rfbooth.com :: thoughts :: Equality of Connectivity

(I wrote this back in brave new 1999. I still believe parts of it.)

You sometimes hear people say that the most important attribute you can have when looking for a job this century will be computer literacy. Some of the people saying this are themselves unable to deal with new technologies; some are people like me, and if you're reading this, you, perfectly capable of dealing with just about anything you might expect to need to do with a computer, and very possibly a good deal more. They are completely wrong.

The gap in our society in the next century is not going to be between those who can deal with Word and Excel and those who can't, between those who can and can't program a video recorder without getting gardening programs or even between the rich and the poor. We have as much social mobility now as there has ever been; it's true that starting rich still helps, as does having parents who encourage education and belief in yourself, but there is very little that is impossible for the poor. That's not to say that we couldn't do much more for equality, but I think we'll get there. Technical literacy is going to be far, far less relevant. Do you know, even in the vaguest generalities, how your television works? Could you fix it if it broke? Could you write, direct and bring to production a series of good programmes? I couldn't, not at least without training, lots of advice and likely a couple of times getting it wrong. Nevertheless, I have no problems in watching my television, other than a general feeling that the people who are paid to make these programmes don't actually do much better than I would, most of the time. Even today, knowing how to program a computer is of little relevance for most users; computer power continues to grow exponentially, and much of that power continues to be eaten up in the quest for user-friendliness. I can't remember who said it, and I can't possibly be bothered to try and look it up, but I shall quote anyway: `The history of mass-market computing is the struggle between the industry, making more and more idiot-proof products, and the universe, making bigger and more thorough idiots.' Many feel that the universe is still winning, but this won't always be so; I have a low opinion of humanity in the mass, but not low enough to believe that our stupidity grows exponentially. Anyway, if it does we're all doomed, so why worry? In twenty years, computers will be virtually transparent to the user.

There has always been a certain threshold of knowledge above which, given the application of a little thought, you can make the technology do what you want it to. Most of it has always been knowing how to get help, and that's more true than ever as well. You need less knowledge now than ever before, and that's going to be truer every year.

Education isn't about knowing things, it's about knowing how to find things out, how to analyse them, apply them and make connections between them. Computers are probably the most powerful tools for performing these tasks since the development of cheap paper and the printing press. They may be the most powerful since we first started writing (permit me a little hyperbole here, OK?). Intelligence, organisation, creativity, ambition; these will be differentiating factors in the future, but in the immediate future there's one that's as least as important as any of those. Connectivity.

Global data networks, most notably this Electric Interweb Thingy you're using now, are changing everything. A disconnected computer is useful, but not very. A connected computer gives you access to unbelievable quantities of resources, to people, to companies, to opportunities, and to information. Information is everything; it's the one thing that's universally valuable, and the two supreme tools for manipulating information are the human brain and the connected computer. Most of us have the first; the second is still less common. By connected, I mean the kind of connectivity you need to make this ‘superhighway’ stuff make real sense; on the close order of 1Mbit per second, 16 times as fast as ISDN, and permanent connections, all for reasonable money. Fortunately, that's finally starting to happen. It's going to be fun.