|Microtimes||January 5, 1994||Page 92|
Alvin And Heidi Toffler On Life And Work In The Information Age
By Mary Eisenhart
Photo: Michael Jay
For almost three decades, Alvin and Heidi Toffler have been thinking and writing about the impact of technology on people and culture. In several books, notably Future Shock, The Third Wave, and Powershift, they've considered events around the world and their implications for social change; their findings are widely studied by governments, busi- nesses and ordinary citizens trying to make sense of an increasingly chaotic world.
Their current book, War and Anti-War, analyzes the parallels between busi- ness and military organizations in the information age-as with business, the military is evolving away from traditional command-and-control structures and becoming increasingly dependent on smaller, smarter, more efficient groups of people using ever-more-complex technology.
Since the Tofflers' views are integral to such recent phenomena as "downsiz- ing" and "Just-in-time manufacturing," to say nothing of the very existence of the personal computer industry, we were glad to have the opportunity for a conversation with them during a recent visit to San Francisco.
A lot of our readers probably weren't born when Future Shock came out, so could you do a brief summary of the previous books and where War and Anti-War fits in?
Alvin Toffler: In Future Shock, Heidi and I wrote about the acceleration of change, driven to a considerable degree by technology, but not entirely. We wrote that book in the late '60s, and it was published in 1970.
In that era, in that distant epoch, nobody yet appreciated that things were speeding up. We had to fight to make the case that the pace of life was becoming more rapid, that technological and social changes were more and more rapid, and so on. The book made that case, and it also argued that there's an upper limit to the capability of any system, whether it's a computer system or a human biological system, to cope with change; that below a certain level human beings are understimulated, and above a certain level of change, a certain rapidity or complexity of the changes they face, they are subject to maladaptation or difficulty. .
We call that "future shock'-when too much change hits too fast for people to absorb, they then began to show signs of either deteriorated decision-making capability or disorientation; indeed, in some cases, stress and illness and so forth.
What was happening at the time that suggested this to you?
We wrote an article in 1965 for a magazine called Horizon called,"The Future as a Way of Life." In that article, we argued this case: that things were accelerating, that long-range planning or long-range thinking was going to be necessary, and that there would be difficulty in adapting to the speed of change. We coined the word "future shock" in that article in 1965.
I can remember when the term occurred. I was interviewing a friend, a psychologist, on the telephone, about culture shock-the disorienting effects of suddenly being thrust into a completely alien world. In the course of that conversation, as she described the symptoms or the consequences of that, it occurred to me that you could be plunged into an alien culture in your own society if an alien future arrived more rapidly than you were prepared for.
So we said that future shock is the consequence of the premature arrival of the future. And that book, which we thought would have a modest success, turned out to be a humongous bestseller all over the world. Indeed, it was the fourth- or fifth-best-selling nonfiction book in the entire decade of the '70s, and lent the term "future shock" to the language-it's in many dictionaries, it's in headlines every day of the week, and so on.
That, then, was followed by another major book in 1980 called The Third Wave, ten years after Future Shock. That book said that the changes around us are not entirely random, that you can see patterns, and that basically what was happening was a revolutionary upheaval on a par with, or even greater than, the industrial revolution-or indeed the agrarian revolution that came first. We used the terminology First Wave, Second Wave, Third Wave.
The first wave of change was ticked off by the agriculture revolution, when some prehistoric Einstein, probably a woman, planted the first seed. That was the invention of agriculture, and it spread slowly, until now virtually the entire world is capable of agriculture, except for a few remaining tribal or nomadic populations. Basically the whole world has learned the game of how you make nature grow things.
Then came the industrial revolution of two or three hundred years ago, which launched what we call the second great transformatory wave in history, and gave rise to an industrial civilization. That industrial civilization had mul- tiple forms. It had capitaSists and communists; it had lapanese, Korean, Swedish, or American versions; but all of the industrial countries, by defini- tion, were based on mass production, mass distribution, mass consumption, mass education, mass media, mass entertainment. Socioigists referred to it as the mass society.
The old scenarios, the scenarios of Orwell and Ehodey and hundreds, if not thousands, of science fiction writers, saw the continual advance of technology as necessarily increasing the industrial character of society-making it more bureaucratic, more centralized, more impersonal, more robotoid, and so on. Both in Future Shock and then with much more detail in The Third Wave, we argued that in fact a turn was taking place; that the third wave, while it was technological, was not industrial, and that there's a distinction between these two; and that especially the rise of the computer, but also many other technologies wired together, were giving rise to a new kind of society, or civilization as we call it, that contrasts with the mass society produced by industrial civilization.
It is what we call a demassified socie-ty. It is heterogeneous; it has much more room for diversity. And the computers, rather than suppressing diversity, have in fact made possible and fostered a high degree of diversity, particularly as we shifted from the mainframe to the PC. So you now move from mass production to demassified production of customized products-small-run production.
In parallel, you move toward demassified micro-markets-boutiques, targeted catalog shopping, etc., as examples. You move toward a more diverse family structure-not everybody's in the nuclear family any more. In fact the working father, stay-at-home mother, with two kids under eighteen probably represents under 5% of the American population today. Instead of nuclear, we have a wide variety of family forms.
We sometimes summarize the changes in terms of a biological analogy: that society is going through cellular differentiation and a speedup of metabolism at the same time.
Then came Powershift, which we published ten years later in 1990. Powershift focused more directly on the implications, particularly the economic implications, but more generally the power implications, of a society in which knowledge has become the central economic resource. It focused a lot on the economy, on business; talked some about the future of the nation-state and of politics; and did a very quick rough sketch of some of the global impli- cations but didn't focus closely on them.
This new book, War and Anti-War, takes as its premise that knowledge stands in a new relationship to economic production. The book looks at the implications of this for both economic power and military poweL Knowledge now becomes central to both kinds of power on the planet. Now, what does that mean in terms of conflict, war, peacekeeping, and the global system?
We don't regard this book as part of the trilogy that was formed by Future Shock, Third Wave, and Powershift, but it clearly comes out of the same brains and applies some of the same kind of thinking, this time to a special problem. Rather than to how civilization is changing as a whole, it looks at the process of conflict.
My understanding is that you see the military world experiencing more or less the same kind of change the industrial world is experiencing. As we have just-in-time factories, we are now moving to a just-in-time military?
That's right. That's right. Absolutely parallel. For one thing, the role of information is growing in importance in both the economy and in war.
The military is undergoing a set of changes that directly parallel the changes taking place in business. One example, of course, is demassification. Because of computer controls and numerical controls and information technology, we now are capable of producing short runs of products economically, instead of the traditional industrial-style assembly-line long runs of mass production; if we're capable of demassified production, precision targeted weapons are the parallel to that-that is, demassffled destruction.
If companies are downsizing, not just because of the recession but because they're restructuring into smaller work units, the military is doing precisely the same. We're moving into a military situation in which a brigade can do what a division used to be able to do, given information-intensive technology.
Heidi Toffier Therefore we don't need thousands of tanks produced assembly- line fashion in the future; and, since the military is smaller and more information-dependent, and you can upgrade the electronics in a tank, you don't need factories mass-producing. So that weakens the military-industrial complex.
AT: It weakens the second-wave military-industrial complex. In the third wave, the military-industrial complex disappears. It melts into a civilian-military complex, with the emergence of dual-use, or multiple-use, technologies.
More and more weaponry is going to come off the shelf, or more complexly, be configured out of pieces of different technologies off different shelves, assembled into weapon packages. What we've been saying to people, trying to make them wake up about this, is that someday a company like Revlon is going to produce some nice innocent cosmetic which just happens to be a precursor to somebody else's chemical weapon.
HT: People think that the recent budget cuts are what have fueled the de-scal- ing, but I think big companies like Hughes and General Dynamics have known this for years.
AT: Corporate America is, on the one hand, driven by the recession to lay off people. But it is also restructuring, so that they're not going to put those people back on. Work is taking place in smaller groups, and the same thing is true in the military. Fighting is taking place, or will be taking place, in smaller groups.
Similarly, we're going to be moving toward increasing robotization, driven by hypercompetition in the global market. The military is going to be moving toward robotization. In War and Anti-War we discuss the philosophical debate; over the degree of autonomy that robots ought to be permitted.
What if they're too smart and they take over?
AT: Yes, exactly.
HT: The truth is, the smarter the machine is, or the smarter the programing in it, the less smart you have to be.
AT: But the more smart you have to be to control the system.
So there are these many parallel changes. Systems integration. We now know that companies are engaged in very, very complex interactions. They have lots of subsidiaries and profit centers, and they're dealing with large numbers of customers, and they've got custom-made relationships between the customers and themselves. And they need computer systems and information systems to keep track of their tens of thousands or even more products.
They can't do that without the computer. If you do that with a computer system, and then you link into the network that connects you to the supplier on the one side and the distributor or retailer on the other side, you have to have systems integration.
It's exactly the same for the military. There are many problems, but the military has the problem that when an air tasking order is created for the Gulf War, there are permutations of literally tens of thousands of factors that have to be fed into the computer in order to "deconflict the skies." So there is a heavy requirement for systems integration. Systems integration in turn requires a heavy electronic infrastructure. And therefore more networks, and therefore more technologies for data transfer, and so forth.
So everything that is happening in the civilian economy is paralleled in war. Everything we're doing for production is paralleled in what we're doing for destruction.
You've said that second-wave entities are predicated on hierarchical structures where the people at the top know everything the people on the bottom need to do, whereas in third-wave structures the person on the bottom is the one who's dealing with the situation in real time, and so they're the ones who have to know this stuff.
HT: There has to be feedback. The top can't continue to function unless it gets feedback from the bottom, and from all the levels.
AT: But the key hidden fact that no one talks about in traditional hierarchical bureaucracies, is the assumption made by the people on top that they know what the people down below need to know. That's just not tenable any more.
HT: They didn't even have to ask the people on the bottom. They knew.
AT: They said, "You're going to handle this job, and in order to do that, you get this information and report to this line. You're going to handle that job..."
Well, the reality is that it's so complex now, and shifting so rapidly, that people on top are the last ones to find out what's going on, and that's why this whole discussion of "empowerment" is not a result of altruism or New Age feelie stuff -- it's that you can't make a profit, you can't make a product, the old way. You have to empower to a certain degree the people who are actually doing that work. Because now they're the ones who know, and they can tell you what you cannot tell them.
You've said on occasion that you used to work in a factory.
HT: This was when we were very young. When we graduated from the university in 1949 there was a recession in this country, quite a severe one. I remember the best job I could get, and you needed a college degree for that, was an airline reservation clerk. That was my first job after I graduated.
It was on a swing shift-two weeks from 8 am to 4 pm, two weeks 4 to mid-night, and two weeks midnight to 8 am.
So you always had jet lag.
HT: Aaah. It was unbelievable.
AT: On the ground!
HT: I could not do that job more than six months, because when you change 1 every two weeks, it takes about two weeks to get adjusted. It was just an impossible job, but it was the only job I could get, and it paid 40 or 45 dollars a week.
And you had to be a college graduate.
So we both left New York about then and went to the Midwest. My first job there was in a library, also for 45 dollars a week. But the factories were paying better-about $1.85 an hour.
AT: I never got that. I got $1.49 and then $1.53.
HT: So I made more money in a factory than I did in the library or at Eastern Airlines reservations. And I did not have to work that horrible swing shift every two weeks.
My first job was for General Electric, and I did not tell them on the application that I had a college degree because I knew that would disqualify me. I would-have been "overqualified."
So I neglected to put that down, I put down high school diploma, and I got the job. I made light bulbs at a machine for a year. The job was mindless, it was boring. I asked many times -- they were very small light bulbs -- what these light bulbs were for. And no one would tell me.
AT: Or nobody knew.
HT: No! I'm sure somebody knew! I laughted. But why in the world would I need to know what the light bulbs were being used for?
Did they ever tell you you weren't being paid to think? I always used to love that one when I was working in retail...
AT: Yes! All the time! All the time!
I've given this illustration many times: I knew my machine fairly well. It was simple. I had filaments in one hand and a tweezer in the other, and with the tweezer I put the filaments into the gas jet slots as they went by. The machine moved every second or so and a new gas jet came in front of me-it was a circular machine. And then at one point the glass came down over it, and at another point the fire came out and melted the glass. Then at another point it went down the chute to the machine below me.
When my machine broke down, I knew why it was broken. I could not call the maintenance foreman and say, "Call somebody to fix the machine, this is what's wrong with it." I had to call my foreman.
My foreman would come over. He'd go "Hm?" I wasn't supposed to tell him what was wrong, because I wasn't supposed to know, because I was too stupid. So then he would call upstairs, where the white-shirted people were who came to visit on the shop floor about once a month. He would call one of them. One of them would call the maintenance foreman. The maintenance foreman would then call my foreman. They would decide that they would send a mechanic to the machine. The mechanic would come. I would tell the mechanic what was wrong and how I thought he should fix it, and he fixed it.
In the meantime the machine was down for two hours. I could have called the mechanic in the first place and told him what was wrong-and it would have been fixed in ten minutes.
Naw, we travel around corporate America today, and I sometimes find these old-time CEOs who try to tell me how efficient the factories were in the old days. They were not efficient at all. They were inefficient. But we devastated Europe and Japan during World War 11. So we had no competition afterwards and we could make a profit even if our companies were inefficient.
AT: It didn't matter if we were inefficient.
HT: So talking about the wonderful productive capacity and the worker productivity -- this is all a fantasy in the minds of these old managers. It's much more efficient now in smaller workgroups.
Very frequently we ran out of glass or some other thing. They hadn't found out about just-in-time ordering...
HT: No. They were inefficient, but they thought they were efficient.
I think that illustrates many components of second-wave style factory management. The same was true when I worked in the aluminum foundry -- there, I was an elected UAW shop steward, and I was always getting in trouble. At least the management would talk to me then, but if I got too obstreperous I was sent to a room which was off in the corner...
HT: ...that broke up the sand cores and took the grommets out and put them on a belt.~They were punishing me, keeping me away from my workers. I mean, this is what you do to children in school, you don't do this to adults.
And they also visited the factory floor about once-a month.
I believe we made airplane engines. I again asked-now, I was a union rep. I was still considered too stupid to know what we were making.
And I think all of the workers were exceedingly smart. They knew when the time-study men came in the front door of the factory, the word went around very quickly, "Slow down today." These were games that were played. But the management really thought we were too stupid.
Of course they wouldn't have brought time-study men in if they didn't.
AT: It was the epoch of Taylorism. This was the time when Taylorism was in flower.
And apparently Taylor was deeply chagrined at what use his work was put to, because he thought the workers would get the payoff from all this increased efficiency...
AT: [laughs] And they didn't!
HT: They just retimed the jobs so you had to produce more if you were doing piecework jobs. I was a core paster, and this was piecework. But they also took none of the human factors into account, that in the morning you're more awake, you feel better, you're producing more; in the afternoon you get tired, so you work slower I mean, this was the machine model of the human being also.
AT: So what we resent today are people who continually glorify that kind of labor, and say that's what we need. The fact is that it's dehumanizing, brutalizing labor.
We need a better economic system. We cannot just throw millions of people out of work without doing something about that -- but the solution is not to go back to that old system. We have to go to a smarter, not a dumber, production system, which in turn requires smarter, not dumber people.
The question is how to do that, and it's extremely difficult. It's difficult because in the old system, because it was low-skill, work was essentially inter-changeable. If we got laid off, or we fell ill, they could replace us in five minutes because they didn't have to teach anybody anything.
Now, of course, the high skill levels require that you either get people that have the skills, or there's an investment of time in teaching. Not only mechanical skills, but teaching culture, in the sense of learning how to get along with the other members of that team. You're no longer a machine, you're a person.
HT: You can't take a manager out of a foundry that operates the way it did in 1940 or 1950 and put him into a high-tech company in Silicon Valley.
AT: It's not just the workers, it's the managers too.
The basic change is we're moving from interchangeable labor. As the Industrial Revolution gave rise to interchangeable parts and interchangeable labor, we're now moving to noninterchangeable parts because they can be custom-made and individualized as the job requires, and to noninterchangeable people.
That has a phenomenal effect on economics and social life, in the sense that in the old system, if you had X numbers of workers unemployed, you could stimulate the economy, create X number of jobs, and you'd solve your unemployment problem. Today you could have X number of people unemployed, you could create X jobs, but those workers could not do the jobs. Which means that the unemployment problem is directly related to skill requirements, and is much more complex than where you have interchangeable labor. It is also doubly difficult because of the rate of change-the skill requirements are changing constantly. So that even if you train people for a job, by the time they're trained the skill requirements may have changed again.
So that creates a truly intractable problem of unemployment that's not going to go away.
HT: But most of the unemployment is among the people who sell muscle power. People who worked in the construction industries, and there is very little construction going on. People who worked in auto factories.
AT: Second-wave work is drying up. That creates a monumental social problem for us, and I don't think that even this administration, which talks a lot about it, understands how profound this crisis is.
HT: And neither does the AFL-CIO.
AT: Well, it depends on which union, because some of them are organizing knowledge workers. But the old mainstream unions.
HT: I'm disappointed in the CWA. They give lip service to understanding, but I don't believe they really do.
The unions tend to be violently opposed to telecommuting, for instance.
AT: Yes! The unions see that as an attack, whereas it may be liberating for many workers.
Both management and the unions just seem to be interested in imposing this hierarchical adversarial boilerplate on people and making them conform to it rather than giving work a more human structure.
So this is what we've been writing about for our lives, basically, and what is sad for us is to know that we, and others as well, have written some of this stuff twenty-five and thirty years ago, but America wasn't prepared to do anything about it.
HT: I don't think it was as clear then-it wasn't as clear then that it was really happening. Then, when we published The Third Wave in 1980, the New York Times blasted us and said that the idea of people working at home was ridiculous.
AT: "The Tofflers are visionary."
HT: "Ridiculous. People would never work at home." They asked the question, "Why would anybody want to work at home?"
AT: [laughs] And one of the great joys of the last few months was to see an article in the New York Times, in the same position as that first article I described, on page one, saying, "Guess what? People are working at home!" [laughterl
HT: Reporting on this as if they had always known that this was the case! Tell us the story of your run-in with Don Regan...
HT: That was a White House lunch. We were invited to have lunch with President Reagan, then-Vice President Bush, I think Meese was at that lunch, and it was Regan's first day in the White House as chief of staff. And of course he was invited to the lunch also. I think there were eight futurists and eight White House people.
It was in the family dining room in the White House, and it was just an open discussion. The president was asking us questions.
AT: I opened by saying that futurists don't all see the world in the same way...
HT: And we don't. We disagree violently.
AT: But we all agree that something very big is happening, and it's not just more of the same. And Regan jumped in...
HT: After Al gave the introduction and said we don't all agree, Regan jumped up. "Aaah, you futurists," he said, "you all think we're going to run around cutting each other's hair and flipping each other's hamburgers. It's going to be a service society," he said, "and America's not going to be a great manufacturing nation anymore."
The men are all talking, byt they're not addressing his question, and I sat there for about ten minutes waiting for one of these men to answer him, and they didn't. And it's very difficult when you're in a room with all these men to get a word in edgewise, because they don't pause long enough to take a breath for anybody to jump in. So after about ten minutes of waiting for somebody to answer him, and they're all talking from their egos and their own agendas...
AT: Most of us don't have egos.... [laughsl
HT: ... I couldn't stand it any more, and as soon as one of the gentlemen took a slight breath, I said, "I would like to answer your question, Mr. Regan. No, that's not what we're saying at all. We're not saying that America is not going to be a great manufacturing country. We certainly are. But we're going to have fewer people in the factories doing the manufacturing. We're going to have more automation. We're going to be more productive."
At that time, it must have been 1985, the example that was current then was the new Macintosh factory as opposed to the old Apple factory. They produced many more computers with fewer numbers of people in the factory. I had the figures.
AT: You were also talking about agriculture.
HT: I said, "Because we have less than 3% of our population in agriculture today, does that mean that we're not a great agricultural country?"
AT: In fact, the fewer people we had in agriculture, the larger the output has been. Why could that not similarly be the case with manufacturing?
HT: And I think I might as well have spoken to the wall. He never responded. And I don't think he understood the answer.
AT: Indeed, we wrote him afterwards and gave him some figures, for that and some other questions, and never got a reply from Don Regan. But Regan has not gone down in history as the nicest, most intelligent chief of staff we've ever had.
True. But suppose that somebody like him comes along now, and they're trying to get a clue but they're fixated on the wrong thing-how do you explain to such a person the difference between a knowledge worker and a burger-flipper?
The value-added component of a product used to be in the physical labor that went into it. The value-added component of a product today is the information.
AT: The problem is the manufacturers, the traditional second-wave blue-collar smokestack industries, have an ideology. An ideology is a self-justifying rationale. Their ideology, which they've managed to peddle to a great many intellectuals in this country and to a large part of the political establishment as well, is that manufacturing is the key to an economy, and that services are necessarily unproductive and a waste, basically.
Now, first of all, the tools we use to measure service and information productivity were designed to measure hardware, not software. We're lousy at measuring the productivity of services. So the answer is when we see statistics saying in the service sector group, productivity went down, they're meaningless, essentially. But they are useful as informational propaganda in defense of the old sectors.
HT: And in Marxist economics, the white-collar worker lived off the surplus of the manufacturer-the manual worker.
AT: And that's basically not different from the classical capitalist economist, either. Classical economists also tended to look at mental labor as wasteful and nonproductive.
Different windows on the same thing.
AT: The knowledge worker is one who processes information, data, ideas, symbols, images, and other forms of knowledge, as part of the task of creating wealth. This is done at many different levels of complexity, some very simple, some very complex, some more abstract, some less abstract. You can clearly see that an increasing number of jobs, both in manufacturing and in services (if that distinction still has any usefulness), are based on knowledge manipulation.
HT: Give the example of the seeds that caused a riot in India.
AT: I like that example to suggest the conflicts that are inherent in all of this. The process of moving from one form of production to another is not necessarily a peaceful process, so there are winners and there are losers in that process. And that's true, not just domestically.
In India, in July, there was a riot-angry farmers attacked an American agribusiness firm. Now, why did they do that? They said that the firm was selling them seeds at too high a price, considering the fact that that variety of seeds had originated in India in the first place. The company, of course, had taken the seeds and genetically enhanced them, which was, in fact, radically improving their productivity in India, by in effect injecting more information into those seeds.
But the information is invisible. It took millions of dollars of research and development to do that, but the Indian farmers cannot see that. They cannot see or touch the knowledge, the information. They can touch the high produc- tivity, but that's not now, that's after the crop comes in.
So they in fact went on the rampage, even though it started out as a peaceful demonstration.
HT: Now the value added is the information.
AT: We believe that that is going to be true for almost all products. Information is being injected into hardware, and of course is the basis of software. So that we're truly going to an economic system in which knowledge, as we have argued, is the central resource.
In Powershift we made the point, as we've made repeatedly on other occasions, that the reason that knowledge is the central resource today is that with appropriate knowledge, we can reduce all the other resources needed.
HT: You can substitute knowledge for labor.
AT: Knowledge for labor, knowledge for energy, knowledge for space in the warehouse, knowledge for capital, knowledge for all the inputs of production. Knowledge can reduce the requirements. It therefore is what in Powershift we called the "ultimate substitute" for the other factors of production..."
I'm kind of curious-take those smart workers back in the factory who weren't allowed to be smart. Does this do anything for them, or are they just getting crushed in a different machine than the one they were getting crushed in thirty years ago?
Institutions mutate; what happens to people?
AT: Millions of people get caught in the crush. And one way of thinking about that is to look back at how the Industrial Revolution made its way onto the stage of history. There was massive dislocation. There were wars and civil wars and unemployment and just horrible conditions for many, many people.
And yet, over the course of history, populations have migrated from the countryside to the slums of the city, because the slums of the city, as bad as they were, were better than the countryside. That's still happening all over the world. So the people who are attacking the terrible conditions today may be telling the truth, but it's not set in adequate historical perspective.
The reality is all those peasants who are pouring into Mexico City or into Bangkok or into wherever are not stupid. They're smart also. They're not educated, they're not economically skilled at high-productivity work, but they're not stupid, and they know that even digging garbage in Manila is better than living out in the countryside and starving to death like an animal.
HT: If those workers stayed in the auto plant doing the interchangeable jobs they're not better off. If they left the factory and-
AT: If they got some skills that were not outmoded by the time they got them-
That's a problem. I was talking to some teachers in a high-school job-training program recently, and they're trying to come to grips with the fact that any skill they teach those kids will be worthless in five years. So what do you do? What do you teach?
HT: You teach them to think.
AT: Yes. You have to teach meta-skills of some kind, and it's easy to say, but it's not so easy to do. You've got to teach skills about skills. And that is not something we know very much about doing. Nobody knows very much about doing that.
We think that it would be helpful for them to understand things like how to model. Because if I understand what a model is, I can model lots of things. Even if a model is inaccurate, it's better to have a model of a situation than to be confused by an assortment of unorganized, or random data. If a model is inadequate, you can fix it or replace it.
HT: I'd teach kids how to plug in and out of Internet. Or get into six hundred databases. How do you know that you're getting good medical care? By reading all the relevant papers that have been written. You can get access to them. We have a friend who has a business. He's distilled vodka that is free of impurities.
AT: Give him a plug, honey! Tell her the name of the product! [ laughsl
HT: Oh yes. SKYY vodka. It's sold here in San Francisco.
He was thinking of bottling it in small airline bottles, and he went to look at the machinery needed to do this.
AT: He said they wanted fifty or one hundred thousand dollars for the machinery, but as an engineer, he said, "I could make that for S15,000."
HT: He said, "You know, the patents are probably all expired."
He was talking to his assistant about this, and the assistant said, "Don't worry." He hooked up his computer, and in fifteen minutes he had a printout of all the relevant patents."
Our friend said, "In the past I'd have to go to a patent attorney, I'd have to pay for a patent search, and this kid had it for me in fifteen minutes." That, to me, is an example of somebody who doesn't just have rote and repetitive computer skills. He thought about it. He thought about where the databases were. He accessed them, he got the information, he had it printed out
He is invaluable to his employer.
AT: He made his boss very, very happy that day. And saved him loads of money. That translates into productivity, if you measure productivity the way economists do, to include alcohol as productive! [laughsl
One thing keeps occurring to me -- What about filtration? As you get more and more information-dependent, you also have a much bigger garbage-in, garbage-out problem. The consequences of disinformation, or bad information, or propaganda are all the more serious.
HT: In Future Shock in 1970 we talked about information overload. I think if you're bombarded with too much information about anything you get over loaded and you can't function.
We were at Fort Knox recently looking at the programmers working in the simulations for the M1A1 tanks, they were trying to create programs that took unnecessary data off the screen so the tank driver was not bombarded with all of this irrelevant information. It seems to me that's the job of metaprogram- mers-- how do you get the information that's relevant at the time?
And how do you avoid being manipulated by somebody who's trying to feed you information to make you do what they want?
AT: You do that by understanding that all information is manipulated.
HT: But you as the operator still have the option of getting additional information
AT: We're not only manipulated deliberately, but we're also victims of looking at a map and believing it is the same as the territory. Korzybski says no. Korzybski was the father of general semantics, and he had a slogan: "The map is not the territory." The map is not the teritory.
HT: The word is not the thing.
AT: The word is not the thing. And I know that from personal experience.
As a correspondent in Washington -- I spent a few years there -- I remember coming home from a very complex set of congressional hearings. All day long, seven hours of detailed testimony about disarmament. And it had to do with throw weights and warheads and just really, really complicated stuff.
HT: And he had to boil all that down to five hundred words.
AT: And suddenly I had to write the story, which would appear on page one of my paper, and I had to do it by a certain hour. I wrote it, and I said, "You know, that doesn't really capture the complexity of what went on in that room."
So I wrote it again, and again, and again, and again, and again. I kept throw- ing the versions away trying to encapsulate the complex reality that occurred in that room, and finally the deadline was upon me, and that was the version that was going to get printed.
Now as I filed that story, it suddenly occurred to me that there were going to be nine other stories around it on page one, written by nine other journalists, some of whom might be more or less intelligent than I, more or less capable than I, more or less responsible.
And the consequence of that is that what we read is essentially a fiction. It may be the best fiction we can get. It's as close to the reality, perhaps, as we can make it, but it ain't the reality. So as far as information is concerned, we're also at the mercy of deliberate manipulators, and that's true of all politicians and all bureaucrats and so forth...
And all marketing departments...
AT: And all marketing departments.
HT: And all governments.
AT: All of that.
In Powershift there are two chapters of which I'm more proud than Heidi -- they've never been favorites of hers, but I think they're quite useful. They outline the tactics that are used to manipulate information, whether you're talking about political systems or individual corporate bureauracies and so forth.
You can disguise the sender -- make believe it's coming from a different source than it really is coming from. You can disguise the message itself -- you can tamper with the message itself. You can tamper with the communications. You can affect the receiver. You can withhold. You can route the memo to only these people and not those people. You can overload. You can send the budget all in one gigantic document, as they do in Congress, so they can't have a chance to really understand it. Or you can dribble the information out so slowly they can't see the pattern. There are a million information tactics that are used every day of the week.
And now that it's digital, it's even easier! You can put flying saucers in that picture...
AT: Exactly! So the first of those chapters deals with conventional information tactics, and the second chapter in that series deals with what we call metatactics as a result of the arrival of the computer. So there you have many more options of how to manipulate.
HT: You can build models and put in some variables and leave out others.
AT: You could weight them differently.
You could get something purporting to be the objective facts which is carefully filtered to one point of view or another. My experience is that most people aren't even aware of what goes into this -- "Oh, I saw it on TV so it must be true!"
HT: We have a friend who's an eminent psychopharmacologist and statistical mathematician, and he says, "Always look at the research design. And then look at the basic statistics. And if they don't make sense, don't just accept them.
AT: It struck me as interesting some years ago when Bush was still in -- Sununu, who was a computernik, was chief of staff, and he got into a big battle with Gore over the model for global warming.
What was interesting to me was not the substance of their positions, but the fact that the argument took place over the adequacy of the model. That's pretty sophisticated. Sununu was arguing that we don't have enough points of information, enough data coming in, the model is inadequate, why should we base major social or economic policies on this? Gore's position was: the model is adequate, the information is adequate for us to do something.
Now that's a step removed from the argument over what you should do. That is a meta-battle going on.
It's an agenda-driven meta-battle.
AT: Of course! Everything's agenda-driven in Washington.
HT: The people in the White House who write the option papers boil this all down and give the President three options.
AT: High, low, medium.
It's like those multiple-choice tests where you want to check None of the Above
AT: That's right. Drop the nuke, do nothing, or continue doing what you have been doing.
HT: There may be eighteen other options.
AT: And indeed the option writers lead the decision maker by the hand. I've spent some time looking at options, potential options, as a literary form, and have looked at this and talked to the people doing this, in Tokyo, in Moscow, and in Washington.
And I discovered, for example, in Washington, that you can say, "Here's a problem, Mr. President. Here are three options. Tick one off." Or you can say, much-more cleverly, "Here is a problem, Mr. President. Here is what you've said about it before. Here are several options. Choose one." [laughs]
So all information emanating from any large institution is regarded by the people in the institution as essentially ammunition. Words are info-bullets. All agenda-driven. Sometimes the people are not even aware of their agenda, but that's a different story. That's another level of complexity
HT: ! think you have to assume that you're being manipulated. But it's good to ask the question of how are you being manipulated, and by whom.
AT: You may want to lend yourself to some manipulations, because you may agree with the agenda.
I'm sure we've been used unbeknownst to us in defense of all kinds of things that we would not necessarily agree with. And if we are, you can be sure that you are and everybody else is.