Difference Engine: The Social Impact of Technology

FRAMINGHAM (05/01/2000) - In his ingenious novel Einstein's Dreams, Alan Lightman envisions an imaginary world where everyone lives forever. There is no death. Time is a friend, not an enemy. But the gift of immortality--the prospect of eternal life--completely and utterly polarizes society.

The resulting sociological schism is chillingly captured in the following excerpt from a review by cosmologist John Barrow:

"There are procrastinators who lack all urgency: faced with an eternity ahead of them, there was world enough and time for everything--their motto some word like maana, but lacking its sense of urgency. Then, there were others who reacted to unlimited time with hyperactivity because they saw the possibility to do everything. But they did not bargain on the dead hand that held back all progress, stopped the completion of any large project and paralyzed society: the voice of experience.

When every craftsman's father and his father and all his ancestors before him, still lives, then experience ceases solely to be of benefit. There is no end to the hierarchy of consultation, to the wealth of experience and to the diversity of alternatives. The land of immortals might well be strewn with unfinished projects, riven by drones and workers with diametrically opposed philosophies of life and choked by choice."

The above passage underscores a fundamental truth: The infinity of potential rarely converges to a consensus. More often, it provokes new intensities of conflict. The immortality scenario described in Einstein's Dreams maps perfectly onto the new societies of choice now being built by multiple media technologies. Instead of promising eternal life, these technologies offer another precious gift with infinite possibilities. It's a gift that can dramatically alter the quality, if not the quantity, of human life. It's an opportunity that will transform how individuals and institutions create value.

But, like immortality, this is one of those gifts guaranteed to polarize the very people it's designed to benefit.

What is this gift? The ability to quickly, easily and cheaply practice, rehearse, simulate, model and rigorously review everything we do. There is a brave new multimedia marketplace for rehearsing reality. We can see ourselves; we can simulate our behaviors before plunging into the real thing. Anyone who has ever watched a videotape of themselves swinging a golf club or practicing interview techniques understands. Everyone who's tracked and reviewed their e-mail correspondence gets it. Technology has become a mirror--call it mirrorware--that gives people the power to see themselves being themselves.

From the rise of VisiCalc to the internet to the emergence of virtual reality, digital media has been on a relentless course to create not just a global information infrastructure but an intimate introspection infrastructure.

Digital media lets us not only simulate the consequences of our business decisions with ever-greater fidelity, it allow us to see ourselves making those decisions. We can see ourselves screw up or triumph in virtual versions of reality. We increasingly have the power to digitally rehearse and review practically every management decision of consequence we make. We can simulate hiring and firing; we can rapid prototype with and without key customers and clients. We can model the consequences of a new compensation scheme. We can do it sincerely; we can just go through the motions; or we can choose not to do it at all.

What do the choices we make say about us as individuals? What kinds of cultures emerge from pervasive introspection infrastructures where both individuals and institutions are constantly challenged to simulate and review before doing the real thing? For tomorrow's managers and businesses, there is no more challenging a question.

IMAGE IS EVERYTHING Consider this not-quite-fantastical counterpart: Imagine a smart mirror. Modifications of your mirror image can be made in milliseconds.

You can see what you might look like if you lost 10 pounds. If you stopped exercising for two weeks. If you jogged every day. If you lifted weights. If you swam. You could see what you might look like with a tan. You could see what a nip or a tuck might do for your hips or thighs or jowls. You might zero in on particular body parts, enlarging or contracting them for visual inspection or hypothetical enhancement. You could ask for best case, worst case and most likely case scenarios for various ages.

The mirror's projections aren't perfect, of course. So you can store past predicted images for future comparisons with actual appearance. The mirror's underlying algorithms can be edited to correct for errors. The mirror is designed to make body image management as simple and realistic as possible.

The million-dollar question: How much time would you spend in front of the looking glass? What questions would you ask? What questions would you never ask? How much time would you spend looking at the real you in the mirror versus images of possible yous? How does the image of a possible you alter your management of the real you?

Suppose you have a significant other. He cares deeply for you. He also cares deeply about how you look. Do you take him in front of the mirror? Would you let him see your best possible images? Your worst? Would you encourage him to request specific modifications to your image?

Conversely, would you want to play with the possibilities of your significant other's body imagery? Or might seeing a best-case or worst-case image create a difficult memory for you to manage? Would your significant other be receptive to your hypothetical image modifications of him or would they become a constant point of reference and contention?

THE PARALYZING IMPACT OF SELF-KNOWLEDGE Now extend the mirrorware metaphor to your workplace, hobbies, family, friends and all the relationships you deem important. What do you choose to simulate? To see? What will you never, ever choose to simulate or see? What does that say about you?

The Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus once commanded, "Know thyself!" For people and businesses obsessed with self-improvement, mirrorware offers an unprecedented opportunity for self-evaluation. Increasingly, our inefficiencies and ineffectiveness are less a function of our ignorance than our choosing to be ignorant. The ongoing explosion of mirrorware technologies has made self-ignorance as much a choice as self-knowledge. What we choose not to know about ourselves is ultimately as revealing and important as what we choose to know. No doubt, mirrorware will inbreed unhealthy broods of digital narcissists as surely as it fosters cults and cultures of relentless self-improvers. It will be fascinating to see who embraces mirrorware as well as who emphatically rejects it.

Senior-level executives can use mirrorware to seamlessly capture the future challenge of business modeling. They can simulate a hostile merger in virtual reality or the impact of a new product launch. They can rehearse how they might collaborate with a profitable client. Managing the media of management becomes a profoundly different task when executives see themselves and the impact of their decisions in the managerial mirrorware.

What questions would managers ask? What questions would they avoid? Regardless, all questions slice to the heart of managerial darkness. When mirrors and models are as much about potential as they are about reality, the future is based less on knowledge than on desire.

We could experience precisely the same schisms posed by Einstein's Dreams--some people and companies might model everything all the time in a relentless effort to manage even the shadows cast by probability and chance. Digitally induced analysis paralysis will set in. Conversely, even larger swaths of individuals and organizations will simply reject the possibilities that just-in-time virtual rehearsals provide, which has its own pitfall: a discouragement of healthy introspection.

We are about to start living the answers to those questions. Technology is giving us both greater tools and greater opportunities for learning more about what makes us who we are. There should be little doubt that the prospect of greater self-knowledge is every bit as polarizing as the prospect of immortality. There will be no consensus. There will only be the relentless challenge of whether we want to simulate more or less, model more or less and practice more or less. That is a challenge guaranteed to force people to be introspective about just how introspective they want to be.

Isn't it ironic that the internet and all the technologies jacked and hacked into it may have greater impact evolving into a mirror into ourselves than a lens into others? But then, how well we connect with others is frequently a function of how well--or how poorly--we connect with ourselves.

How can CIOs make a difference? Tell us what you think at difference@cio.com.

Michael Schrage is codirector of The MIT Media Laboratory's eMarkets Initiative and author of Serious Play: How the World's Best Companies Simulate to Innovate (Harvard Business School Press, 2000).

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