Stay Away

Gregory Alan Bolcer (
Fri, 30 Jul 1999 15:04:38 -0700

These things would be perfect at cocktail parties:
"Stay away, this idiot's doesn't know WTF he's talking
about and has been violent when drunk the past 88% of the time."


Orwell Checks In on the Valley
by Ayla Jean Yackley

5:05 p.m. 20.Nov.98.PST
SAN JOSE, California -- Pill boxes beep when it's
time to take your medicine. Systems play your
favorite music when you enter a room. A sensor on
your clothing detects the particles in your
co-worker's cough. "Stay away," it warns, "he has
the flu."

Gregory Benford, a physics professor at the
University of California at Irvine, spun these visions
of the future at the Cato Institute's three-day
Conference on Technology & Society, held here

If microprocessors decrease in cost to just a few
pennies by 2010, Benford predicted they will
automate the most mundane of daily activities.

Benford, who is also an author, was joined by
futurist writers David Brin, author of Startide Rising
and Vernon Vinge, author of A Fire upon the Deep,
for a morning discussion of technology's role in
creating "fictional futures."

Vinge warned that these inexpensive chips may
create a guise for government.

"While government will appear less invasive," it
may in fact own a piece of every processor, he said.
Government may conduct activities like tax
collection over personal computers, leaving citizens
with a smaller space for dissension.

Yet Vinge credited the advent of personal computers
in allaying the human fear of technology. Only
governments could own the gargantuan,
multimillion-dollar machines of the 1950s and 1960s,
which caused citizens to distrust what they could
not control.

"The PC destroyed the notion of the computer
thwarting freedom, leading to a 1984," he said, and
personal ownership has created the sense that
technology enhances freedom.

But technology can still lead to an Orwellian
scenario, said Brin, who laid out a conspiratorial
vision straight out of The X-Files.

Brin said a "surveillance society" could manifest out
of seemingly benign personal computers. As society
becomes more networked, he said, human behavior
may be tracked with less obvious methods than,
say, video surveillance. Instead, movements may be
documented by learning which Web sites are visited
or how much time is spent online.

Benford said our comfortable relationship with
personal computers may lead to a culture of
complacency, as people opt for convenience over
freedom. He described a "sissy society" that lives in

"We'll all sit in our 'friendly homes' ... and we won't
carry out the big projects," he said.

But Brin disagreed. "We'll find new challenges,
worries, and hobbies. We'll jump out of planes or go
nuts in good ways."

"Yes, but these are more personal and less
meaningful activities than human pursuits of the
past," Benford countered.

The debate among the futurists showed the lack of
consensus on technology's unfolding purposes and
pitfalls. The Cato Institute's parley continues
through Saturday.