In 1935 German-born Alfred Döblin, writing at the onset of his exile in America, told in his "Fairy Tale about Technology" the story of a Jew who loses his son ("who could sing beautifully") in the confusion of pogroms, revolution, and war of early 20th-century Russia. The old man is given first a gramophone and then a radio, and "with that he could hear things from far, far away, whenever people sang in the entire world, no matter who it was." One day on the radio the man hears again the voice of his long-lost son and tracks him down via a record he finds in Warsaw to the United States, where the son has become a famous cantor.
Döblin concludes: "So finally the radio had made everything possible, and that is technology. It brought a son back to his father, and both know God’s alive, and whoever believes in him can count on him." God bless the end-user and the power of the individual to establish his own killer app. More than a quarter of a century ago Marshall McLuhan foresaw that the age of automation was going to be the age of do-it-yourself.
Radio technology was originally used for transmitting Morse code until it occurred to someone that it could be better employed to broadcast news, sports and music. Similarly, the basic technology for fax machines was patented as early as 1843, and even though AT&T introduced a wire photo service in 1925 it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that time differences in the emerging global economy forced worldwide adoption of fax technology. Fifteen years on, the most common non-business purchasers are parents and children who want to stay in contact despite living in divergent time zones. Döblin’s old Jew wouldn’t have hesitated to buy one to communicate with his son in America.
"The promises of technology are complex and rarely turn out as intended"
The first e-mail was sent more than 30 years ago, but U.S. Census Bureau data indicate that still only about one-quarter of the country’s households had Internet access by the end of 1998. Those with incomes of $75,000 and higher were more than 20 times more likely to have access than those at lower income levels. The World Wide Web is still a misnomer. Technology is driving globalization but has the potential to polarize society. The UN’s 1999 Human Development Report revealed that 88 percent of the world’s Internet users are in wealthy, developed nations. Until the 1990s the Internet was a specialized communications tool for the scientific community. Arbitron New-Media’s Pathfinder Study suggests that while 62 percent of U.S. children in the 8-to-15-year-old age group are now going online, comparatively few use the Web for communication.
The promises of technology are complex and rarely turn out as intended. In place of the Orwellian prediction of Big Brother talking to the masses from mural-sized screens, most of us today conduct one-to-one conversations via the small screen. The promised leisure society has developed into what is now euphemistically called the "24/7 economy," in which wealth creation is the prime objective of human endeavor. The concepts of the paperless office and the electronic cottage made good reading at the time but never materialized in the way they were predicted.
The moral indignation of the neo-Luddites of less than a decade ago has been replaced by the fervor of evangelists determined to reassure us that there really is a pot of gold at the end of the techno rainbow. Part of the excitement exists because there genuinely do not appear to be any boundaries to what can now be accomplished. Change seems to be exponential rather than incremental. There’s a strong possibility for instance that within a few years there could be 100 percent market penetration of mobile telephones in Finland. However, the social and commercial consequences cannot be predicted with the same certainty. Business has a tendency to happen in real time.
In his Business @ the Speed of Thought Bill Gates understandably tells us that he’d much rather be alive today than at any other time in history. Gates hit his teenage years in the 1960s but was still too young to join the workforce and consider "plastics" as Dustin Hoffman was mistakenly advised in The Graduate. In a remake, Hoffman would have been better advised to get into chips. A year after the release of the classic 1960s movie, two middle-aged men in a valley south of San Francisco that was then called Santa Clara founded the single most significant start-up of the decade, perhaps of the last 30 years. Later Intel co-founder Gordon Moore explained, "We are really the revolutionaries of the world todaynot the kids with the long hair and beards."
Intel’s business sector has been likened to a bloody chapter in The Iliad, a heroic story littered with corpses and misjudgments. From Bill Gates backward, CEOs have generally had a poor record of informing us (and themselves) about the road ahead. With the pressure to deliver tomorrow, corporate memory is short. Gates is right to focus on the issue of speed. But real-time decision-making allows little time for perspective. In a business environment built on expectations CEOs, with inadequate road maps, keep one eye on the rear view mirrorbut only to check the next wave of competitors.
"God bless the end-user and the power of the individual to establish his own killer app."
How can we expect companies to identify needs that are not linked to a known consumer paradigm? Many new products and services have no track record and have developed in ways not intended by their inventors. Frequently it has been the consumer who has discovered the relevant application at a later stage. The original personal computer was, after all, useless. You couldn’t connect a keyboard to it, or a printer or even a monitor. This didn’t stop a group of technological hobbyists building an industry around it that has transformed our everyday lives.
Microsoft, Apple, and Intel may have kick-started the computer age, but it is game companies like former Japanese playing card manufacturer Nintendo that have ensured that a new generation is receptive to interactive technology. By 1990 Super Mario was already more popular than U.S. national icons Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny. Forty percent of U.S. households now own a Nintendo game systemaround the same number of households that currently own a computer. To date the company has sold 1 billion video games. There was a time when fathers would play with their sons’ train sets; now few parents can master the simple controls that operate a Game Boy, a system that is 10 years old this year. The worlds of Donkey Kong or Sonic the Hedgehog are closed to them. The historical relevance of Pong or Pac-Man remains an enigma. Parents and children may share musical tastes but gaming now marks the generation gap.
It was about 40 years ago that Marshall McLuhan taught us that new media do not so much replace each other as complicate each other. Each new technology creates a new human environment and each medium is unique in its properties and its effects on our sensorium. In the early 1950s McLuhan wrote, "If we are now beyond mechanization, we are also in a sense beyond history. We have stepped over all those familiar ‘lines of development’ that we have so long accepted as historical and cultural guides." No one since has matched his guide to the chaos of technological development.
Roderic Leigh <email@example.com> is a consultant based in the Netherlands, advising international companies and government agencies on communication in an e-world. Earlier this year he published a series of articles on the start-up years of companies that have become the century’s primary catalysts of change.
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