INTIMATIONS OF A FIFTH CIVILIZATION
Shape of the Computer Age
As humanity approaches the end of the second millennium A.D., three civilizations have passed into world history, a fourth has reached the stage of maturity, and a fifth appears now on the horizon. Since this fifth civilization is still in its infancy, we do not know what its epoch will bring except that computers will be the defining cultural technology. Our expectations of this new civilization are based on analogy with other civilizations whose histories are known. They are based on past events and present trends and on reasonable projections from them. But there is also a part of the history which cannot be known at this time. Predictions of the future are notoriously inaccurate. Be forewarned that the discussion in the remainder of this chapter will attempt that very thing.
In making our historical argument, we assume that the appearance of a new dominant cultural technology - in this case, computer technology - means that a new civilization is about to emerge. Each new civilization produces new institutions in society as its sectors become further differentiated. While their functions may also have existed in earlier times, they become better organized and are incorporated within the society’s power structure. The new civilization brings a new set of values, beliefs, and models of personality. There is a flow of events from previous civilizations. There are points of conflict. Values and ideas that are dominant at the beginning of the historical epoch may be overtaken by their opposite as it comes to an end.
The Nature of Computers and Related Projections
If the new civilization will be shaped by computers, then the direction of events may be related to the nature of this shaping technology. In that regard, one can make the following statements about computers:
The implications of these capabilities are many. If the cost of computers is compared with the cost of human workers who perform the same task, employers may decide to substitute investment in machines for hiring people. That decision may impact employment and social conditions. If computers can store and analyze information about individuals, that means that organizations can locate individuals more quickly and easily. More efficient marketing campaigns become possible. If computers can communicate with many other computers, the dissemination of information is greatly increased. Linked computers amount to another communications medium. If computers can create new visual and aural images, then creative expression can go beyond sense impressions captured on film or tape. This expands the possibilities of communicating for educational, business, or entertainment purposes. Finally, if computer intelligence rivals that of human beings, then the computer becomes potentially either a greatly upgraded servant or master of the human species. Human dominance of the earth is threatened. The world of science fiction comes into view.
When business firms first embraced computer technology in the 1950s, the term “automation” was used to describe its application to industrial processes. That word conjured up the image of factories which operated on automatic pilot and did not require human labor. Social theorists then wondered how human beings might find employment if the old-style jobs disappeared. At its worst, the age of computerization might bring mass unemployment and poverty. At its best, it might lead to a society which could afford to support people without working. Proponents of the more hopeful scenario foresaw that government might redirect the wealth achieved by industrial progress toward the masses of people in an expanded welfare state. Income would be disconnected from work. Another possibility was that labor unions would continue to agitate for higher wages and shorter working hours. Even if machines assumed a portion of that work which human beings once performed, human workers would still be needed in other areas of productive enterprise and could command a healthy wage on that basis. Opponents argued that such adjustments were unnecessary. On its own, the economy would develop new kinds of output to keep everyone productively engaged.
By the close of the 20th century, the following picture has emerged: Business has continued to apply computer technology at a fast pace. Corresponding improvements in labor productivity have taken place. These developments have not brought a collapse of employment. In the United States, the current level of unemployment is low by historic standards. In western Europe, expectations of employment shortfalls have been realized to a greater degree. American labor unions have largely abandoned their campaign for shorter working hours. The overtime premium, meant to discourage working longer hours, has instead become a kind of wage supplement eagerly sought by some workers. As a result, average working hours have lately increased in the United States. The idea that the government would support people without working caught on for a time, but this practice, too, has lately lost steam. Welfare reform, forcing single mothers to seek paid work, has won bipartisan support. Paid retirement continues to persuade many older persons to withdraw from the work force, but its funding mechanisms are a perennial problem.
The salvation of employment has been continued growth of Gross National Product. Productivity increases have not meant growing joblessness because dollar-denominated output has also increased. Yet, although employment numbers remain strong, wage gains for most workers have not kept pace with the gains achieved in previous years. Some in upper-level managerial and professional positions have done well while a large segment of the work force is stuck in low-wage jobs. As for the growing output, a declining share consists of goods and services which are actually useful to people. Many areas of expanding economic activity could be characterized as waste. The gambling craze which has hit the United States produces a few big winners and some prosperity in communities near the casinos, but otherwise impoverishes individuals. The drug epidemic and war on drugs contribute to an atmosphere of lawlessness combined with increased job opportunities for police officers and corrections officials. Ours is an economy increasingly driven by lax credit policies, sweepstakes promotions, the conversion of holidays into times to hawk merchandise, and excessive litigation and medical treatment.
Modeling the Natural World
Computers have been used to model the natural world. Scientific knowledge is expressed in the form of mathematical equations that express relationships in nature. To become useful, this knowledge must be applied to real situations. Computer users in the scientific community have developed techniques of simulating natural conditions by observing and measuring conditions in various places and assigning numerical values to spatial locations for the relevant variables. For instance, data pertaining to temperature, humidity, and wind velocity, collected in several places, can be assembled in the computer to create the picture of an approaching thunderstorm. Calculation of scientific equations helps to predict how these various elements will interact and show how, in its entirety, the storm will develop over a period of time. Weather predictions, in turn, give advance warning of dangerous conditions. The damage can be minimized by taking timely action. Powerful computers are needed to record the large quantities of data and make the calculations in time to furnish a useful result.
Much scientific experimentation pertains to the worlds of the very large or very small. To make sense of events on that scale, the computer must convert mathematical data into visual images that will suggest something to human intelligence. Astronomers, for instance, have collected a wealth of data from electromagnetic radiation coming from distant places in the cosmos. Events which take place in this realm happen too slowly to register a perceptible change. The computer can speed up the process to show what will become visible after many years. Some of this information can be used to test theories of how the universe might have originated. There is an equally compelling need for structural models to make sense of phenomena on the submicroscopic level. If it were not for supercomputers, the emerging science of genetics could not absorb all the information that has become available about the chemical structure of the DNA and RNA molecules. These molecules, which govern all life processes, contain millions of genes in a particular sequence.
Computer simulations can demonstrate the effect of changes in a structural model much more easily and cheaply than if tests were performed on a physical model. They have revolutionized the design of commercial products ranging from jet aircraft to tooth brushes. Industrial designers once had to fit physical prototypes with sensing devices to measure stress and strain. Now they can observe stress changes with a few clicks of the keyboard as they play with a computer model. When the MacGregor Golf Company wanted to find the best design for a new golf club made of titanium, they tested a simulation on a Cray Y-MP supercomputer. The result was that additional slots and teeth were cut to stiffen the club and improve its aerodynamics. The automobile industry has used computer simulations to conduct crash tests on cars. Dow Chemical has used computers to test the absorbency of disposable diapers. Aircraft manufacturers observe the flow of air around variously shaped objects shown on a computer screen to pick a shape that minimizes turbulence. Computer models can be viewed as if in three-dimensional space. They can be rotated or displayed in a way which reveals their interior structure.
The new technology of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) embeds computerized information in maps. Each geographical location is identified not only by its spatial coordinates but by topological features and nonphysical characteristics such as ownership or political jurisdiction. The computer’s ability to combine information allows maps to be drawn with differently colored areas to represent significant conditions. For instance, a GIS cartographer might show in red all parcels of land in Lafayette County, Mississippi, used primarily for farming which were owned by persons over 50 years of age. Presumably a map of this sort might interest a salesman who specialized in selling products to elderly farmers. Algorithms can be written to direct an automobile at a satellite-detected location to a particular street address. Orbiting satellites equipped with cameras sensitive to radiation of various wavelengths can send data back to earth which indicates the type of vegetation found in particular regions. Special-purpose maps can be created from this information to illustrate, for instance, the effect of drought in nations which furnish certain agricultural commodities.
The graphic capability of computers depends upon digitalized information which can be manipulated to produce various effects. In that respect, it differs from earlier technologies which transformed visual images into electromagnetic impulses without changing the image. Computer graphics have cut the cost of film production while greatly expanding the range of visual possibilities. Computers can create images of objects that never existed. Cartoon characters can be “morphed” into human actors, and vice versa. Realistic-looking scenery can be created for imaginary situations such as the destruction of entire cities or warfare conducted in outer space. Some of today’s most popular films depend heavily upon computer animation. Action adventures such as Terminator II and Independence Day have dazzled audiences with vistas once scarcely imaginable. Daniel Hillis, a former computer-industry executive working at Disney, has said: “Just as the space program was the big driver of (computer) technology at one time, the new driver is the entertainment industry.”
Selling by Computer
Computers have transformed the arts of advertising and selling commercial products. Their ability to collect and analyze data pertaining to individual customer preferences has changed the paradigm of advertising strategy. David L. Milenthal, chairman of HMS Partners, explained that the purpose of advertising was previously to strengthen brand name or “to develop a far-reaching, creative brand personality for our products and services. Once that personality was developed and securely ‘branded’ into the consumer’s consciousness, we would use whatever funds were left to develop slightly more focused messages...” Now computer data bases allow advertisers to “identify and define individual customers”, especially those who tend to spend more money. “We are moving from the era of shotgun-style ‘mass marketing’,” said Milenthal, “into a new millennium of ‘customerization’ in which we have finally unlocked the key to actually knowing - not just predicting - the message and combination of communication vehicles that can best reach our clients’ customers.”
The new marketing approach is driven by two requirements. First, the message must be honed to suit the prospective customers’ individual preferences. Second, the subsequent marketing effort must involve enough people for the marketer to be able to take advantage of economies of scale in communicating with customers. The only way to meet these conflicting requirements is to identify narrowly focused personality types within a large customer pool. Sophisticated marketers with access to computer data bases can pull off this feat. Banks, utilities, telemarketers, direct-mail specialists, and other businesses having a large customer base are the types of firms which make use of customer-profiling techniques. The average American receives 553 pieces of unsolicited or “junk” mail each year from organizations that use targeted mailing lists. Each dollar spent in direct-mail solicitation typically brings back ten dollars in sales. This approach is twice as effective as spending for television commercials. Therefore, the volume of junk mail is expected to triple in the next decade. To be successful, however, the direct-mail advertiser must pay attention to detail in designing the letters and, above all, mail to the right list. Skilled analysis of computer data provides the information needed to do that well.
Fingerhut Companies, Inc., a large direct-mail retailer, mails out 130 different catalogs to computer-defined groups of customers. A mailing never goes out to less than 10,000 persons but the list can be as large as a million. Through an operation known as “data mining”, the company’s marketing experts analyze 3,500 variables representing its customer base with an eye to segregating individuals by groups with similar buying habits. This analysis helps Fingerhut predict how particular customers will respond to direct-mail campaigns. A software feature instructs the computer to search through the data file to find interesting but previously unknown relationships between customer variables which may reveal a propensity to buy certain products. Fingerhut uses this information to decide which customers should receive which catalogs and how many catalogs to print. It may cost the company $400 to $900 to print and mail 1,000 catalogs. Even a slight improvement in accuracy in defining the target audience reaps a huge benefit in increased sales and profitability.
Because of its potential to send electronic messages to a large audience, the Internet is being viewed as a promising medium to advertise commercial products. The trick is to lure viewers to a Web site where the advertisements are displayed. With so many different Websites to choose from, users can log on to sites representing highly specialized interests. Those who maintain or advertise on the Websites can be assured that their messages will reach a highly targeted audience. Costs can be kept to a minimum. Another advantage of computer-based communication is that the senders of messages can track the responses automatically. They can painlessly create a data base to record consumer preferences. Advertisers will know precisely how many and what types of people saw a commercial message and which of them purchased the product. IBM has worked with the sporting-goods retailer, L.L. Bean, and others to develop a catalog-like display on the Internet. Its software package includes order placement, shipping, and billing for products purchased online.
While less than half of today’s Websites are profitable, businesses advertise on the Internet because this market is expected to expand enormously in the years ahead. Annual sales on the Internet are expected to rise from between $7 billion and $13 billion in 1998 to $41 billion in 2002 and perhaps $103 billion in 2003. America Online, which had 13.5 million paying subscribers in August 1998, reports that 48% of them made online purchases, up from 42% that January. In 1998, Internet commerce was becoming dominated by three firms: America Online, Yahoo!, and Microsoft. Like an electronic shopping mall, Yahoo! alone offered more than two million products from 27,000 different stores. Online sales are expected to overtake catalog sales in 1999. Driving this surge in E-commerce are the fact that personal computer prices and connection times are dropping, Web pages are becoming easier to use, and fragmentation of markets is being overcome by large Web sites and better search engines. Because of high processing costs and privacy concerns associated with credit cards, several firms have explored new methods of payment using digital money or smart cards.
The most popular products purchased online to date are computer hardware, travel tickets, and books. Online merchants are able to customize advertisements to the consumer. For example, someone who orders a book from Amazon.com may receive a message recommending another book which other customers who fit a similar buying profile have enjoyed. He or she may consider this “permission advertising” (which is “anticipated, personal, and relevant”) to be helpful rather than intrusive. Search engines called shopping “bots” (robots) allow customers to look through numerous Websites in search of the lowest price for particular products. They can order the products online or else use this information to haggle with conventional merchants. While one would suppose that consumers might prefer to do their own shopping for food at supermarkets, a firm called Streamline in Boston takes grocery orders on the Internet and delivers to the household for a flat $30 per month. Customers save an average of four hours’ personal time for each order placed. While they cannot squeeze peaches or Charmin on the Internet, customers can read ingredient labels. Streamline’s founder predicts that people will eventually do the bulk of their shopping through electronic clearinghouses.
When journalists describe the promise of computer technology, they tend to overlook some of the more useful applications in favor of the frivolous. They have reported, for instance, that computerized sensing devices in Bill Gates’ mansion automatically turn the lights on and off or play a person’s favorite music as he walks from room to room. A more compelling need would be for computers to liberate humanity from the knowledge requirement that comes with purchasing and maintaining technically sophisticated machines. Karl Marx once said that for capitalistic markets to function properly customers needed to possess an “encyclopedic” knowledge of products and prices. An untrained housewife is supposed to know something about each of thousands of products and monitor their constantly changing schedules of prices. The knowledge crunch becomes acute in a society whose ease and convenience depends upon a host of highly technical products such as electrical appliances, automobiles, and building supplies. One needs access to a huge source of information both to shop intelligently in this environment and properly maintain the products after they are purchased.
A solution has been to build knowledge into the products themselves. Microprocessors embedded in the products can hold technical information that can be used to guide consumer applications or pinpoint repair problems. For example, diagnostic circuitry in a photocopying machine tells the user what is causing the machine to malfunction and where corrective action needs to be taken. Instead of calling a service technician, an office worker can fix the paper jam by following simple instructions. If a refrigerator malfunctions, a device attached to the machine can communicate with the manufacturer’s Website to receive pertinent information. Microprocessors control 83 percent of the functions in new models of cars including fuel-injection and braking systems. These miniature computers work to optimize performance in each area. There is also a move to install microchips in ordinary household appliances to maximize energy efficiency. Electric and gas utilities have installed home servers to control such devices as furnaces and air conditioners, which adjust them automatically to the right temperature settings and eliminate the need for meter readers.
If computers can monitor the operation of machines and signal when something unusual needs to be done, their human owner can safely forget about all but the machine’s intended function. Computers will tell the user when preventive maintenance is due. If a device is dangerously overheated, it will shut down automatically. Magnetic bumps or strips embedded in the machine may contain information like that in a repair manual. Downloaded to a personal computer, they might provide easy-to-follow instructions in a menu-like format. No longer would consumers need to search for an owner’s manual which might have been thrown out or misplaced. Whirlpool, which spends an average of $50 on each warranty service call, saves a considerable sum of money when information downloaded to the Internet tells the service technician which repair parts to bring. “You haven’t seen anything yet,” a Wall Street Journal article exclaimed. “Plug a constellation of devices into the Internet and the myriad gadgets of everyday life will get smarter and more useful. When people hook up their PCs to the World Wide Web, they transform glorified typewriters into windows on a world of information.”
Education and Training
Many children in the United States are exposed to computers in day-care facilities. Computer instruction becomes better organized in kindergarten and first grade. Games like Putt-Putt show preschoolers how adults handle daily living routines. The Mario Brothers’ typing game teaches typing skills. There are games to teach the ABC’s and games to teach math. Children learn about geography while playing detective in a game which sends them out on investigative assignments. In the early 1980s, educators began to develop a type of instruction that linked the Apple II computer to video playback machines. The idea was that, like video games, these computer-based systems would teach skills or convey knowledge as a by-product of entertainment. Students would work alone at the terminals on an assignment. If they failed to complete the assignment in time, a buzzer would sound which would alert a roving teacher to the fact that these individuals needed extra help. Some computer exercises functioned like tests which required students to remember information and immediately correct wrong answers. The computer blends sights, sounds, and texts into a set of expressions which can be customized to suit the individual’s learning style. Today, on average, U.S. schools have one computer per 7.8 students. Nine out of ten schools are hooked to the Internet.
In some situations, computer-based teaching has replaced traditional modes of instruction. Generally this takes place when real-life training would be too expensive or dangerous to offer on a regular basis. For example, jet pilots are normally trained in flight simulators which display appropriate visual scenery while a student pilot works the control panel. Virtual-reality machines have helped to train police officers to make the right split-second decisions when considering whether or not to shoot an armed suspect. Inexperienced surgeons can make their learning mistakes while operating on virtual rather than real patients. The U.S. Army developed the SIMNET system to allow as many as one thousand persons at a time to engaged in a simulated tank battle. Students at the Fort Knox Armor School learn military teamwork and artillery skills on computer-controlled equipment instead of tearing up nearby terrain. In virtual-reality machines, sensors attached to the viewer’s body send signals to the computer that change the scenery in response to bodily motions. If one’s head turns to the left, a new panorama will appear on the screen. The experience of watching electronic images respond to one’s own physical movement enhances the illusion that one is participating in an actual event.
Computer technicians have been experimenting with an application known as “augmented reality” which supplies work-related knowledge in real time. The workers wear glasses upon which diagrams, parts lists, and instructions are projected while they are performing work. Boeing thinks that this technology will help aircraft engine mechanics do their jobs more skillfully. The transparent glasses permit both real-life vision and computer-generated images such as the engine’s interior view. A type of software known as “electronic performance support systems” (EPSS) is being used by some U.S. companies to help lightly trained workers perform complex technical work. This software automates much of the knowledge used in job routines and provides on-the-spot instructions for human workers to figure out the rest. The National Association of Security Dealers has a program, CornerStone, which helps perform an audit of a securities firm. It takes an auditor through the major procedures step by step disclosing key ratios that might indicate securities violations. NASD estimates that use of CornerStone has cut average training time for employees from 2 1/2 years to one year. PricewaterhouseCoopers, a public-accounting firm, has used EPSS to train consultants. This software is especially good at mastering arcane detail.
As computer applications such as EPSS find their way to the business world, more relatively inexperienced job applicants may become qualified to fill technical and professional positions. That will increase the pool of applicants competing for a given position, which, with fixed demand, would tend to depress the wage offering. The adage, “what you earn is a function of what you can learn”, may become less apt. Predictably, the wage differential between workers with and without college degrees - currently 50 percent - will narrow as the knowledge which a prospective employee brings to the job becomes less critical. The narrowing of the wage gap may, in turn, dampen young people’s interest in continuing their educations. And so, computerized work may weaken one of the main foundations of the third civilization, which is the use of education to advance oneself in a career. Computers may do to the college-educated worker of the 21st century what industrial and office machines did to the high-school graduate early in the 20th century: Remove the element of personal knowledge and skill from jobs and make the working person a tender of machines.
Prediction by Analogy
Past civilizations, which have already run their course, can suggest the future of existing civilizations. The foregoing discussion has been based upon extrapolation from current trends. Events may or may not unfold as predicted. Now, in the remaining part of this chapter, we will follow up on the idea that the arrival of a new civilization brings changes to institutions formed both in the previous epoch and two epochs earlier. The fifth civilization, driven by computer technology, will shake the foundations of the current society in ways as yet unseen. If the past is any indication, one can anticipate that, on one hand, the news and entertainment media and, on the other, institutions of commerce and education will be caught in the vortex of fundamental change. Already a reaction seems to be taking place against empires of the entertainment culture. Broadcast entertainment is dissolving into a myriad of specialized communications. Bearing in mind that the creative energies of CivIV are not yet fully spent, this book speculates how those events will ultimately play. With respect to the second area of prediction, one can look to a transformation of institutions associated with CivIII. A profound democratization may affect institutions dating back to Renaissance times. While the discussion is speculative, we can at least focus upon areas of expected change.
New Ways of Deciding how to Buy Consumer Products
A person’s material needs are met by consumer products placed on the market. Each consumer must decide for himself or herself which products, among many, to buy. In making that decision, three considerations need to be addressed: (1) The product should meet the consumer’s needs as closely as possible. (2) The product should carry the lowest possible price. (3) The product should be convenient to purchase and deliver. Under the current system, product decisionmaking is influenced by paid advertisements in the media, by product displays in stores, and by other devices which attract attention as a person may be thinking of other things. Computer technology allows information about products to come to the consumer when he or she is focused on their need. This is a more intelligent way to buy products. The process serves the consumer rather than purveyors of merchandise.
The thought that a person needs to buy a particular product to suit a certain purpose in life normally arises from habits of upbringing. Such needs and wants arise from observation of others and from information obtained by word of mouth. In addition, paid commercials in the entertainment media plant ideas about branded products in relation to personal lifestyle. Such an approach to consumer buying is mostly hit-or-miss. A better approach might be to present information on Websites which address particular areas of life experience. Knowledge presented on the Internet would guide consumers to the right consumer products used in those contexts. For example, one such presentation might disclose what a homeowner needs to know to maintain the heating system in a house. The discussion would include explanations of commercial products to meet each need. Like television infomercials, these presentations would be visual and personal. Unlike the infomercials, they would not be directed towards selling any particular product but, instead, would inform consumers of the range of products available and suggest ways to choose intelligently between them. Once consumers begin to trust these various Websites, their proprietors would exercise a certain power, like that of the television networks today, in commanding people’s attention.
The bewildering variety of technically advanced products suggests a need to standardize product information in computer data bases. A beginning step might be to create a universal code number which would uniquely identify each consumer product in general use today. A segment of that code might identify its manufacturer. Complete product information would become available by typing the universal code number in appropriate places on a Website. Directed to a file for the particular product, the consumer could move about clicking on topics of interest. If the product malfunctions or needs repairs, answers to simple questions about the malfunction might bring explanatory texts to the screen. To type in certain keywords would direct a person to appropriate places in the text. Information downloaded from the product itself would help to narrow the search for instructions to solve the problem at hand. Computers make it possible to store in one place detailed information concerning the use, repair, technical specifications, and warranty protection about every major commercial product. Nothing needs to become lost or forgotten.
Carrying this concept a step further, one can imagine that the Internet might become a kind of electronic “Yellow Pages” to help consumers find local suppliers of products that they wished to buy. Given the name of a product or its universal product-code number, a search engine might explore the Websites of vendors in the area to learn which merchants carried the product and at what price. Each merchant might regularly upload data from the store’s inventory file to its Website. The consumer’s personal computer might list in ascending order of price all retail outlets within a certain geographical range which had the desired product in stock, giving their telephone numbers and street addresses. The computer might also disclose pertinent information concerning competing products. Computers linked to the Internet could thus provide a means of quick comparison shopping. This would take the guesswork out of shopping and force merchants to offer low prices in order to compete.
Another aspect of shopping is delivery of a product. How far the customer must travel to view or take possession of products becomes a factor in purchasing decisions. The computer can help to minimize this effort. Computer-based geographic information systems can relate two points on a map to a network of roads and calculate expected travel times between them. The computer knows the customer’s home location and the vendor’s business location from their respective telephone numbers. Given those two pieces of information, it can then calculate travel times between the vendor’s and customer’s locations from a file with geographical information. So customers can also do comparison shopping on the basis of delivery convenience. Once purchase transactions are entered into a computer, the information becomes available for many purposes.
Ultimately, computers may eliminate the need for individual customers to travel far from their homes to obtain merchandise. The “Streamline” model of shopping for groceries in Boston suburbs suggests a distribution method which could be applied to many other kinds of products. Instead of traveling to a store to view merchandise, place orders, and take possession of these products, customers might obtain information about products on the Internet and order the products online. The seller might arrange for delivery of products to the customer through a network of neighborhood depots. Two or three times a day, vendors might deliver ordered merchandise to trucks or vans which would make the rounds of urban neighborhoods, dropping the products off at the depots where customers could pick them up at their convenience. Besides improving transportation efficiency, this arrangement would eliminate the need for stores to carry a large inventory of goods for display purposes. The whole apparatus of contemporary retailing, including stores and shopping malls, would be called into question by this new method of displaying and delivering consumer products.
At stake here is nothing less than erosion of the connection between mass entertainment and sale of commercial products which underpins CivIV. If the customer knows how to obtain online the best products at the lowest possible price, why on earth would anyone follow some other method of making product decisions? Why base purchasing decisions on impressionistic commercials about a wide range of consumer products when persons prepared to buy a certain product can go straight to the source of its information and find out exactly what they need to know? Letting television entertainment determine one’s choice of consumer products makes sense only when the customer has no other place to turn. To the extent that people do their shopping on the Internet, the market will be forced to deliver a more suitable product at a more favorable price because customers will be able to compare many alternatives. Purchasing decisions can then be made free of the hoopla and hype that has characterized modern merchandising. The excessive, wasteful purchasing that arises from ignorance of product or price due to the free market’s huge knowledge requirement can be kept to a minimum.
The average American living in a city with a population of one million persons must pick and choose between as many as one million different commercial products. In the face of this awesome variety, the customer must somehow find products to satisfy each want or need. Television commercials, which occupy roughly 18% of total broadcast time, push products at people who happen to be paying attention to something else. This is, at least, one way of becoming informed about consumer products. If a better way comes along, people may still watch commercial television for the sake of the free entertainment but will turn to the more sensible alternative when it comes time to buy something. Prospective advertisers, recognizing the reduced effectiveness of the commercials, will become less interested in underwriting the cost of television programs. Entertainment will then have to find some other means of financial support.
There is no reason why every mentally capable person in the industrialized world should not receive a high-quality education at a reasonable price. Cost should be no object. The knowledge itself is expertly presented in books. For at most several hundred dollars a year, one could own all the books that one could comfortably read and digest in any field of interest. Books can be recycled or borrowed for free from public libraries. Of course, most people need reinforcement of visual learning through classroom presentations and spoken discussions. For this part of the lesson, students could listen to audiotapes. Someone could read books aloud or retrace their themes in a recorded discussion. Better still, skilled teachers could perform on videotape. The tapes could record classroom scenes. Someone sitting in front of a large-screen, high-definition television set hooked up to a VCR would receive as much instructional experience from watching a videotape as that which could be had from attending a class. The only thing missing would be that the student could not ask the teacher any questions or be questioned. The fear of being caught unprepared would also be missing.
The element of interactivity, missing in books and videotapes, is among the computer’s capabilities. This electronic machine permits two-way communication between teacher and learner. Therefore, the gap between an actual teaching experience and a taped replay can be at least partially plugged. Once a successful teaching routine is captured in a computer memory, the performance supplied by a human teacher can give way to an automated procedure. Machine-based instruction can be inexpensively reproduced and distributed to students. However, the interactive function of teaching is not well handled by machines in the current state of their technology. Especially for younger children who must be taught by spoken words and personal example, real-life teachers are better instructors than electronic gadgets with mechanical interfaces and screens. The gap may narrow as new machines are developed with improved visual capabilities and voice-recognition features. Once computer software reaches the point of permitting an intelligent conversation in the English language, the two modes of teaching may appreciably converge.
Of course, we are not yet there. The idea of parking seven-year-olds in front of personal computers where they spend hours staring at a small screen and typing in answers to clunky questions is justifiably disturbing to many people. The average computer screen presents a grainy, two-dimensional image that permits thirty degrees of vertical and forty degrees of horizontal vision. That compares with grainless, three-dimensional images seen in a normal range of 155 vertical and 185 horizontal degrees in real life. The student’s interface with the computer might be a keyboard, mouse, button, knob, ball, joystick, wheel, or touch screen. Yet, technological advances in large-screen and high-resolution television will spill over into the area of computer monitors and screens. Computers which recognize spoken words will be improved and become more widely used. The technical barriers to simulating a lifelike classroom situation will, in time, be greatly reduced. Virtual-reality features will become available. A final ingredient needed to bridge the gap will be the creative vision to discover new ways of exploiting the teaching potential of computer-based technologies as D.W. Griffith once pioneered film techniques. Artist-educators of the future will surely rise to the challenge of creating an experience which is both educational and personally stimulating .
The education establishment has begun to recognize that educators who know how to teach are as valuable as skilled researchers. Larry Rudnick, an astronomy professor at the University of Minnesota, has been recognized as an effective teacher. His approach to teaching is, he said, “willingness to learn, to listen to students and to change,” recognizing that different people learn in different ways. In the middle of the semester, Prof. Rudnick surveys students about his course and makes mid-course adjustments. He admits to having stolen good teaching ideas from others. His classroom performance mixes lecturing, blackboard diagrams, slide presentations, and audiotapes. The question is whether the expertise which a human teacher has acquired from classroom experience can be transferred to a computer’s memory. Clearly, those types of electronic media which support the entertainment culture are insufficiently flexible to provide the tailored instruction that Prof. Rudnick and other outstanding teachers have put into their courses. Multimedia computer software does have that capability.
If teaching is to be perfected, its product must be able to be multiplied and expanded to reach larger audiences. Then resources will become available to polish its expressions to a high degree. Then we can see, on a broad scale, what type of lesson works. The need for standardized, high-quality lessons dictates that the thrust of education move beyond the human teacher to a machine-based system. The skills of an individual teacher perish when that person leaves, but teaching routines which can be stored in a computer’s memory last indefinitely. The most important educational lesson is to teach children how to speak. Since parents are typically the teachers, it is critical that society allow them enough time away from work for verbal interaction regularly to take place within a family setting. The company of other children also stimulates learning by example. At higher levels of education, the computer can draw upon its limitless fund of knowledge to enrich the teaching experience. Pimentel and Teixeira have written: “Someday, teachers will be able to take students to the bottom of the ocean without leaving their classroom. Students will play with atoms and make their own molecules in VR (virtual reality) to experience chemistry, instead of just reading about it.”
Conventional education is labor-intensive. A live teacher delivers a lecture to perhaps thirty students in a classroom, asks questions to see what the students have learned, and gives answers to the questions. Periodic tests tell how well the lesson has been remembered. To the extent that computer-based systems replicate the classroom experience, education is no longer limited by class size or by a teacher’s capacity to deal individually with a certain number of students. All students can have access to the very best teachers and receive frequent feedback from them. Present technology requires students to type in their responses to questions or click on items appearing in a list or menu. Because computers can store information about the user’s key strokes, they can monitor responses to questions and assess how well the students have learned their lessons. Testing can take place whenever students are engaged in a learning exercise, not just during official “tests”. All this has the potential to revolutionize the teaching process.
Knowledge Alienated from Workers
Today’s paradigm holds that extensive education is needed to handle the intellectually more challenging kinds of work found in a technologically advanced society. Knowledge-based occupations require more education and training. That may not necessarily be the case. Because an occupation involves a large component of knowledge does not mean that a human being has to provide it. Some of the knowledge can be supplied by computers. At one time, manual labor was an element in most occupations. Power tools and equipment, which supplement or replace muscular exertions, have changed the nature of blue-collar work. Henry Ford’s assembly line showed that in large-scale productions it was helpful to coordinate the flow of parts to workers who would install them on products. The parts arrived on overhead conveyor belts which dropped them onto the product as needed. Information and knowledge are today like those parts which were delivered to the assembly line. Computers are like the power tools. Employers can improve the efficiency of white-collar work by rationalizing the operation, identifying and defining the knowledge that is needed at each point, and arranging for its delivery to a worker just in time to be used.
Data-processing systems lay out the knowledge requirements for calculation by a computer. Flow charts show how one piece of information connects with another. The computer stupidly follows this scheme and the task is done. The next step, then, is to bring the human being into the flow of information processing. While doing a job, a worker knows what to do at each point in the work routine. This is knowledge become habit, born of long practice. The knowledge-laden techniques could be codified in some way. Theoretically, each person’s work could be analyzed and arranged in logical steps like information in flow charts. Computers could store the required knowledge and spit it out at appropriate times, reminding an employee of what to do next. Computer output could provide complete information needed to handle the work at each stage. In that case, even an inexperienced person could do complex work with reasonable competence. Knowledge-intensive managerial or professional work may require a bit more preparation, but even this can be formulated in a work routine. Each job carries a spectral shadow, which is the knowledge supporting its performance. The computer can hold this pattern of work performance in its memory as an intangible asset, drawing upon it as needed.
If offices of the future deliver just-in-time knowledge to employees, it means that the people who work there are not required to bring the knowledge with them to their job. It means that, except for basic literacy and math skills, prior education is largely unneeded. Workers would not have to remember an entire work routine, but only enough to handle the part which the computer has brought to their attention. No doubt, higher-level work positions demand a breadth of knowledge and flexibility of thinking that do not lend themselves so well to this kind of treatment. Intellectually creative functions involve unprogrammable experimentation and intuitive solutions. Yet, though a certain part of work performance must be left to human experience, more job skills can be reduced to discrete points of knowledge than their possessors may want to admit. Besides self-interest and pride, an obstacle to computerization is that busy, important people generally do not have the time to sit down with a scribe and recall everything that they do. That would take too much self-conscious reflection. The trick is to record the knowledge of work in some effortless way while a person is doing it. Those who work with computers, for instance, leave a record of keystrokes which can be automatically retrieved.
Much of the knowledge actually required in careers is of a utilitarian variety. No one needs to know Einstein’s theory of relativity or the themes of Shakespearean plays. Instead, there is a need to understand the comparative merits and technical specifications of particular commercial products or systems. Programmer analysts are hired not because they know the principles of computers as such but because they know UNIX, HTML, Windows 95, Java, or another type of software. This is a relatively unglamorous type of knowledge. Because commercial systems come and go, frontloading the knowledge into a student’s mind does not make sense. While there is no question that knowledge is an essential element in performing work and that employers must pay the going rate to obtain it, it does not follow that this knowledge resides only in certain specially trained or experienced persons. The technology exists to put knowledge in a form that can be accessed by persons of mechanical talents to produce a quick transfer. Temporarily certain individuals will have this knowledge ready to go. In the long run, however, no one can claim a personal distinction on the basis of possessing knowledge. The knowledge itself is alienable from persons.
If work-related knowledge is pried loose from the persons who developed it, then the worker’s position as a unique knowledge-laden commodity which fetches a certain price on the market is threatened. Who owns the knowledge to do a certain job, the employee or employer? If the employee, it is a possession that may have little use beyond the employer’s enterprise. If the employer, there would seem to be little justification for paying an employee a premium wage for possessing it. As computers are increasingly used in business, more work-related knowledge will be put into a form that can be extracted from individual workers and made accessible to others. Objectified knowledge, which is removed from an employee’s mind, will then seem to belong more to the employer, especially if it was acquired on company time. Possession of this knowledge would be like having use of any company-owned tool.
Some will say that the future looks bleak if working people are stripped of the one possession that gives them hope and security. If denied the ability to advance in a career through education and acquisition of superior knowledge, what do people have left? They have privileges of incumbency. Failing that, they have their humanity held in common with the managers and owners of the machines. They have their political rights which translate into the power to trump legal and business arrangements. Against the trend of contemporary political thinking, the ultimate answer must be to regard business-related knowledge as the common property of humanity. Henry Ford once said: “All so-called private fortunes are nothing less than public reserves. I have noticed that those who work exclusively for money ... do not retain it unless they continue the use of it for the public.” This statement bespeaks the attitude of creative capitalism. Uncreative capitalism, of course, has a different point of view. Here business managers are tight-fisted in dealing with employees and customers but quite generous when it comes to themselves. It is not just business executives but lawyers, doctors, educators, union members, assorted administrators and professionals, and many others who exhibit tendencies of greed.
Organized labor has exerted a check upon abuses of the managerial class. However, U.S. unions are weakened by declining memberships and a failure to raise issues on behalf of the larger community. Government, too, might challenge unfettered business power. Influenced by campaign contributions and free-market ideologies, current political fashions run in another direction. Values-forming institutions such as religion and the communications media have agendas unrelated to this type of concern. Another source of hope might be the educational sector. Unlikely as it might seem, this may be a promising place to turn public opinion around on questions of responsibility. If many who occupy leading positions in our society are socially irresponsible, a certain amount of the blame can be laid at the feet of the people who educated them. The growing disparity of incomes is, in large part, product of an attitude that people are differentiated from each other by skills imparted through education. The idea that some people have much higher incomes than others because of their prolonged or specialized education or their competitive worth in the free market will be shown to be spurious once the knowledge component is rationalized.
The fact is that progress in computers and other productive technologies could open up a better life for all people. Greater production efficiency and elimination of waste could provide more abundant output while reducing the amount of human labor required to have it. The fact that we have instead chosen longer hours, greater inequality of incomes, and more waste bears witness to the selfishness of a power elite which has diverted the fruits of production improvement to its own use. Many of these people are highly educated. They are persuaded that they deserve disproportionate wealth because of economic merit. Let their claim to advancement by superior knowledge be stripped away and they may recover some humility. For, it is not just blue-collar workers who are displaced by labor-saving technologies. If education is advocated primarily as a means of economic self-advancement, then, of course, we will have managers and professionals who loot the public. They may have to do this to pay back their student loans. But if the institution is driven by a spirit of inquiry and love of truth, and if tuitions are cheaper, then its graduates accept careers that include some element of self-sacrifice. Plato’s thought that students of philosophy will learn to love sublime ideas brings education back to a sound footing.
Learning has never been the entire purpose of education. Social mobility has been a factor as well. The social historian, J.C. Furnas, wrote of colleges in 19th century America: “As colleges and universities fanned out toward the Mississippi, the prestige a boy acquired from having been to college came to outweigh considerations of what he might have learned there. To have been able to send him there was the outward and visible sign of economic arrival.” An upwardly mobile American might gain a certain satisfaction in sending his son to attend school with the sons of the Cabots, Vanderbilts, and Saltonstalls. Soon enough, the idea caught on that the same opportunities ought to be extended to poor but meritorious students. Soon there was a push to make a college education available to everyone. However, if social mobility is the purpose of attending college, a system of universal education is self-defeating. Not everyone in society can be upwardly mobile.
The computer, an information-crunching machine, has an infinite capacity to deliver knowledge. To the extent that computerized lessons replace live experiences in the classroom, then high-quality education is no longer limited by class size or a teacher’s ability to deal individually with students. There are, then, no schools that are better than the rest. Suddenly outstanding teachers become available in every field. Like any commodity, education becomes cheap when supply exceeds demand. Computers, fulfilling their potential, have the capacity to deliver an unlimited supply of superb education. It is only through scarcity that this becomes expensive. As a rule, the capitalist system is able to meet marketplace demand for any machine-built product. So it will be possible to increase the quantity of education to meet any level of demand. That means that, in the coming age of computers, everyone who wants it can have the same brand of high-quality education. No student need ever be rejected for admission to this type of college. That being the case, the fact that someone has attended a particular institution of learning ought not to confer any competitive advantage. Education ceases to be a factor in social stratification.
Of course, some learning is required for young people to start careers. Schools will have to deliver this product in a way which can be measured and verified. Beyond that, the idea that successful completion of a four-year program of study or of a particular package of professional training is needed for success in careers is largely a myth. If it were true that an academic degree indicates mental proficiency or the “stick-to-itness” needed to compete in today’s complex economic environment, then how could a college drop-out like Bill Gates go on to become the world’s richest man before the age of 40 in founding and managing a firm on the cutting edge of technology? There are just too many examples like this of persons with unimpressive academic records who later amass fortunes, or make important inventions, or become effective managers in complex technical fields for educators to continue to make a plausible argument about the need for their particular service to prepare for successful performance in a career.
The more that machines can produce a high-quality educational experience, the easier it will become to transfer work-related knowledge to previously unskilled individuals. The training function will become relatively cheap. If a large number of persons are trained in the same work function, the supply of persons able to handle the function increases and, all else being equal, wages drop. That has implications for schools which have sold themselves on the basis of bestowing higher lifetime earnings upon students in exchange for acquiring an academic degree. If graduates of expensive colleges find themselves competing on an equal footing with persons who have had a cheap computer-based education, then these more expensive institutions may fail to attract the desired number of students and may themselves need to shift into a cost-cutting mode.
It costs students an average of $20,000 per year in tuition, room, and board to attend a private, four-year college in the United States, and $8,000 year for a public four-year college. Harvard charges $31,000. College tuition costs have increased twice as fast as inflation during the past two decades. The cost of higher education includes not only the direct outlay for tuition, room, and board (minus financial aid received) but also the lost opportunity to earn income during those four years and to start a career at a time of energetic, impressionable youth. In cold financial terms, the $80,000 that a student, parents, or other benefactor puts towards education at a private four-year college could provide a comfortable endowment for purchasing a house, starting a business, or weathering the inevitable job changes during a career. On the benefit side, the student who graduates from college has instant credibility with employers. In a highly competitive job environment, academic degrees may be demanded for any career position with growth potential. All too often, however, one hears of college graduates who cannot find suitable jobs despite the investment which they made in their educations. Persons with Ph.D.’s are driving taxi cabs or working as file clerks. The education process comes, of course, with no guarantees.
A growing segment of college-age youth in the United States, especially young men, has chosen not to pursue a college education but instead take advantage of the immediate opportunities for high-paying employment that exist in today’s booming economy. The women, in contrast, have continued to move in lockstep toward obtaining an academic degree. As a result, 57 percent of American students who earned bachelor’s degrees in 1999 were women, compared with 43 percent in 1970 and 24 percent in 1950. Young males are increasingly attracted to technical jobs which can be entered after a quick period of training yet offer a good starting salary. When some computer positions pay as much as $75,000 or $100,000 after a few years on the job, this becomes an attractive alternative to spending the same time in pursuit of an academic degree. Traditionalists predict that the males are being shortsighted and eventually the advantage of continuing one’s education in terms of higher lifetime earnings will become clear. On the other hand, we could be in the midst of a paradigm shift in which traditional types of education lose both their luster and ability to deliver higher incomes.
The Idea of a University
Predictably, colleges and universities will need to reinvent themselves to keep their place in society. They will have to try harder to appeal both to students and employers. For students, who are their immediate customers, they can offer the following improvements: First, they can reduce the cost of the educational process by applying computer and other technology to a greater extent and by setting fees and tuitions at a fair mark-up over cost. Second, they can offer teaching in a variety of sizes and shapes, as suits the students’ individual needs, and confer credit accordingly. Third, they can assume continuing responsibility for their graduates’ economic well-being. They can assume the additional function of representing their graduates to employers. This could take the more limited form of becoming like an employment agency which finds jobs for its clients and, once they are hired, leaves them in another’s charge. More ambitiously, it could take the form of becoming the graduates’ nominal employer, like a temp agency. The university might assign people to work at various businesses but retain a loose supervisory role, especially as regards training and personnel functions.
For business firms, such universities would offer several advantages: First, the more standardized curricula and evaluation procedures would make it safer for employers to hire their graduates. The schooling would be a known quantity. Second, the reduced cost of the education would ease expectations of starting salaries. Third, the universities would have a closer working relationship with employers. Having educated these graduates, they would have more intimate knowledge of an individual’s educational record. That would allow them to make better referrals to positions and assure employers of obtaining more honest and accurate information. Fourth, as a temp agency, they could provide workers to businesses on a basis which is relatively free of risk. If a particular worker did not perform adequately, the university would take him back and furnish a replacement. The discharged person could go back to school for additional training or counseling and be made ready for a new assignment. Fifth, they could free businesses of handling functions such as payrolls and benefits. They could provide specialized career training.
In some respects, such a university might also assume the function of a labor union. While forswearing strikes and other contentious actions, the educational association might represent its members in their contractual relationships with employers and in formulating career plans. It might become a political force to change attitudes and promote the betterment of working people. The association might not object if employers wished to hire their graduates as employees to lock them into a more permanent relationship. Having employment responsibilities, this university would be in close touch with employers and thus be able to design courses which meet real occupational needs. The emerging practice of lifelong learning and career change would be handled with ease. Pension and vacation benefits, accrued by years of service, would become portable. Even so, this would not be a trade school or an extension of corporate training but a university. Its purpose would be to give status, place, and security to men and women currently set adrift in a sea of shifting employment requirements.
An educational institution has several functions. First and foremost would be the teaching of basic skills. Reading, writing, and arithmetic - the 3 Rs - comprise the core of skills to be taught at the elementary-school level. Such additional skills as typing, use of computers and calculating machines, personal grooming, diet and health, athletics, and public speaking are also appropriate subjects to be taught in schools. A second function, which tends to be reserved for higher levels of schooling, has to do with transmitting the community’s cultural heritage. Subjects which fall into this category include history, literature, languages, science, music and art, philosophy, and law. College curricula have traditionally focused upon them. Beyond this, there is an area of learning which has to do with the soul of the institution and its individual students. It would include subjects related to personal values. Religion, ethics, and social consciousness would fall into this category. Education generally instills an appreciation for truth. Persons who are sincere and accomplished seekers of truth find an honorable place within this community. Financial endowments are established to support their labors. Hierarchies distinguish the truthseekers’ accomplishments at various levels.
Beyond this, there are values of a more personal nature. The guiding principle of a values curriculum is that life’s most important values are self-chosen. No educator “educates” students in what they should believe or esteem. On the other hand, a common value of any community must be to respect the boundaries of others. There should be a consensus to respect other peoples’ opinions even while perhaps disagreeing with them. Another value might be to encourage each person to find a basis of self-pride. It would encourage individuals to take pride in their race, gender, religion, nationality, and social background, whatever it might be, and would give them resources to deepen their understanding of such matters. Religious teachings, if presented in an unobtrusive and respectful manner, would find acceptance in this type of pluralistic community. Values curricula should teach how to fight fairly, how to be polite, how to assert one’s own legitimate interest but give way to others’ legitimate concerns. It is not that people should be taught not to be selfish but that they should learn to recognize their own selfishness and accept certain limits.
The Quest of Self-Definition
Education in the computer age can take a cue from Socrates’ instruction: Know thyself. People today are quite interested in knowing who they are. That desire is manifested in the popular interest in astrological signs which are said to be associated with certain character traits. Knowledge of personal self-identity is an object of psychological testing. Such knowledge presumably helps them to pick suitable roles in real life. Direct marketers analyze customer data to develop profiles of persons likely to buy certain products. The police identify criminal suspects through profiles of persons likely to commit crimes. Each of us is on somebody’s list as exhibiting a type of personality that fits in with some exploitative purpose. But people are also interested in simply knowing who they are. If one has a reasonable self-pride, there is a joy in looking into the mirror and seeing one’s own reflection.
Human personality is such a fragile construct that abstractions purporting to describe it hardly belong to the realm of serious science. Psychological testing may involve the use of concepts that seem stupid or contrived. Methods used to compile test scores may themselves dictate the result. Moreover, persons taking the psychological tests may not have a clear idea of their own position with respect to some of the questions; and the quality of information obtained from such testing cannot rise above what was contributed. It may be that, in the future, psychological tests will need to involve more active participation on the part of the people being tested. The test subjects will need to search their hearts and minds to decide what type of information best indicates their own personality. It may be, for instance, that they know they like a particular song, or identify quite strongly with a particular historical figure, or are interested in a hobby. Whatever resonates most clearly within them can be a guide to constructing self-portraits.
Education can facilitate definitions of personal self-identity. With the aid of computers and other tools, it can bring together groups of like-minded individuals to explore their self-chosen ways. Any commitment of time to do or learn something pushes a person in a particular direction to become something. Individuals often want to become what they can do well and for which they may have received personal recognition. Tests, contests, and competitions, which celebrate the winners, can build self-esteem. Too often, however, education functions in a rejection mode. The fear of becoming a failure drives children to learn too much too fast. This pressure-cooker education might make sense if successful career work depended on cramming as much knowledge as possible into one’s head, but not if the goal is self-discovery. For that, a person needs a solid background of childhood experience where individuality runs free. If young people are to discover where their true interests lie, they must be allowed room space to flounder and make their own mistakes. Because the impetus for self-discovery comes from within, there is something to be said for slack which loosens the reins of direction and lets children be.
The quest of self-identity presents a challenge which can be met by a sampling of experiences or by dramatic role-playing. Some virtual-reality games have prepared children to project themselves imaginatively into roles. They become lifelike characters interacting with one another on the screen. Multimedia computers make it easy to escape to a personal fantasy world which, though artificial, offers real opportunities for learning. Even without the technology, schools should be a place to experience variety before one is forced to narrow down to a specialty. It is said that success in life involves, in baseball parlance, “going with one’s best pitch,” and doing this with some frequency. That makes it all the more important to discover from varied experience what are one’s strengths and where one’s true interests lie.
The Possibility of Catastrophe
It is possible that CivV might not turn out as this or any prediction would anticipate. The thrust of world history to date has been progress defined in terms of growth in human populations, advancing technologies, and increased wealth and knowledge. That could change if events took an unfortunate turn. For instance, even though the Cold War has ended, humanity could still be obliterated by a nuclear explosion. More than twenty-five nations are developing nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons and have ways to deliver them. Even if national governments kept the problem under control, crime syndicates or terrorist groups could acquire these weapons. Problems such as overpopulation and environmental pollution also hang over the future. The “greenhouse effect”, a consequence of industrialization, could heat the earth’s temperature to the point of turning habitable areas into desert while submerging others in oceanic waters. Depletion of the ozone layer could expose the human population to dangerous radiation. Raw materials upon which our way of life depends could be significantly depleted.
Technology, beneficial in the short term, has produced some disturbing long-term consequences. Medicine has brought humane relief to sick people, but it has also kept alive many persons who might otherwise have died. Their survival brings the possible birth of offspring with similar characteristics. Nature’s way of flushing out genetic weaknesses within the human population is thereby nullified. Over the long term there would appear to be a race between advancing medical technology and naturally deteriorating health. A related problem is that the frequent treatment of illness with antibiotic drugs may have served to create new strains of drug-resistant viruses and germs. Some patients who are prescribed these drugs fail to take the full dose of medicine to knock out the germs. As a result, the hardiest germs survive and multiply, making the next round of illness even more difficult to treat. A strain of infection discovered recently in Japan has become resistant to vancomycin, medicine’s drug of last resort. A plague based on any of these hardy microbes would be devastating.
Perverse incentives in our society also work to reduce the level of human intelligence. An advanced education, presumably reserved for the community’s most intelligent persons, serves to keep intelligent young men and women from marrying at an early age. Women postpone marriage and childbearing as society encourages them to become educated and pursue a career. If the more intelligent individuals are systematically held back from contributing to the gene pool while those less intelligent breed freely, average intelligence will decline over time. The same effect is achieved by methods traditionally used to select men for military service. National governments have drafted the healthy men and rejected those with mental or physical problems. Why society would want its healthier specimens to become cannon fodder while sparing the less healthy so that they might become the next generation of parents is incomprehensible.
Foreseeably, the deterioration of human health and intelligence will continue, though perhaps at a pace too slow to have a visible impact. Advances in technological knowledge may soften the impact somewhat. But, as technology becomes more complex, human intelligence would meanwhile be weakening. Civilization may be on a collision course between these two trends. Worldly affairs may become so complicated that the intelligence to solve problems is overwhelmed. That, at least, is how humanity in its natural state might face the future. But humanity is not in a natural state; it has machines to assist in overcoming difficulties which nature has imposed. That is a new and historic factor which affects life on this planet. If, in a pessimistic scenario, human populations are ravaged by thermonuclear radiation or deadly disease, the earth might be inherited by insects, bacteria, or another type of organism. Alternatively, the next dominant species might be a race of intelligent machines.
Once before, the earth experienced massive poisoning by a species inhabiting its surface. About three billion years ago, single-cell plants which had developed a capacity for photosynthesis “polluted” the environment by releasing free oxygen into the air. New forms of animal life evolved which metabolized this oxygen and created the balance of atmospheric gases that we have today. Now, in the last two hundred years, humanity has fast been turning the earth into a waste dump. Either living species will appear which feed upon this waste, or intelligent organisms or machines immune to its deadly influence will. A possibility to be considered is that computers may lead the way to this new age. Computers may allow man to reinvent himself by altering his own DNA. Alternatively, man may himself become fused with machines.
A Frankenstein Civilization
Medieval Jews living in an oppressive society entertained themselves with thoughts of the “golem”, a creature made of clay to which rabbis had given life by uttering a charm. Rabbi Low in 16th century Prague was said to have made one, but he was forced to destroy the creature when it ran wild. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, wife of the English poet, wrote a book, Frankenstein, in which a German student who knew the secret of infusing inanimate materials with life created an artificial being. This monster turned on its creator and destroyed him. In 1921, a Czech dramatist, Karel Capek, wrote a play about a machine which tirelessly performed labor. The term, “robot”, comes from that play. And so the fifth epoch begins with myths or literary works that imagine the creation of artificial human-like beings. One can call it the “Frankenstein civilization”. The title suggests that man will artificially re-create himself. This could happen in several ways: Man might create a machine version of his own mind. He might re-make his own body through genetic engineering. He might create an artificial environment in which his life functions can take place.
If this epoch has a supreme moment, it will be when humanity first encounters an alien creature whose level of intelligence equals or surpasses its own. Our first thought is that humanity might encounter space aliens who came to earth in flying saucers. That is because our historical imaginations tend to be conservative; we project past experiences upon the future. Once before, at the beginning of the third epoch, Europeans encountered a previously unknown but equally intelligent race of beings. Arawak Indians greeted Columbus and his crew when they first set foot on American soil. However, this event represented merely the reconnection of two human tribes which had been separated for thousands of years. Creatures from outer space, if such exist, would likely be of a different chemical makeup. Their intelligence could be of an entirely different order. The best known evidence that these creatures exist concerns an incident that took place in 1947, when an unidentified metallic object dropped from the skies into a field near Roswell, New Mexico. Since then, numerous people have reported observations of unidentified flying objects (UFOs), flying saucers, and the like. Spokesmen for the U.S. Government have denied knowing anything about this.
Popular interest in space aliens and explorations of outer space remains strong. However, it centers in a “Star Trek” image of space travel which is backward-looking. This is the old model of sailors (acting in this case a bit like Greek philosophers) who travel the cosmic oceans in a large boat, encountering strange peoples along the way. Predictably, the human experience of space travel will be an encounter with the very large and the very slow. Except in the sphere of intra-human communications, events will not happen at a normal pace. Distances measured in light-years are beyond the range of travel in a conventional sense. Before human beings can move even a small fraction of that distance, they may have evolved into some other creature or had meaningful encounters with fast-reproducing microbes. Human life in space will likely be confined to the narrow range of places within the solar system which have low gravity and the raw materials to fashion an environment resembling conditions on earth. Scientists suspect that the planet Mars, several moons of Saturn or Jupiter, and perhaps the earth’s own Moon might be suitable sites to support human colonies.
Like currents in the ocean, space travel will be affected by the gravitational configuration of celestial bodies. The locations of magnetic fields and radiation belts will also be important to human travelers. But the main question may be whether travel is even needed. Most travel is undertaken for the sake of delivering something or learning something. If the travel is intended to gather information about distant places, this can be obtained more cheaply by unmanned space probes than by human exploration. Machines which can endure conditions intolerable to man can communicate information to earth as well as human travelers can. Moreover, they do not mind one-way trips. Increasingly, communication would be taking the place of transportation. The human experience in space mainly would consist of communicating with other human beings. Human travel might involve the transportation of genetic materials for purposes of colonization or survival, to reduce the possibility that our species will become extinct.
It is unlikely that humanity will be able to survive in outer space unless machines mediate between us and nature. Machines, which Daniel Boorstin has called “the fourth kingdom” (after minerals, plants, and animals), will comprise a large part of our future whichever way history turns. Machines are today considered to be tools, subservient to the purposes of their human creator. Intelligent machines could change that model. When we imagine that moment in the fifth historical epoch when humanity meets an equally intelligent being, a scenario other than meeting space aliens is that humanity will have a significant encounter with intelligence born of his own technology. Perhaps, in a small way, that moment may already have arrived when, in May 1996, the “Big Blue” chess-playing computer developed by IBM beat Gary Kasparov, the world’s top-rated human chess player, in a tournament. Computers have an advantage over human intelligence in the accuracy and speed of performing certain calculations and in their ability to preserve memory and function in a harsh environment. The human brain yet retains a huge advantage in overall processing capacity. However, computer technology is rapidly improving while the brain is stuck in a slow evolutionary drift.
The goal of some computer designers is to create a machine which thinks like a human being. They approach this challenge by simulating processes believed to take place within the brain during thought. Some psychologists believe that passing signals between two neurons strengthens the synaptic connection between those neurons. Thoughts are actually patterns of strength between particular connections. Computer engineers have written algorithms to simulate learning according to this process. Computers have plotted neural positions on a map which correspond to the brain’s synaptic connections. The visual patterns bear an eerie resemblance to patterns observed on the surface of a monkey’s brain when it processes sensory experience. The human brain has over one trillion neurons which may each connect with a thousand other neurons. It is, then, no easy task to simulate brain activity by keeping track of these connections and manipulating them in various ways.
Scientists have also played Frankenstein by studying and manipulating the chemical basis of human life. Its essential structure is formed by information stored in the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and RNA (ribonucleic acid) molecules. These complex molecules contain two intertwining strands of genetic materials, each like a string of pearls. The “pearls”, or nucleotides, are each made of a particular phosphate group and have a ringed structure called a “base”. The sequence of nucleotides carries genetic information to direct the production of proteins which create cells of a living organism. The Human Genome Project is attempting to map the entire sequence of elements in a human DNA molecule. There are about three billion bases strung together in this molecule. A supercomputer is needed to keep track of the enormous quantity of data. Geneticists who have compared the DNA molecules of several different animal species have found similarities which may indicate how particular types of thinking relate to physiological functions. Roughly 70% of a human gene is identical with that of a mouse. Within the human species itself, genes are identical to one part in a thousand.
As more knowledge is obtained about the information encoded in human genes, medical technicians can selectively intervene to alter or remove parts believed responsible for health problems. Though scientists are yet unable to create new life in a test tube, they have the knowledge to use procedures such as cloning to create living organisms from preexisting genetic materials. Conceivably genetic surgery will some day create an “improved” type of human being or a new species. Humanity, possessing finite knowledge, would then be “playing God”. Already scientific knowledge promises to deliver something like eternal life. Personal immortality of a sort has become available at a modest cost by storing frozen samples of a person’s genetic material with a firm called GeneLink. If one wishes to preserve the genetic blueprint of a dead relative, this firm will instruct funeral directors on procedures to take a sample of flesh, before it is too late, by swabbing the deceased’s mouth. Of course, personality would not come back to life unless the brain cells were preserved. However, the technology of cryogenics, which freezes the corpse so as to permit later revival, offers that.
The fifth civilization will take humanity into deeper and ever more dangerous realms of experience. One cannot now predict whether this civilization will mark the final phase of human existence or bring a further progression toward what will become a sixth and then, perhaps, a seventh or eighth epoch of world history. When the computer develops a mind of its own and, like a rebellious child, begins to go against its parents’ wishes, then we will know that the era of Frankenstein is upon us. The fact that computer software can develop a so-called “virus” suggests that man-made intelligence has taken on the qualities of an independent life form. Already, human beings are dependent on machinelike appliances to augment their sense of hearing, keep their hearts beating in a regular rhythm, and replace missing limbs. Many people need daily injections of psychotropic drugs to maintain emotional stability. Such medical developments suggest that humanity’s future may be to evolve into a man-machine hybrid.
World history will not end unless humanity ends. Progress and struggle will both continue. It may be that a part of the population will be Amish-like abstainers from medical treatment and their descendants may come to be valued as a pure and endangered species. Conflicts may then arise between the “artificial” and “natural” people. Or, it may be that elitist dictators will seize control of computer networks and threaten the mass of human populations in some way. On the other hand, the current trend towards fragmentation of experience may continue and confuse the historical picture. One would long for the heroic simplicity of the old days. At the juncture of man and machine, creative interactions will take place. Governments, religions, commerce, entertainment, and other yet unformed institutions will be around. Social hierarchies will continue to exist.
back to: worldhistory