Re: Dertouzous's _What Will be._ semi-panned

Rohit Khare (
Mon, 10 Feb 97 18:31:39 -0500

Slate has an excellent Davos review:

"The Plenary Hall is enormous, but there is standing room only when Bill
Gates addresses the full assemblage. The session is titled "Digital
Visionaries." Gates shares the podium with an MIT professor who is obviously
anxious to remind the audience that, having also authored a book on the
subject, he too can lay claim to this grand title."

Salon includes a review of his new book. I fear the worst... he's got good
connections to good ideas, but it's too easy to write mush in this category.On
the other hand, he gets to launch an entire new imprint from HarperCollins.



F U T U R E C R O C K :


"What Will Be" | By Michael Dertouzos | HarperEdge, 336 pp.

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

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

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

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

He delivers a pronouncement like "Expect video sex to become pretty popular"
as though it were a spectacular insight. In a chapter on health care he
forecasts "a veritable orgy of technical sophistication" _ and simultaneously
argues that high-tech health care visions like "guardian angels," automated
specialists and long-distance video consultations will somehow reduce the
average person's health costs.

Dertouzos' favorite label for the network of the future is "The Information
Marketplace." He likes the phrase because it emphasizes how fully the
information technology will be integrated into daily life; he seems unaware
that not every reader will respond to the word "marketplace" with
warm-and-fuzzy thoughts.

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

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

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

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

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

Mind your prescriptions for the world.
Tone down your fears of techno-change.

My response:

Listen to your editor's criticisms.
Don't hold back your pens.

Feb. 6, 1997

_ Scott Rosenberg