a network that would profoundly change the way everyday people go about their lives. No science fiction writer or futurist predicted it. It was just suddenly there.)

The moderator asked how I thought we could find the people qualified to be trusted with this kind of management. I said that in the fairly near future, they might not be people at all, in the biological sense, but rather AI constructs who were presumably immune to graft and the testosterone glow that some get from wielding power. I neglected to note that I already wrote that story, "Juryrigged," more than 25 years ago. At the time, I was programming on a state-of-the-art IBM 7094, a computer the size of a classroom that had less power than a Palm Pilot.

The last panel was presented as a kind of fun dessert: "Technology Interfaces: Human Interaction in a Wired World." The moderator, Chip Walter, a Carnegie Mellon professor who comes from CNN and PBS, coined the term "cybernomics"--getting along with the information creatures who share our lives. It was a fast and fun idea-spinning session, going back and forth among present developments, near-future extrapolations, and far-future guesswork.

N'Gai Croal, technology editor for Newsweek, has been researching virtual reality video games, and he posed an interesting science-fictional question. When the games become so sophisticated that you can't tell them from actual reality, when you come out of the game, how do you know you're actually in reality? Maybe you've just gone to Level Two. He calls it "virtual psychosis."

Astro Teller runs BodyMedia Inc., a company that will wire up your body with noninvasive sensors that monitor the state of your health as you go about your business, and then automatically advise you how to modify your behavior. I don't know about that. A Jewish-mother machine that tells you to put down that doughnut and eat some bran. He calls it "sympathetic computing," but I call it cyberkvetching.

He made an interesting observation. People get all worried and say "What are we going to do when the machines are as smart as we are?"--which is silly; the machines are already smarter than we could ever be, in their own ways. But it's like comparing a dragonfly to a 747. They're both machines that use Bernoulli's Principle to fly. A dragonfly can go from 40 mph to zero in one body length. If a 747 tried to do that, it would crumple. But a dragonfly can't carry many people. And so forth.

David Andre, who's working on a computer science Ph.D. at Berkeley by designing a micro-mechanical flying insect, is also working on an AI machine that will search the Web for you while you sleep--that is, it monitors what you're looking for, and then keeps working after you leave, to present you with an edited hierarchy of "finds" when you come back.

The conference ended in mid-panel in a way that was weirdly appropriate: fire alarms started screaming all over the building. A thousand or so people marched in an orderly fashion out into the freezing rain, turning to snow (welcome to April in Pittsburgh), some of us not quite dressed for it. In the fullness of time, three big honking fire trucks showed up, and a couple of guys wearing enough gear to survive a napalm attack went into the building. They looked around for twenty minutes and came back saying it was a false alarm.

I went back in and thawed out in the nearly empty building that had been so full of energy and intellect, evacuated by one person's childish impulse. In some near future, when someone activates a fire alarm, the building itself, a somewhat intelligent artifact, will take a reading and say no, that was not real.

A safe and comfortable building that is always looking over your shoulder.

Joe Haldeman has been writing science fiction since his start in the original Galaxy magazine in 1969. His writing has earned him a shelf of awards, including three Hugos and four Nebulas. In the fall semester he teaches science fiction and writing at MIT. His latest book is Forever Free, a sequel to 1975's The Forever War. His next book, The Coming, will be out from Ace in December.

The opinions expressed in this letter are entirely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of

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