Future Crock

MIT cranks out another rosy tomorrow

Published February 6, 1997 11:39AM (EST)

in the midst of a batch of scenarios outlining "what will be" in the home and workplace of the future, author Michael Dertouzos is trying to explain his concept of "data sockets"  software standards that allow different devices to pass useful information to each other:

"Since the data socket always uses the same words for the same shared concepts, your dress advisor program can be made to understand the meaning of 'informal no clients' by being programmed to automatically search your clean clothes inventory for sport shirts and slacks that match the designated level of dress and satisfy your basic rules, like no plaids on pants or shirt."

Data sockets sound useful. But who needs a "dress advisor program"? It sounds like the information-age equivalent of those ridiculous motorized tie-racks sold by mail-order catalogs  junk for people who have way too much money and an unquenchable thirst to gadgetize every corner of their lives.

"What Will Be" is a strange, frustrating mixture of valuable insights bumping up against weird, "Jetsons"-style technological solutions to nonexistent problems  like that "dress advisor." Dertouzos, who heads up MIT's Computer Science lab, goes out of his way to promise a common-sense look at the future in his book. Without being explicit, he seems to be taking a swipe at his colleague Nicholas Negroponte's penchant for viewing the future through rose-colored virtual-reality goggles. Dertouzos, though, turns out to be just as wacky.

He delivers a pronouncement like "Expect video sex to become pretty popular" as though it were a spectacular insight. In a chapter on health care he forecasts "a veritable orgy of technical sophistication"  and simultaneously argues that high-tech health care visions like "guardian angels," automated specialists and long-distance video consultations will somehow reduce the average person's health costs.
Dertouzos' favorite label for the network of the future is "The Information Marketplace." He likes the phrase because it emphasizes how fully the information technology will be integrated into daily life; he seems unaware that not every reader will respond to the word "marketplace" with warm-and-fuzzy thoughts.

The Internet is a pretty good thing to Dertouzos, but he makes the following cryptic comment: "The Web and the Internet are the right start, and they are evolving slowly." Since pretty much the entire rest of the world views the pace of the Web's development as unprecedentedly speedy, one wonders what fast looks like to this impatient visionary.

Dertouzos is at his best railing at the stupidities of present-day technology, like infuriating voice-mail phone trees or the impenetrable complexities of digital telecommunications ` la modem. He does not pretend that technology will only have positive effects on the world, noting for example that the growth of "information work" is more likely to increase the gap between rich and poor people and nations than to reduce it. His chapter on "What's Wrong With Technology" is helpful and useful.

Most of the problems he identifies, however  like feature overload, steep learning curves, excessive complexity and so on  are the result of human inadequacies or byproducts of business circumstances. Yet he smilingly believes that next year or next decade we will be able to make these problems miraculously disappear  that we will "get things right" someday if only we stick it out.

Much of "What Will Be" is full of jargon like "groupwork" and "middleware" that lend the book a gray monotony relieved only occasionally by friendly anecdotes. Dertouzos' tone is that of a professor who is used to a captive lecture-room audience.

Annoyingly, he not only refers to technologists as "techies" but also labels humanists as "humies," which sounds like something that rots on the ground in a forest. He seems utterly unaware of the condescension inherent in the formulation. But then self-awareness isn't one of the strong suits of a book that can conclude with a poem entitled "Unification" that begins:


Mind your prescriptions for the world.


Tone down your fears of techno-change.

My response:


Listen to your editor's criticisms.


Don't hold back your pens.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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