10/21/2005

TIME.com Print Page: TIME Magazine -- The Road Ahead

They never mention Peak Oil. Sigh... -- law

Sunday, Oct. 16, 2005
The Road Ahead
We assembled some of the smartest people we know to identify the trends that are most likely to affect our future. What we got was a fascinating discussion about religion, technology and politics and why no one's golf scores seem to be getting any better.

TECHNOLOGY AND US

TIME: WHAT INNOVATION WILL MOST ALTER HOW WE LIVE IN THE NEXT FEW YEARS?

TIM O'REILLY, publisher and technology advocate: Collective intelligence. Think of how Wikipedia works, how Amazon harnesses user annotation on its site, the way photo-sharing sites like Flickr are bleeding out into other applications. I think we're at the first stages of something that will be profoundly different from anything we have seen before, in terms of the ability of connected computers to deliver results. We're entering an era in which software learns from its users and all of the users are connected.

DON'T WE ALSO RUN THE RISK OF HARNESSING OUR COLLECTIVE IDIOCY? EVERYONE WHO HAS BEEN ON THE WEB KNOWS THAT THE RATIO OF SIGNAL TO NOISE IS NOT ALWAYS OPTIMAL.

O'REILLY: Right, but remember what Google did. They basically said, let's look at what all the millions of individual users are linking to, and let's use that information to get the good stuff to float to the top. That turned out to be a very powerful idea, the ramifications of which we're exploring in other areas, such as with tagging on Flickr or blogs. People are finding more ways to have the wisdom of crowds filter that signal-to-noise.

MARK DERY, author and cultural critic: I find the fetishization of the wisdom of crowds fascinating. It has a whiff of '90s cyberhype about it. I'm fascinated by the way in which it contrasts with individual subjectivity. A lot of technologies, such as Flickr, blogging, the iPod, seem to turn the psyche inside out, to extrude the private self into the public sphere. You have people walking down the street listening to iPods, seemingly oblivious to the world, singing. More and more, we're alone in public.

SO IS THE INTERNET TRULY CREATING CONNECTIONS AMONG PEOPLE? OR DIVIDING US AS WE HIDE INSIDE OUR PRIVATE SHELLS?

MOBY, pioneering electronic musician: I have a friend whose Swedish mother--she's in her mid-60s--goes online to meet men. I was with my friend as he drove her to the Hilton to meet a Canadian doctor she'd encountered online, and I thought, How disconcerting. Because it was 10 at night and most likely she was going to meet this guy and stay in his hotel room. Go back 50 years, and she would have been in her Swedish village, depressed, a bit lonely and sad. Instead she's in midtown Manhattan, preparing to spend the night with a doctor, and her son is driving her to the hotel!

O'REILLY: There's also more communication even in apparent isolation. Think about the private bubble people live in. Kids spend a lot of time alone in front of their phone, their TV, their computer. But they are also communicating in new ways, and I suspect most of us in this room maintain communication with a group that is far larger, far more geographically diverse than we ever would have known without technology.

ESTHER DYSON, editor of technology newsletter Release 1.0 for CNET Networks: The Internet is like alcohol in some sense. It accentuates what you would do anyway. If you want to be a loner, you can be more alone. If you want to connect, it makes it easier to connect. In my own experience, it has drawn my family closer, as we post pictures on Flickr. It has done more than tap into something latent; it has actually created something that wasn't there with the younger family members. We couldn't do that before because we were all geographically separated.

DAVID BROOKS, author and New York Times columnist: Is it possible that as the Internet creates more geographic diversity, it creates less demographic diversity? There once were millions of people in Elks Clubs, and Elks Clubs were incredibly diverse. These days, with, say, online dating, you can screen people who aren't demographically like yourself.

CLAY SHIRKY, writer and technology consultant: But look at Meetup.com The most active users are stay-at-home moms. In the suburbanized, two-career U.S., social capital has moved away from the neighborhood and toward work. The stay-at-home moms are actually now remarkably disadvantaged in terms of social capital. We're used to thinking everything is going to get more and more virtual until we're these big floaty video heads, but actually there is a return of the real, as we figure out how to use this stuff to have real-world encounters.

ISN'T THERE A RISK THAT DESPITE ITS PROMISE OF DEMOCRATIZING SOCIETY, TECHNOLOGY WILL LOCK US INTO HOMOGENEOUS CLUSTERS?

BROOKS: As the information age matures, you're getting social stratification based on education. If you come from a family earning over $96,000 a year, your odds of getting a bachelor's degree by age 24 are 1 in 2. If you come from a family earning under $36,000, it's 1 in 17. People at the top of the income scale pass down the skills one needs to thrive in this economy to their kids who get into Harvard--where the median student comes from a family making $150,000 a year--and they go on to an affluent suburb. And they pass it down, so you get really good public high schools, and people there are more likely to marry people like themselves.

O'REILLY: Is this really new?

BROOKS: It's increasing more quickly than before. Look at the relationship between a father's income and a son's. Until the '70s, there was a loose relationship. Since then, it has become much tighter.

DERY: But there's also an upside to sociological clustering, at least online. In the 1950s, if you had the hapless happenstance of being born gay in Oklahoma, you might have spent many a lonely night biting your pillow and cursing the heavens for making you the only gay on earth. Now any 18-year-old with a modem is just a click away from a universe of fellow travelers, and to me, that's a good thing.

MALCOLM GLADWELL, author and New Yorker writer: Yes, there is homogenization in clustering, but there are many different clusters being created all at once, and the overall effect can be to increase diversity. It may be that in each of those groups, I'm finding people who are precisely like me, but there are 10 me's. There's Malcolm the football fan, Malcolm the psychology nerd ...

WHO ARE WE, REALLY?

GLADWELL: One of the most striking things in observing the evolution of American society is the rise of travel. If I had to name a single thing that has transformed our life, I would say the rise of JetBlue and Southwest Airlines. They have allowed us all to construct new geographical identities for ourselves. Many working people today travel who never could have in the past, for meetings and conferences and all kinds of things, and this is creating another identity for them.

DYSON: And once you travel, you come back and use other technologies to stay in touch. It used to be if you traveled somewhere for an interesting week, you come home and nothing has changed. Now you can stay in touch with the people you meet. I think cheap telephone service has made a huge difference in how people think. When I went to college as a kid, it was long distance, so I never called home. Now I'm on the phone to London before breakfast.

GLADWELL: I just went on JetBlue's website, looking at JFK to Oakland, and it's $149. At that price, is there a class cutoff, an income cutoff? Sure, but it's really low, about where the class cutoff is for an Xbox. So we're talking about a fairly radical transformation of American society.

BROOKS: I know people who fly to see a football game, but I don't see why this is transformational.

GLADWELL: It is because it allows us to construct new realities and identities for ourselves that break out of our old sense of place.

DERY: I'm fascinated by this idea that JetBlue could be transformative. Weren't we supposed to be celebrating the death of geography right about now? According to the last wave of techno-hype, in the newtopian '90s, we were supposed to be swirling clouds of data bits, teleporting from one point to another through fiber-optic cables.

GLADWELL: Some interesting things come out of all of this travel. I would expect an acceleration of the declining importance of nationality. The rise of transnationalism is already an important recent trend. There are pockets in Queens [N.Y.] that maintain active ties with home in Mexico. If you extrapolate, I don't think foreign policy or any kind of politics can be practiced the way it is now in a country where enormous numbers of people genuinely have dual identities and reinforce them by flying back and forth to their adoptive countries for nothing.

DYSON: I'd like to argue strenuously with that. It may be happening in the U.S., but it's not happening in China, which is extremely nationalist. In Russia, I don't know any Russians who feel anything other than Russian. A brand does not replace a nationality.

GLADWELL: We're not talking about the end of those identities. We're talking about the multiplication of identities so that in addition to the strong national identities, you start to construct new ones. FedEx now has direct flights from interior Chinese cities to cities in North America. So start playing that forward. You're allowing a class of people in China to layer on a new identity to their existing identity of Chinese businessmen as member of some kind of international business élite.

POLITICAL SHIFTS

IS THE AMERICAN LANDSCAPE READY FOR CHANGE?

BROOKS: In the United States, we've seen the intense power of partisanship. I think it may have crested, but we're left with this intense polarization--think Red Sox vs. Yankees--where team spirit supplants philosophy. I really don't know what a conservative or liberal is. But I do know what a Republican or Democrat is. Still, I think this phase of intense polarization is ebbing. If you look at the polls over the past year, you see people flaking off from the Republican side--not going over to the Democratic side but being dislodged and just sitting there in the middle.

TIME.com Print Page: TIME Magazine -- The Road Ahead

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