Machines improve the power and effectiveness of the human arm, leg, eye, and ear, but no tool yet exists that can enhance our power to think wisely. We still have to make decisions with the "naked mind," unaided by any special telescope for the mind's eye.
We have machines that enable us to reshape the earth, but none to give us the wisdom and self-restraint needed to use such power for good and not for destruction. We're like children who've found the keys to a fast car but who don't know how to drive it safely, or how dangerous it can be.
It would be hard to unlearn or extinguish technologies, though. Useful technologies diffuse quite quickly, and they're notoriously difficult to control. It would be even harder to eradicate them completely.
Besides, partially developed technologies are often more dangerous than more sophisticated ones. Suppressing technologies often just makes matters worse.
We'd have to roll the clock back all the way, not just partway. How far back is all the way? The 19th century?
Remember that the Thames River used to catch fire in Victorian times because it was so polluted. How about returning to the Bronze Age?
Certainly not! Over 5 billion people cutting wood for fuel and using Bronze Age farming techniques would totally trash the planet. Twentieth century pollution would seem well-managed by comparison. We'd have to go back to the time before the invention of agriculture, when people lived by gathering and hunting.
Without agriculture, though, the earth would support far fewer people than are alive today. All but a few million of today's billions would have to volunteer to die.
In the Genesis myth of Adam and Eve, the hunter-gatherers were expelled from their paradise and forced to till the soil, bringing forth their bread by the sweat of their brow.
With agriculture came many curses -- dawn-to-dusk days of back-breaking toil, higher population densities with new diseases, oppressive governments that confiscated the surplus from farms.
An angel holding a flaming sword guarded the entrance to the Garden of Eden, and prevented the people from returning to their old way of life.
That flaming sword -- our high fertility rate -- still guards the entrance, making it impossible for us to go back to the balanced, relatively leisurely life of hunting and gathering.
Having once eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, we're committed to the upward spiral of technological development.
Actually, we had been stealing a nibble or two from that old Tree long before getting booted out of the Garden.
For example, by smashing boulders together and then picking out the sharpest shards for arrowheads, our early ancestors acquired so much technological power that they could drive into extinction the species they hunted.
Humans have been major players in the earth's ecologies for a long time.
The anti-technological, Luddite argument misses an important point. Technologies that deliver new power also bring new choices. The more freedom that technologies thrust upon us, the more wisdom we need to cope with them. Freedom and wisdom have to grow commensurately.
What's needed is more wisdom, but not necessarily less freedom or technology. The range of choices we face today is growing explosively while the accessibility of wisdom -- that is, useful knowledge -- is hardly improving at all.
Most knowledge is still being stored using printed material. Even under the best circumstances, printing is a highly imperfect medium for spreading knowledge.
Most people in the world can hardly even read. The result is an acute crisis of management.
However, it's a crisis caused by lack of wisdom, not by too much technology.
Societies need to know how to organize themselves for building basic infrastructures and for producing the goods and services they need.
They need to know how to keep their economies running smoothly and fairly, to keep their governments from becoming paralyzed by corruption, and to keep their cities free from crime.
To create the things people want, societies need know-how, or "knowledge you can use." Individuals also need "knowledge you can use" to manage their lives well.
Ignorance is at the root of nearly every problem we're facing -- brutal governments, social upheavals, famines, wars, and ecological disaster.
Fear, mistrust, mismanagement, miscommunication, and even greed, all stem in one way or another from ignorance.
Never has ignorance been so perilous for humanity as it is now.
Ironically, our problem isn't lack of knowledge. We already have an ocean of knowledge -- thousands of years of accumulated cultural riches.
Our challenge is to find a way to distribute it so that it becomes "knowledge you can use." It has to be available to people when, where, and in the form that they need it.
At the end of the 20th century, we're living behind a kind of Paper Curtain that severely holds back the flow of knowledge. Compared with fully electronic communication, paper documents are very cumbersome to handle and process.
Printed media are like narrow, two-lane roads. We need broad, electronic superhighways to carry today's message traffic, and to make readily available the knowledge needed to run today's complex world.
Imagine that there are no newspapers, books, or magazines. No postal services moving mountains of paper around the globe. No printed material of any kind. Instead, the whole world is ablaze with electronic chatter.
A global computer network provides practically unlimited computer "power" just as conveniently as the municipal electric company provides electricity.
This Utility seamlessly connects computers and databases worldwide so that they work like a single machine.
All the libraries in the world are effortlessly on-line. Slim boxes with screens, called TV-books, take the place of printed media.
TV-books are just as easy on the eyes and as pleasant to hold as printed books. They are complete multimedia communications tools -- phones, televisions, radios, and books, all rolled up in one little package.
TV-books plug into the Utility, so that using one is like holding all the world's books, newspapers, films, and music recordings in your hand.
The global computer Utility and TV-book will probably have an enormous effect on the world. They will tear down the Paper Curtain, and communications traffic will swell to a torrent.
That will create new markets for an astonishing variety of products and services having to do with gathering knowledge and making it useful.
Perhaps the more prosperous parts of the world will gradually becoming de-urbanized. A new kind of industrial revolution will take place.
Mass production will be replaced by "smart" production, where industry adds value to its products mostly through design.
The designs for new products, and not so much the products or materials themselves, are what will move from place to place.
In smart production, not only the production of goods is automated, but also the production of the means of production of those goods. That eliminates the need for large offices and factories which turn out high volumes of the same product.
Since people won't be needed to staff large offices and factories, they won't have to live crowded together in cities anymore. The populations of the great cities of the 20th century will be free to slowly drift into the countryside.
Many people will live in villages that are largely self-sufficient in everyday necessities like food and electricity.
Post-urban people will value their new rural surroundings and will take care to design their villages for minimal impact on the environment.
The Global Village that Marshall McLuhan wrote about will become a "Globe of Villages," all tightly interconnected by the Utility. Such villages won't be rude or rustic at all.
Homes will be very comfortable, and village centers will offer every kind of amenity, including playing host to regional cultural events -- something like the small but proud city-states of Greek antiquity.
Accomplishing all this will require using exquisitely sophisticated technology. For the people lucky enough to live in those peaceful, high-tech villages, the 20th century with all its fire and fury will seem long forgotten.
High-tech villagers will be impressively well-educated and cosmopolitan. International videoconferences will be as easy as making toast, and many villagers will have daily interaction with people living in distant parts of the world.
Most people will work in smart production, using the Utility to do amazingly advanced work in science or engineering.
Others will create art, music, or fine craftwork. As a 20th century, urban person, you would feel a little out of place in one of those 21st century villages.
Much of what you take for granted as being "modern" or progressive will seem quaint and irrelevant to the people living there.
The emergence of the Globe of Villages isn't really news. Much of what will go into building paperless societies has already been invented, and a lot of what still needs to be done is merely drudge work, just a matter of "doing the paperwork" and of putting into practice what's already understood in theory.
An electronic infrastructure with global computer networks and high-speed data superhighways is hardly science fiction -- it's rapidly being built right now. Both the Utility and TV-books are already being developed.
A Globe of Villages with tranquil communities of artists and scientists nestled away in forests and green valleys seems like a pleasant dream, but what will happen to all the people from the 20th century who can't adapt to such a highly knowledge-oriented, creative way of life?
Will cities and suburbs decay into wretched, overcrowded war zones for people who can't compete in the sophisticated, electronic global economy?
In many parts of the world, cities have already turned into squalid camps for desperate, chronically unemployable people, with thousands of impoverished newcomers arriving everyday.
Will cities become like South African-style townships, where people would need special passes in order to come and go?
Will Berlin-type walls someday enclose cities or parts of cities in order to keep their inhabitants from raiding the prosperous world outside?
Such a deeply divided world seems like the natural and inevitable outcome of processes already underway.
Nevertheless, there are strong reasons for being hopeful about the future. This essay claims that a thorough transformation is about to take place in the way human beings organize their societies and manage their resources.
The causes of the transition are so deep and pervasive that we can hardly fail, although there isn't much time to spare. The basis of the transformation is information.
We don't have a clear sense yet of what "information" means. Most definitions for it actually refer to "communication."
Classical information theory -- first developed by Shannon and Weaver, who were electrical engineers -- specifically avoids any questions about meaning or semantics.
Instead, it describes signal processing in a very rigorous, mathematical way. That leaves us with a pretty hazy idea of what information actually is in the broader sense, even though the much-talked-about Information Age is already dawning.
One of the main points in this essay is that information is a fundamental feature of the universe itself, and doesn't necessarily have anything to do with "what's contained in messages."
Information is an organizing principle by which new form emerges out of the mathematical order underlying the physical universe. One of the clearest examples of information, in this sense, is the process of biological evolution.
In living things, information works at each level of complexity, from molecules to cells to whole ecosystems, creating new order and design out of chaos.
That way of looking at information leads to the view that matter and what we call mind are indistinguishable from each other -- mind has a physical basis, and matter has certain properties that we could describe perfectly as mental.
In principle, it should be possible to create "mind tools" that improve the ability of individuals and of entire societies to think and to make wise decisions.
Philosophical and religious biases prejudice us toward looking at the physical and the spiritual as being separate worlds -- made of opposing substances or essences.
Those biases make it hard to imagine that any tool made of matter could ever successfully transform the mind.
At the level of whole societies, information creates new form and structure primarily through culture. Culture is a society's total toolkit, including not only its technologies, but also its intellectual "tools," such as its languages, arts, traditions, and the knowledge and beliefs that people in the society hold about the world.
A society and its culture make up a single informational system.
Tools so profoundly affect the people who make and use them that most distinctions we draw between humans and their tools are actually quite artificial.
Just as a society can design new tools, tools can also radically restructure a society. Cultural knowledge and beliefs have a particularly strong effect on how people in a society think and act.
Although humanity has amassed an enormous treasury of cultural knowledge, language imposes a certain barrier to the distribution of that knowledge.
We're quickly running up against that barrier today. This problem has to do with symbols themselves and can't be solved by using digital computers, no matter how fast or powerful.
By itself, the global computer network -- the Utility -- will not be able to bring about the social transformation necessary to prevent the world from dividing into a knowledge-oriented elite set against the impoverished masses.
In order to process the overwhelming flow of data produced in the Utility, machines totally unlike today's computers will be invented.
They will store and distribute cultural knowledge without using any symbols or codes of any kind.
Non-symbolic knowledge tools will link individuals to humanity's accumulative cultural heritage more thoroughly than would ever be possible using language or writing, allowing cultural knowledge to flow "superconductively," without the usual resistance caused by the limitations of language and writing.
They will make the entire wealth of human cultural knowledge fully available to individuals in a form that they can use, which will profoundly change the way people think.
Such mind tools will bring about a kind of "mechanical enlightenment" by connecting people -- people in every country and every walk of life -- with the collective wealth of human culture. This will be a significant step in human evolution.
The emergence of language made it possible for humans to acquire a complex and effective culture. The emergence of transliteracy will make it possible to modify and extend culture itself.
Transliterate societies will differ from today's literate ones at least as much as literate societies differ from pre-literate ones.
Nonsymbolic knowledge tools will have a great impact on the way societies are structured. Today's societies have to rely on institutions with central authority to maintain their integrity and form.
The much more intense levels of information present in transliterate societies will cause diverse, adaptive structures to emerge spontaneously, in the same way that new form and function emerge in biological systems.
Those structures will be much more intelligently coordinated and much more effective than any rigid, centrally planned structure could be.
I've made only one assumption about you, the reader of this essay. I'm assuming that you're a person who really enjoys thinking for thinking's sake. Enjoy.
Michael Webb, June, 1992