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Book Reviews

Virtual Power: Using Your Pc to Realize the Life of Your Dreams

by Mark Bunting, Mark Seal

What Will Be: How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives

by Michael Dertouzos

Design for Dying

by Timothy Leary

“In this age of unprecedented information flow, people are haunted by the belief that they are actually ignorant. The stock excuse is that this is because there is literally too much to be known.” – John Brunner, The Shockwave Rider

When John Brunner published his classic science fiction novel, The Shockwave Rider, in 1975, the first personal computer had yet to go on sale. The Internet was still the ARPAnet, a military and academic network connecting a few dozen institutions, and the notion of a web site was still waiting to be dreamed up.

Twenty-two years later, Brunner’s 21st-century vision has become a sort-of reality. Who hasn’t felt the pressure to keep up with the latest software or get online? Who hasn’t worried that their skills and knowledge have become obsolete?

Many writers – from Canadian Internet guru Jim Carroll to futurist Richard Worzel – are tapping into these fears with new books that advise how to cope in a world where almost nothing is certain and even less is predictable.

Jim Carroll, best known as co-author (with Rick Broadhead) of the Canadian Internet Handbook and Canadian Internet Directory, adopts an optimistic outlook. In Surviving the Information Age, published earlier this year by Prentice Hall, he views technological change as a force to be harnessed, not resisted. He cites his own case – he and his wife each stopped working at regular office jobs a few years ago – as an example: “Today we work out of a wonderful home office that places us among the birds and the squirrels, not the office towers and the clogged streets.” Carroll credits his good fortune entirely to computer technology and telecommunications, and wonders “why so many other people in my generation remain so darn intimidated by anything that has a computer chip inside it.”

The “gee-whiz-we’re-all-in-this-together” tone permeates the text. Carroll, who speaks regularly to groups across Canada, says he wrote the book (and its as-yet unreleased sequel, Thriving in the Information Age) in response to the needs and anxieties of his audiences – mostly baby boomers overwhelmed by technological change and terrified at being left behind. Much of the book, Carroll freely admits, is hand-holding, and his key points read like a 12-step program for recovering technophobes:

• You must refuse to be intimidated by the technology and the change that it represents.

• You must realize that some of the best economic, social, and political minds of the day are predicting that a unique and profound era of career upheaval will soon be upon us.

• You must accept that your ability to participate in the wired world is going to have a dramatic impact on your potential for success.

• You must understand that change is real and ongoing and that this unique thing called the wired world is going to lead to even more change.

• You must remember that a defeatist attitude is a direct threat to your well-being.

As evidence for technology’s inherent good, Carroll describes an incident in his own life when he suddenly and unexpectedly came down with Bell’s Palsy, the same disease that afflicted Jean Chrétien. He researched Bell’s Palsy on the Internet and, by the time he met with his doctor, had acquired enough material to ask informed, pointed questions. Later, he made contacts with other sufferers on the Net, and is still in touch with some of them, even after his recovery.

Simon & Schuster is also offering a technological “self-help” title this spring – by Mark Bunting, host of a syndicated cable television show titled The Computer Man. Virtual Power: Using Your PC to Realize the Life of Your Dreams speaks directly to baby boomer technological anxieties, and is couched in the language of motivational infomercials with advice on how to be successful in the computer business.

Computer columnist Matthew Friedman, who writes for Montreal’s The Gazette, isn’t quite so gung ho. Friedman is tired of the hype surrounding the Internet and describes his upcoming book Fuzzy Logic: Dispatches from the Information Revolution (to be published this spring by Montreal’s Véhicule Press), as an attempt to cut through the noise.

“To a certain extent, we’re seeing the same phenomenon that existed with ‘radio’ in the 1930s and ‘atomic’ in the 1950s,” says Friedman. “In the 1930s you had products like the Radio-Flyer wagon, which had nothing to do with radio. In the 1950s you had the same thing. Despite the obvious threat, ‘atomic’ was cool and you had superhero characters like the Atomic Man. Now the word of choice is ‘cyber.’”

Friedman says society has become overly obsessed with technology and the promise of a gleaming future. “We haven’t really considered how the changes are affecting our economic, political, and social lives,” he says. “The general public now has access to information processing power unheard of a few decades ago. Yet with the transformation of information into a commodity there is a danger that we will have decreased access to information itself.”

Understanding the capabilities and the limitations of new technologies is the best way to ensure they remain forces for good, says Friedman. His best example of this is the fight against neo-Nazism on the Internet. Conventional wisdom has it that the best way to battle neo-Nazis in the media is to ignore them. But this doesn’t work in a medium like the Internet, where any group can set up a web site and “broadcast” its message to the world. Fighting neo-Nazis on the Net requires much more activist intervention.

Toronto futurist Richard Worzel’s 2017: The Next Twenty Years of Your Life opens with a scenario that, even by today’s high-tech standards, sounds more like science fiction than prediction: a woman wakes up, puts on her glasses (which double as her computer monitor), and, without ever leaving bed, reviews her investment portfolio, reads the morning news, and views live images of people she calls on the phone.

Worzel never really makes clear the basis for his predictions, but they make for entertaining reading. I can’t imagine, for example, that videophones will enter our lives in the next 10 years as quickly as the fax machine did in the 1980s, as he suggests, or that journalism students will be launching their own television networks from their parents’ homes. But he does speculate plausibly about some of the secondary effects of technology, suggesting that, as the communication revolution continues, individual privacy will erode, business travel will drop off, and the speed of scientific discovery will decrease as researchers become more possessive of their findings.

Like Boom, Bust and Echo, and The Pig and the Python, Worzel also looks at employment, the stock market and investments, health care, and education, but uses technology rather than demographics to explain the changes he foresees. He offers up some well-reasoned guesses, but unlike some of the other authors mentioned here, doesn’t try to pass judgment on whether this is good or bad.

HarperCollins unveiled the first book in its new techie imprint, HarperEdge, with the March release of What Will Be: How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives, by Michael Dertouzos, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology laboratory of Computer science. Described in the foreword by Bill Gates as an “engaging and visionary guide to the future,” Dertouzos previews the future of technology and its impact on the lives of millions. Among his prognostications: multinational media conglomerates will control access to information; there will be an increase in online terrorism; and speech recognition programs will make keyboards, Windows, and menus obsolete.

What Will Be is the only HarperEdge title concerned primarily with predictions. The imprint is also publishing the late Timothy Leary’s psychedelic Design for Dying, an entertaining, personal odyssey through cyberspace and terminal illness.

The goal of the imprint, says senior editor Eamon Dolan, is to bring computer arcana down to earth. “Most tech books have a very elitist, future-centric cast,” he observes. “There have been some great books in this area, but in many cases, their reach exceeds their grasp. They either take a side and say tech is great or tech is terrible. That’s a very distracting and somewhat disingenuous debate. What they should really be talking about is how this stuff affects your social life, for example, or gender relations, or other social issues.”