Ancient Humans in the Information Age
Michael L. Dertouzos
We have brought upon ourselves and the world something that encompasses much more than the information society.1 If one asks, "What is the value of information?" it quickly becomes apparent that the traditional theories of information are not effective in determining the value of a text editor, the work that an information worker does, a rented video, or an electronic form used in electronic commerce.
In the current, rapidly changing environment, people are confused about the nature of information. We hear that information is not scarce since it can be copied easily and therefore has very little value. Maybe it should be free, or maybe it should have a fixed cost. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that we view information mostly as a noun and forget that it is also a verb. As a noun, information consists of text, pictures, movies, and videos; as a verb, it refers to information-transforming work carded out either by a person such as a tax accountant or by a computer—for example, a word processing program.
Let me start with the assertion that, in economic terms, there is no difference between physical work and information work. Either one is produced by people who are reimbursed for expending a portion of their lives to do such work. Alternatively, the work is produced by computers that, like any other piece of equipment, require capital to be purchased. Thus, whether office work is produced by a human or a machine, it involves the same factors of production—labor and capital—as physical work.
If I project into the future, I envision a fairly simple model of what the information age is all about. I call it the information marketplace. It is a collection of people and their machines engaged in buying, selling, and freely exchanging information. It is a bit like an old village marketplace, except that what is exchanged is information rather than physical goods.
To address the value of information in this setting, let me divide economic goods and services into informational and physical, as well as intermediate and final. Final refers to something that is produced and then consumed, such as a loaf of bread. Intermediate refers to something used to produce a final or another intermediate good, such as flour. Final information encompasses items like books, entertainment, and videos—things that we consume for self-actualization, whose purpose ends there. When we add them up, these final goods comprise about 3 percent of the U.S. gross national product, leading us to the conclusion that the amount of final information today is very small.
Most information is intermediate because more than half of the work force is made up of office or knowledge workers. These employees and their machines are doing intermediate information work. Whereas final information is subject to the rules of supply and demand, intermediate information always goes toward enabling something else—eventually final information or, more often, physical final and intermediate products as well as services. Thus, the bulk of information has the important property of pointing to something else, leading to something, making something else possible.
The value of intermediate information is derived from what it points to. For example, at General Motors, all of the computers, software, and people working in the office represent the intermediate information that goes into making cars. The monetary value of all these activities is less than the value of the cars they sell and is derived from it. A huge amount of the U.S. economic basket is filled with physical goods and services. This means that there are many things for information to point to and derive value from. Employing computers and software makes a country more efficient and increases its wealth. In the United States, we value the hardware and software that point to these goods at 10 percent of the U.S. economy. On the other hand, in a poor country such as Bangladesh, the figure is less than 0.1 percent. This disparity illustrates that the rich countries (and people) value information much more than the poor simply because they have more economic goods to which information points. Also, since information technology helps those who use it to improve their productivity, we have an unstable situation in which the rich will get richer while the poor will stay behind. Left to its own devices, our technology is going to increase the gap between rich and poor. This calls for action and help on our part to ensure that it does not happen.
Let me now shift to what I call electronic proximity. Proximity and mobility are two sides of the same coin. The more mobile you are, the more people you can get close to. In the village age, we had about a couple of hundred neighbors whom we visited on foot, so our proximity was several hundred people. In the industrial age, cars increased our proximity by a thousandfold. We could drive a few hours and, potentially, reach hundreds of thousands of people. We did not have to know them all, but we could reach them. The information age will now give us another thousandfold increase—to hundreds of millions of people who will be within electronic reach. This is because we have 100 million computers connected today and (I forecast) will have some 500 million machines in five to seven years. This huge new increase in proximity is worrisome if we consider, by analogy, the problems that urban areas are facing today. We need to pay a great deal of attention to the problems of the forthcoming increased proximity.
When I think of proximity, I also think of telework. If people work from their homes, we are going to have a very interesting situation: a person will be an urban sophisticate by day, living in the world's markets; electronically commuting to Tokyo, Paris, and other major cities; carrying out all sorts of transactions, selling, buying, and fully exchanging knowledge and information. However, when the time comes to turn off the computer, the same individual will turn around and go out for pizza at a favorite local restaurant like a villager. She is an urbanite by day and a villager by night. We do not know which part of this split human will win the battle or even if both parts will learn to coexist within us.
Another point concerns nations and boundaries. Nations are located in one landmass because of their natural resources. France had wine. England and Germany had steel. We Greeks had grapes, knowledge, and democracy! Another reason nations remain physically compact is because they have a history, a set of traditions, and are protected by tribal unification forces. Now, the economic value of local resources has gone out the window, as the Japanese have shown the world. As for culture and history, consider this: In the future, I could dial up my high-speed network from Boston to Athens. I could sip ouzo while chatting with my friends in the Plaka, sing Greek songs, attend services at the Athens cathedral, or watch the sunrise on Santorini Island. I could partake of a lot of cultural, historic, and tribal ''food" in a way that is not available to me in Boston today. So, all the old factors I mentioned that bind a nation within a common landmass seem to be disappearing. Perhaps tomorrow's Greece will not exist as a compact landmass, but as the Greek network!
Let me close with a third consideration, which is psychological. I submit that we are, today, the same ancient humans that Socrates and other more "normal" ancient people were in the past. We have the same body, mind, and psychology. Yet, our hands have moved from the stone club to the steering wheel, to the jet aircraft stick, and to the WIMP (windows, icons, menus, pointing) interface—a huge change. How are we coping with it? Bread-and-
butter items such as text, photographs, videos, tables, and spreadsheets are fully transmitted over the information infrastructure. We are tempted to ask which activities and qualities actually pass through the airwaves, satellite links, and wires of the information infrastructure and which ones do not. It is clear that emotions are communicated to some degree. We all watch TV and sometimes laugh or cry at what we see and hear. However, emotions do not pass through fully, as pen pals can attest. Eventually, these virtual friends must consummate their relationship with a real-life experience such as meeting each other and shaking hands.
Are there some things that do not pass through the information infrastructure at all? When we lived in caves, we had a basic fear that animals would come from outside to eat our food or our children. This fear was a powerful force of the cave. Another force was when we hugged our loved ones and had physical contact with them. Just because ancient humans left the cave does not mean that these forces have left us. In fact, I suggest that these primal forces of the cave not only are still with us but are present for the most important, and even some of the mundane, decisions we make. Interactions with our siblings and friends; the relationships between doctors and patients; the trust between business associates or between students and teachers—these all involve the forces of the cave.
Do these human emotions pass through the wires and wireless links of the edifice we are constructing? I do not think so. For example, you can set up the best virtual reality full-immersion suit and create a robot designed to frighten me—like a monster from the cave—even hit me with its steel fist. I am wearing my body-net suit with virtual reality goggles and haptic gloves; I am seeing the monster approach, and it is getting very scary. However, I know that I can flip the switch and the monster will disappear. It is not a force of the cave unless it is real and I know it and feel it, not only rationally, but instinctively. Powerful and instinctive forces like the forces of the cave do not pass through the systems we are creating.
I conclude that the information age that lies ahead will not be a panacea, a paragon of knowledge, or a liberator of the human spirit as some of the current hype suggests. Instead, I believe that it will be a profound and powerful socioeconomic movement as big as the industrial revolution but ultimately of the same ilk, providing a new set of tools that will enable ancient humans like us to pursue our ancient goals and aspirations in new ways.
AUDIENCE PARTICIPANT: On this last point, Michael, I can remember in the fifties, back in the age of radio (which, by the way, was coming over wires or wireless), that this medium had a much greater capability to scare the living daylights out of me than TV or movies or Henry Fuchs's virtual reality because it was utilizing my own internalization of imagination and was deliberately limiting what was coming over the airways in that sense. So I am not sure I believe what you say, based on that experience.
MICHAEL DERTOUZOS: Oh, well, you are not scared as much as if a real force of the cave came after you. That would be my quick answer.
HENRY FUCHS: I agree. I am not going to scare anybody with virtual reality. I want to comment on your last, very wise observation. I want to take a slightly more pessimistic view. I will use the analogy of the telephone as a tool to let us, as you say, reach after the same forces of the cave. I think these new capabilities will allow us to extend the flexibility that the telephone has allowed us—to be physically in different places, but emotionally to still be together.
DERTOUZOS: One short comment, if I may. In business relationships, if you are trying to set up a serious merger or do something with a business partner, you will never do this by telephone unless you already know and have pressed the flesh of that person. I would say exactly the same thing.
FUCHS: Exactly right. So in this way, I suspect that what we will have is a situation in which you will not drink ouzo in Athens, in a small town, even with virtual reality, but there will be an added sense of sharing with people you already have a relationship with.
DERTOUZOS: Accepted. Bob, stump us.
ROBERT KAHN: Mike, you have described this flat-earth theory of physical work where, in essence, you consume the bread, you drop off the cliff, and it is really gone. You have got to do all the work again to create it one more time. You also presented a flat-earth theory of information. I wonder if the theory would not be better
described as sort of the round-earth theory in the sense you said that, with the final information you get, you cannot figure out what you are going to do with it after that, so it must be final.
DERTOUZOS: Not always, Bob, but most of the time.
KAHN: Yet, in fact, you may not know what you are going to do with most things, and even if you thought you did, you might not. If final information was just that—information you did not know exactly what you were going to do with—then the whole educational system would be final information. I want to put forth the hypothesis that it is really a round-earth theory and that everything in the information world is really grist for somebody else.
DERTOUZOS: Well, you can close the loop back from education over a slower loop to the beginning of intermediate information. The point here is that you are not describing precise physical or human processes. You are developing a theory that has idealized components. When you have a real situation, it has pieces of them. I am doing this to try to understand what is going on with the economy.
EDWARD FEIGENBAUM: Mike, I wanted to take you up on this real life component versus the virtual reality component. I have to mention that Mike told me last night that Marvin Minsky had once said to him that if you gave humans perfect memory, you would not need more than one sexual experience. So how much real life do you think we have to mix in with the virtual life to make a workable modern life?
DERTOUZOS: I do not think I need to answer that. You reported precisely. What is good for Minsky, is good for the rest of the world.