Assumption: Technology makes it possible for us to do more. Conclusion (of the business titans driving the techno-revolution): to fulfill our human mission, we must go, go, go!
The mystic G.I. Gurdjieff philosophized that man in his normal, unenlightened state is essentially sleepwalking. Modern man, today's geeky gurus contend, is basically sleepwalking if he isn't multitasking. The newest innovations show that we can-and therefore must-be online while watching TV; be e-mail-ready while driving the car; be taking calls while ascending Mount Everest. Most evenings my 12-year-old son does his homework on the computer while instant messaging friends and talking on the phone (I figure he's calling the same person he's messaging, but I really don't want to know). The stereo is typically playing, and he's probably downloading MP3s. Occasionally his foot extends to gently connect with the dog. There may be something wrong with this picture, but the kid is definitely not sleepwalking.
The pressure to be wired-everywhere, always, fast-is hard to ignore. Not long ago I went to see the Celtics play the Jazz at Boston's Fleet Center. I wanted to experience ChoiceSeat, one of the new-generation computers that U.S. sports arenas are installing to give fans an "interactive" experience at the game. It took a while to get comfortable (like about the first quarter), but I finally started making headway with the machine at my seat. You can follow the game (why watch the real thing when you can see it on a tiny screen!), access player stats and pull up background news and video. The coolest application is a function that lets you watch the game from any of 12 angles-you decide which one. Moreover, you can call up instant replays at any time, from any of those 12 vantage points.
This is a case of interactive technology actually filling a need. Sports on TV is all about replays; in fact, viewers get lazy, realizing they don't need to fully concentrate because the key moments will be shown again. When you're at the game, you don't have that luxury, and you can miss a lot. Unless, that is, you're sitting with a ChoiceSeat. In the second half, the Jazz's John Starks suddenly falls to the floor. It happens so fast, most of the 18,000 people in the arena don't notice. With a few clicks I'm able to see, over and over, from 12 different positions, that Boston's Bryant Stith clearly stuck a finger in Starks' eye. "This is starting to make some sense," remarks my initially skeptical companion, Howard Manly, a former sportswriter at the Boston Globe.
But we soon encounter the technology's limitation. After a steal, Boston's Paul Pierce viciously slam-dunks over the Jazz defense. Only, I'm busy staring at the box. Suddenly 18,000 fans are on their feet, roaring their approval while I'm trying to find the reset button. I am at the game, with enhanced interactive technology, and I feel like I'm missing the whole thing. ChoiceSeat's motto is: "Get closer." So why do I feel the opposite is happening? When the game ends and the Celtics pull off an upset, a female Jazz fan sitting beside me, wearing a John Stockton T shirt, unleashes a deafening primal scream. Now that's interactive.
This is how it goes with technology. Every invention is accompanied by passionate claims for its sensational applications. What follows is an inevitable period of adjustment: How do I actually use this thing, anyway? A year or so ago, my wife gave me a Palm Pilot for my birthday. Not knowing what to do with it, I put it in the charger. After two months, and with visibly hurt feelings, she finally asked me about it: "I think it's probably charged by now," she said. Ha, ha. I guiltily forced myself to use it. As it turned out, it, too, filled a need: as an organizer it really is better than hundreds of little pieces of paper. Who knew? Now I can't do without it.
Several generations ago, even the telephone seemed baffling. In its early days, quick adapters thought they had found the killer app: they used it to call their friends to find out whether their postcards had arrived. ("It has? Great. Bye.") In the first part of the 20th century, the Paris utility pioneered a phone-in opera service. Marcel Proust loved it. He'd dial up from home and someone would hold up a phone next to the stage and, voila, Wagner interactif.
This I understand. When my beloved Washington Redskins made it to the Super Bowl in 1992, I was in Moscow and the Russian networks weren't showing the game. I called my father who, before he went out to watch the contest with friends, hammered a nail in the wall next to the kitchen radio and hung the receiver. For four hours I sat in my frigid Moscow office listening to the game, occasionally clenching my fist in triumph. The Internet has responded to that need. Games are now tracked play-by-play and broadcast live online, often for free. You don't want to know what my phone bill was in January 1992.
Still, so many of the technologies that promote interactivity don't fulfill that promise. When I attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this January, Compaq gave each delegate a free iPaq pocket computer. I sat with a friend and marveled at the gizmo. Then we sent each other e-mails. Hey! Of course, we were sitting side by side (at an indescribably dull panel on Asian economies). Pointless communication, yes, but isn't that what we do nowadays? Think how commonly we send e-mails to colleagues at work who might be as near as the end of our cubicle. Is technology enhancing our ability to interact, or blocking it?
Many of the innovations that get us excited seem to be a drag on the human evolutionary scale. Once upon a time kids just went out and played ball with one another. Eventually computer games allowed us to sit in our rooms and play virtual baseball. Progress! With the Internet, kids can now compete against other players online, in real time! Interactivity! What's next? Some day someone will figure out a way to truly experience the "feel" of throwing and catching a virtual ball remotely, through complicated algorithms developed by Indian software engineers (who, by the way, play cricket) that replicate "force feedback" as encountered in real life. Then we'll almost be back to square one.
It's too easy, of course, to be a skeptic, to regard each new invention with a sense of "wise" detachment and, while praising its state-of-the-art capabilities, wonder aloud if we really need it. But even if we like to wax on about that dusty old Remington typewriter we still love, few among us really want to adopt Luddite lifestyles. And we'd risk missing real progress if we did. The same digital innovations that are incrementally enhancing the realms of sex, sports and entertainment are also changing our world in profound ways. Doctors can conduct surgery remotely, controlling robotic hands from great distances. Quadriplegics can move their paralyzed limbs, implanted with sensors, just by focusing their brain waves. The faithful can find like-minded believers in a persecution-free online environment that can be as anonymous as anyone wishes. These applications are proof of the wonders of our new world, one in which people live longer, healthier, happier lives.
What's more challenging are the attempts to create new needs, to exploit technologies to their maximum potential before it's evident anyone even wants them. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a team of researchers is working on a "hypersoap" that could revolutionize the way we shop. It takes the idea of TV product placement to its absolute extreme. Touch any item on the screen around the actors and you get product info. Necklace: J.C. Penney, $35. Tissue: Kleenex, $1.99. Book: Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte, $25. You can't get any more interactive than that. These people are creating the future, but will the future show up?
A more obsessed gamble is taking place across America at the Integrated Media Systems Center at the University of Southern California. The center resides in a squat, red brick building, well baked by the Los Angeles sun, whose modest exterior camouflages the far-out work that's happening within. The group is focused on a multimedia effort to bring virtual people together for lifelike encounters. The project is fusing several state-of-the-art technologies-3-D facial modeling and animation, video compression, spatially placed sound-to create a full-fledged virtual world.
To be sure, current technologies that transmit images and voice fall far short of anything remotely realistic. At present, teleconferencing generally involves jerky video and canned sound. There is no real eye contact. The center hopes to project a 3-D avatar so real that you'll feel as if Bob is really sitting next you and Tina is across the table, though in reality they might be a continent or two away. "You can be immersed anywhere in the world and feel like a participant," says Max Nikias, the center's director. Within a decade or so, he predicts, 3-D "immersive" environments will be as big a breakthrough as the microprocessor, PC or Web browser once were.
That means a world with virtual people mixing seamlessly with the regular kind; of having breakfast in New York, lunch in Paris and dinner in Beijing-all without getting out of your pj's. It means being surrounded by the people you want, alive or dead, anywhere at any time of day. And maybe that will be really cool. Or maybe, despite all that interactivity, it will still feel like you're sitting in your pj's staring at a computer screen. Don't we already do too much of that?