Science fiction would have us believe that 2001 marks the dawn of the machine age, when humans finally bend to their mechanical masters. Are you listening, HAL? Whether science fiction becomes science fact in 2001 is moot. It does, however, provide an opportunity to review what technology has thus far delivered, not in terms of shareholder value or market penetration or even gross sales, but in real human value.
Richard Neville is a director of the Australian Futures Foundation and has long pondered the subject.
Asked to nominate the biggest change that tech-nology will deliver this decade, Neville responds, "Never again having to go to a supermarket."
Flippant, perhaps, but what he is predicting is the end of a human activity - physically going to market - which has been important to human survival for thousands of years. It is the latest in a long chain of human activities which have been revolutionised by IT&T. Already technology has changed the way we communicate, procreate, medicate, educate, work and entertain ourselves.
The only frontier left is the spiritual, which has thus far proved too difficult or economically unrewarding for technology juggernauts to bother with.
Neville characterises the changes brought about by information technology and telecommunications as truly revolutionary, but warns that most revolutions have both catastrophic and liberating impacts. The information technology revolution, he argues, will prove no different.
Although humans are able to communicate far more broadly, form virtual teams, be mobile and have access to much richer intellectual resources, he is concerned that this constant "on call" status will weary people.
"Most technology has unintended consequences. Cars started out as fun and ended up creating suburbia, smog, road rage and mutilated corpses. The more we're connected to each other in cyber space, the more disconnected we are from each other is real life. The people on trains yelling into mobiles are oblivious to the sensitivities of fellow passengers. Never mind that their conversations give a morbid view of the human condition; there is something weird about our enthusiasm for costly gadgets that are obsolete before we unwrap them."
He suggests that people should "embrace high tech if we must, (but remain) ever alert for the psycho-social costs. As with heroin, we eventually become dependent, always needing to 'connect'."
At least that is the case in the Western world, since Neville believes that the digital divide between the technological haves and have-nots will persist: "Unless a movement of technology-for-all communism sweeps the world and Bill Gates becomes its Stalin, the digital divide will always be with us. Despite the hype of the forthcoming 'one dollar PC', about half the world is yet to make its first phone call. High-tech turbulence can trigger rags-to-riches windfalls, but billions will still be left trudging in rice paddies, even if it is GM super rice."
So, is technology fundamentally a good thing or a bad thing?
"I am both optimistic and pessimistic simultaneously. As more people become aware of the range and intensity of the problems facing the world, the more daring, rebellious and creative they become in seeking a solution. The danger is to focus on only markets and yet more technology to restore the balance of nature, when we also need to restore the balance of human nature. To dismiss this as spiritual hogwash, as so many pragmatists do, is to ignore the connection between psychological health and the health of the ecosystem. As I've said before, the future is a race between self-discovery and self-destruction."
And that race is not slowing, as the maths of the IT&T sector attest: this year, Microsoft intends to spend $US500 million promoting (not researching or developing, but purely promoting) its new Xbox games system; next year, global spending on IT&T will reach $US2.4 trillion; by 2003, there will be 600 million users of the internet - double the number there are today.
Whatever the shortcomings of science fiction writers last century, they were spot on in their prediction that this millennium, humans would be thralls to new technology.