UK: Handy's View - The future is now the present.

UK: Handy's View - The future is now the present. - It's true that the times they are a-changing but, wonders Charles Handy, will the digital age and marvels such as e-mail and the Internet really make us any happier?

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It's true that the times they are a-changing but, wonders Charles Handy, will the digital age and marvels such as e-mail and the Internet really make us any happier?

Last week, I was handed a business card upon which only a name and an e-mail address were printed. 'So,' I said with a sigh, 'the future is now the present. I had better get myself prepared.' And what better guide to that digital future than Esther Dyson's new book Release - 2.0 (Viking, £15.99), a title which assumes that you know all about her monthly newsletter Release - 1.0, which is the vade mecum of the Internet fraternity in America, and about the language of her software world where Release - 2.0 is the name given to the updated version of a new product.

Dyson is a delightful person to meet and her book reflects her humanity and her enthusiasm. It is also an easy read, even for computer nerds like myself. The subtitle - a Design for Living in the Digital Age - is a better guide to what the book is about. It is not written for businesses or governments but for individuals, telling them what to expect and how to make the most of what she sees as a very exciting and very different world. Exciting it obviously is if you are part of it but, in spite of Dyson's enthusiasm, I remain unconvinced that the digital age is going to be the revolution in our lives that some foresee.

The thrill of it all

True, there is e-mail and web sites and soon teleshopping for all, along with smart cards, voice-recognition computers and cars that drive themselves.

We will be able to research our own job opportunities and holiday options, check the stock market minute by minute and monitor our health but, as Dyson is the first to point out, most of us still need help to interpret all the information that is now, quite literally, at our fingertips.

Maybe we'll find that we don't want to do it all ourselves. And fun though it is for some, much of the new technology is more than most of us need.

In many areas of life and work we are becoming digitally over-engineered and I suspect that, once the initial thrill is over, we shall take all this smart technology in our stride, keep the bits that really help and discard the rest as mere smart toys for grown-ups.

The basics remain the same

Most people will still be doing much of what they are doing today, driving lorries, building walls, repairing pipes, processing bills, packing or unpacking crates and cartons, loving, eating, drinking. Because, for all the digitisation that is coming our way, much of our life will continue to revolve around things and people even if those things have a lot of digital information built into them and those people write to us down wires rather than talk to us down them. The world is never going to be completely, or even largely, virtual.

I am suggesting, in short, that the digital revolution has been over-hyped. It is not going to go away but it will not change our lives and our societies as radically as that other revolutionary invention, the contraceptive pill. It may, in fact, make those lives more complicated when we are forced to make more choices on our own, particularly if that essential interpretative help is beyond the means of the people who will need it most. Rather than liberating and equalising society, the Internet and all that it brings with it may divide society between those who can't live without the Internet and those who can't cope with it.

It isn't even obvious that the digital revolution, if that is what it is, improves productivity. The rate of obsolescence of both software and hardware is obscene - the equipment has to be updated every two to three years while those using it are on a continual learning curve, a euphemism for lots of mistakes. There is little quality control over the information provided which, when combined with the sheer quantity that is available, makes those mistakes inevitable. Because of the information overload workers are responding rather than thinking - even with the help of the new screening devices that are being developed. It is odd and ironic that we need to block out the stuff that we have created ourselves!

Add to that the fact that because the Internet system is almost free, which is a large part of its attraction, it is badly overused, creating tedious log jams and building up the less visible cost - the time of those involved. In fact, since the Internet never closes, there is now no obvious end to the working day for the 'informated' ones. More and more businesses are forced into becoming non-stop organisations just to keep up with their global competitors and to cope with the flow of data. This is no help to effective performance, let alone the quality of life. Perhaps it is not surprising therefore that the productivity of the information sector does not seem to have improved in America over the last 10 years.

There are, of course, those who believe that we 'ain't seen nothing yet'.

There are marvels still to come, they say. Scientific research will benefit hugely, and the world of entertainment will see a cornucopia of new products to take our minds off our problems.

Upheaval in education

There will assuredly be many job opportunities for the interpreters of all the information and for those who can turn it into commercial products.

Consultancies of all sorts will boom. Education could be turned on its head, with teachers becoming coaches rather than subject experts, although this will take at least a generation.

Arguably, say the optimists, the greatest benefits could be political as individuals talk to individuals across borders, so that a genuine open society develops and communities of all sorts flourish.

The ultimate payoff may not necessarily be better businesses but better democracies. That is an outcome not to be sneezed at but don't count on getting richer while it happens or on having a simpler life.

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