Up a Creek in the Information Age

Astronomer Cliff Stoll is the author of "The Cuckoo's Egg" and the upcoming "High Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don't Belong in Schools." He graduated from Public School #61 in Buffalo, N.Y., where he received the coveted Blue Star for good attendance

Hot ziggity! With a splash of techno lust, it's time to dive into the new millennium. Wonder what the next century will bring? Well, one of the joys of being a physicist is that we control the space-time continuum. So hop into my time machine and I'll set the dial for Burbank, circa 2100.

With a red flash and a puff of smoke, here we are at the end of the 21st century. First thing you'll notice: We're all dead. Most of our children are dead. Our grandkids now run the country and their kids kvetch about it. They remember us about as often as we think of McKinley and the 1901 Pan-American Exposition.

What do they recall? They smile at 1999 futurists' inflated self-worth. They giggle at our absurd predictions and vain projections of the future. And they sigh that human nature didn't change much during the 20th century, from the time, in 1922, when Thomas Edison promoted movies as panacea--"I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years, it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks"--to Al Gore's similar enthusiasm for the Internet, seven decades later.

One popular homework assignment for late 21st century kids is to list the most important inventions that affected their lives. The World Wide Web? The cellular phone? The microwave oven? For Southern California, the most important inventions will turn out to be electricity, the internal combustion engine, the movie, concrete, and the aqueduct. Some go back a hundred years . . . some a thousand. Hey, even broadcast television predates World War II. Yet somehow we arrogantly think that ours is the age of technological miracles. It's a rerun of General Electric's 1950s maxim: "Progress Is Our Most Important Product."

OK, so a lot of innovation actually predates Microsoft. Didn't our century at least bequeath to posterity a wealth of totally new high-tech jobs? Well, no. The jobs of the year 2100 are pretty much the same jobs available a century before: dentists, truck drivers, surgeons, ballet dancers, salespeople, entertainers and schoolteachers. There'll be movie stars, morticians, gardeners, forest rangers and police officers. Yep, in a hundred years, we'll still have lawyers and politicians.

And, a curious thing about all those jobs: None of them require computing. Whoa! You mean there won't be lots of computer jobs in the future? Not especially. As society becomes better at making something, simple economics dictates that fewer people will be employed in that field. In the 1800s, when farming was inefficient, the main jobs in Southern California were agricultural. Now that we've figured out how to squeeze astoundingly high yields out of every cow and acre, farmers account for hardly 3% of the population. In the same way, once we became efficient at electronic communications, jobs evaporated for telegraphers and telephone operators. In that upcoming land of tomorrow, you won't find pages of classified ads hunting for programmers. Ah, efficiency!

At least late 20th century techno-savvy will boost living standards, right? Sure, if you define standard of living by counting our TV sets, computers, palm pilots and other computoglop. Already this merchandise has barged far too deep into our pockets and living space: We feel compelled to carry pagers, cell phones and laptop computers. On office desks and living room tables we find fax machines, telephone answering devices and Internet-linked computers. On the bedroom nightstand rest remote controls for the TV, VCR and stereo. Hikers tote GPS locators and cell phones into the backwoods--mustn't risk getting lost or missing a phone call. Yet, at the same time that we strap more and more of these electronic albatrosses around our necks, the old help has grown uppity. The telephone--once so simple that even a parent could operate it--now sports call-waiting, call-forwarding, caller-ID, and three-way calling. Car radios can't be tuned without taking your eyes off other activities--such as avoiding 18-wheelers. Alarm clocks now support multiple time zones. Even the homely wall thermostat has morphed into a digital system, complete with cryptic commands.

There's a measurable cost to our obsession with connectivity. Phone calls fragment our concentration at work. Telemarketers target dinner time. Internet advertisements aim to reach kids doing homework. E-mail puts us in touch with each other by isolating us behind computer monitors. The virtual community welcomes us as we spend our free time far from friends and neighbors. And now that we've killed downtown, let's go after the mall with online commerce.

Don't expect the info-age hucksters to let up. Already sold down the river by these techno-promoters, we're led to believe that more television channels and high-definition images will make TV better. Direct satellite broadcasts will bring us closer to each other. Fiber optics will deliver more information, faster and cheaper.

Well, fuzzy images aren't the main problem with 1999 television--and TV won't be any better in 2100. Hundreds of communications satellites and millions of Web pages haven't noticeably reduced worldwide injustice and mistrust.

Come to think of it, the chief problem in my life isn't a lack of information. I've never met a panhandler on the street, hand outstretched, begging for information. Haven't met anyone yearning for more junk mail--snail or e. Many problems confront society, but too little information isn't one of them.

So what'll our century be remembered for (besides cutting down the forests, burning up the fossil fuel and not making the world safe for democracy)? Perhaps as the time when technology replaced religion.

Aah, but maybe I should temper my cynicism. After all, a few idealists actually believe that we'll be remembered--and thanked--by future generations, for things like not bulldozing that last oak and boulder-strewn hillside outside Chatsworth into yet another tract development; for a few good books that gave insight into the fragile mechanisms of human emotion. And, yes, they'll thank us for some revolutionary gene-splicing technique that kept grandma alive an extra decade--though grandma's stories usually focus on the kindness of the nurse who held her hand.

Tired of looking around the future? Jump back in my time machine and I'll spin the dial to a time when we're wiser and so much more hip. Whoops--that's 1969. I'll get it right one of these days.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World