From Galaxy Online:
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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
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.
of them were involved in the complications involved in patenting, or trying to patent,
business practices. The prime example is Amazon.com'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.
Jack Collette talked about an interesting group he's starting up for soldiers and veterans
and their families: iserved.com--that'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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
less exciting world, to be sure. But we already live in a world where we can't afford some
brands of excitement.
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.)
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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