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What will be

How the new world of information will change our lives. By Michael Dertouzos

Michael Dertouzos: What will be. How the new world of information will change our lives, New York 1997, ISBN 0-06-251479-2.


16.07.1998 · Reviewed by Christina Teuthorn


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A small, dim green light flashes in the upper right hand corner of your magic glasses while you're walking down the avenue: just another phone call. One brief glance to the right and your wearable computer, sensing the eye motion, is commanded to answer the call. If you glance up momentarily you could turn on television instead and then click your ring to change channels. Or give a voice command for a data refill as you walk by one of the high-speed network nodes housed in those old-fashioned telephone booths, and a burst of information instantly will be transmitted to your bodynet.

For Michael Dertouzos, head of the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science, software applications using gadgets on bodynets are realistic for the near future but only one tiny aspect of the changes that the information revolution will bring. What Will Be seeks to highlight all the revolution's dimensions and implications for individuals and society as a whole, from a few years to a century hence, and adresses both groups of readers: digital sophisticate and those still struggling to understand e-mail. In an entertaining way, Dertouzos explains digital basics, answers frequently asked questions about technological experiences and change, constructs a model which helps to draw detailed scenarios of how information technology will alter the texture of daily lives, and also forecasts the course of technology and humanity in the 21st century.

The information revolution's keyword is infrastructure, which has three layers: pipes, tools, and interfaces. The same elements will shape a future three-story building, the global "information marketplace," that in a few years potentially could affect half of the world's GNP. At the virtual marketplace's bottom are the pipes supplied by the world's information carriers, on the middle floor all the shared middleware software tools will reside, and the top floor contains all the interfaces. Here on the roof visible action will take place: Hundreds of millions of people and their computers will buy, sell, and freely exchange information and information services using their interfaces and application programs, not unlike an ancient Greek agora expanded million-fold through modern technology. With the help of bodynets the worldwide connected new agents of the information economy will dive into the middle floor, where a host of shared software tools will coordinate their desires, and transport the information required through the pipes on the bottom floor. The active information marketplace's infrastructure will be humming along just like the power, water, gas, telephone, or security infrastructures of a modern city.

But daily routine in the era of the new global Marketplace will be very different from what it once was. Consider telesurgery: a medical specialist will place his hands inside sensitive manipulator gloves that are connected to a computer, eyeing a monitor on who he sees his patient which in reality lies in another country's hospital. As the doctor pushes his scalpel down, he feels a resistance imparted by his haptic gloves, and on the real operating table a surgery-robot will pierce the man's groin, exposing a hernia deep inside him.

More gripping examples about other emerging points - automatic cooking, informed autos, automized tutors or simulators for improved learning, cyber love, e-commerce, interactive arts, telework, etc. - give the reader a fascinating idea of what could possibly be, sometimes softened, but mostly reaffirmed by the MIT expert's argumentation of what will be.

On the macro-level, two major forces will emerge: electronic proximity, that will increase by a thousand times the ease of reaching people, and electronic bulldozers, powerful automized machines, that will carry away infojunk and raise productivity. Future decision makers will have to face new problems like an increasing gap between the rich and the poor, the have and the have-nots of information technology. Dertouzos, among other things, discusses the information revolution's impacts on employment, war, nations and culture. The book isn't perfect; at times the rhetoric outruns the concrete examples, or the processes that will lead to expected development aren't clearly spelled out. Dertouzos is stronger talking about the effects on daily life than when he draws conclusions about society as a whole. In the final parts of the book, the detailed scenarios are replaced by more vague visions of a work-free society or a revolution of human self-understanding through the reunification of technology and humanity.

In sum, Dertouzos' position on the front line of the future at MIT has given him clear views of technology that will come and affect - almost certainly - all of our lives. He imagines changes, describes possibilities, and opens readers' imaginations to the future that will be.
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