I have seen the future and I am opposed: Donald Norman

Donald Norman:

I fear the future of our technologies, but not for the usual reasons. For me, the future would bring forth solutions to our needs and wants, design that provides value in a sustainable and responsible manner. Technology that is relevant and appropriate. But what I see developing seems driven by greed and profit, resulting in restrictive business plans and attempts to enforce proprietary constraints on activity by corporate empires.

The power of my electronic computing and communication equipment is more dictated by my service provider than by the technology itself. Imagine traveling in the future and entering a new country:

 

Please have your papers ready. Passport, visa, customs form, medical coverage, service provider roaming agreement.

 

I wrote the first draft of this column from Madeira where I was attending a conference. I couldn’t get on to the Internet because, irony of ironies, this was a technology conference: the 300 attendees had so overwhelmed the hotel’s meager Internet that it became useless. Three hundred attendees probably meant 500 -800 IP devices, counting laptop computers, phones and all the demonstration machines, often requiring multiple IP addresses.

Why not use our smartphones? We dared not. Exorbitant roaming fees imposed by the service providers struck fear into the hearts (and bank accounts) of foreign attendees. Without access to data, what was left for my smartphone to do? Almost nothing. Smart phone became stupid phone. Without a network connection, the most useful technology available in the phone was the backlit screen which meant that my smartphone was reduced to a flashlight.

I can no longer function by myself. When my smartphone becomes stupid, I too become stupid. Just as I am reliant on technology and the skills of others to clothe, house and feed me, I am reliant on my technology for my intelligence. My phone translates foreign languages, provides maps and directions, recommends restaurants and tells me the news of the day. It lets me communicate with friends around the world and in general, allows me to function. All my knowledge depends upon access to communication services: my email, my calendar, my maps and guidebooks. But all of this is at the mercy of the service provider.

Exorbitant roaming fees and a lack of adequate technological infrastructure reduce me to idiocy. My smartphone doesn’t work when I need it most — when I am in a foreign country. Why? Because of the roaming charges and greed of my service provider and the difficulty of purchasing a temporary subscription to data services when in a foreign land.

My intelligence is in the cloud. My life is in the cloud. My friends, photographs, ideas and mail. My life. My mind. Take away my cloud and I am left mindless.

Notice that my isolation is only partially the result of technological limitations. The hotel’s lack of Internet access could be overcome. They had never experienced a technology conference before so they assumed that only a portion of the attendees would be connected to the Internet, and they would primarily do email. Instead, they got a taste of the future world where everyone has multiple devices requiring Internet connection, all wanting a full experience of rich sound and images. That problem, however, is easily remedied.

The much more fundamental problem is caused by the business models of the service providers, whether they be for radio or television, cable or satellite, telephone or mobile phone. Each of these providers wish to maximize their profit while simultaneously minimizing that of their competition. They try to enforce proprietary standards, locking people into their own distribution: Think proprietary digital rights management systems for music, movies and books, think locked cellular phones, think region codes on movie DVDs, think overly restrictive copyrights on content and over-inclusive patents on inventions and ideas. Each system has some basis in logic and business, each has some legitimate reason for existence. But these systems are implemented and enforced in ways that restrict them far beyond what is necessary — even to the point of reducing creativity and hurting individuals.

More and more of our open, universal networks are becoming locked down, available only from within the walls erected by corporate interests. This is how a number of our early communication services started: they were walled gardens with all news, entertainment and information locked away inside, accessible only to members. This is the model being followed in today’s television world of cable and satellite delivery — it threatens to be the model of all service and content providers.

Years ago, when I was at Apple, senior executives from a number of computer companies met to try to agree on some open standards so that programs and systems written for one computer system would work on all systems. The Microsoft representative simply laughed at us. There already is a standard, he told the rest of us, and our problems would all be solved if we simply followed the standard. What standard? Microsoft, of course. His view was instantly rejected by the executives at Sun Microsystems, IBM and Apple (me), but it wasn’t long before his view came to dominate the business. Sun no longer exists, IBM is no longer in the personal computer business and what is the most popular suite of programs for the Apple computer? Microsoft Office, of course. I write this column in Microsoft Word even though it is running on an Apple machine. That is the goal of every technology company: a domination so complete that their systems are the worldwide standard.

The basic rule of business for any new technology is that all the followers want open standards; the leader sees no need for them. Yes, Linux tries valiantly to exist as an open system for personal and business computers, available to all, but the world depends upon the offerings of the few major players, especially the applications provided by Microsoft Office. Linux simply cannot compete.

But what about the Internet, an open system, with open standards where any browser has instant access to all of its delights? Isn’t this the wave of the future? Yes, but this future is in danger of becoming one of walled gardens, where different services are contained within the bounds of subscriptions. Want one group of television shows? Join this garden. Want another? Join that garden. Want news articles, there is yet another garden to join. Want to buy a book or magazine for your electronic reader? You might have to match the item to the reader, the service provider and perhaps even the device. Different items will be sold through different distributors and not all will work on your particular brand of reader. We will all have to purchase multiple brands of readers.

Are tablets and smartphones the future means of accessing Internet services? Perhaps, but each software infrastructure provider and each service provider may impose their restrictions on what will work on their particular tablet. The power of the tablets and phones lie in the applications that run on them, and those are likely to be tightly controlled. Even where they are not controlled, the different operating systems and closed standards for these devices means that a book, game, or application publisher has to develop multiple applications of a single product, one for each different platform, a requirement that the small, independent providers will be unable to meet.

The supposed freedom of the Internet works only if one can gain access. Browsers promise to allow access to the world of Internet sites, but only if the browser will work on the device, and only if the device will allow the media tools that provide the rich textual, graphics, photographic, musical and video formats to operate. Service providers will impose their own tariffs and restrictions. Will communication applications work properly, or will they, too, be restricted by the combined forces of the device manufacturers and the service providers? Current trends are not reassuring.

Tim Wu’s book The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, demonstrates how this process works. Wu’s major theme is the inevitability of proprietary controls as large corporations discover the market value of exclusivity. All of our modern communication and transportation industries started off in similar ways — whether telephone or film, radio or television, video or websites, Internet conferencing or blogging. At the outset, technologies are deployed to anyone who can be both providers and recipients of the powers of the medium. For example, the first phonographs could both record and play back. Telephone systems proliferated, run by cities or small companies. Radio amateurs and university groups freely developed radio stations. On YouTube, people can both produce and view streaming video. Amateurs and innovative inventors expanded the horizons. Then, as the business potential became obvious to corporate warlords, they struck, buying up small businesses, getting willing governments to enact rules, regulations and laws to protect corporate interests and turning the experimental two-way publications into one-way broadcasts within closed walls. The stories are remarkably similar whether one talks about the phonograph or movies, the telephone or radio, television or newspapers, music or book publishing. (For more, see Wu’s interview with the New York Times.)

Why do we all meekly allow the speed at which we access the Internet to be much slower when we send than when we receive? Service providers will claim it is because, on average, people receive more than they generate. So what? Why would it harm companies to provide equal access? Or perhaps, is it because they want us to be consumers, consuming material sent to us rather than producers, creating our own content — whether text, voice or visual? This asymmetry reinforces the view of the service and content providers; that we consume whatever they produce. All this in the face of great creativity by amateur musicians, photographers and videographers: Where would YouTube be without the everyday creator? Oops, that might be a good question but it might be too late. Where will YouTube be in the future when corporations decide to dominate?

I fear the Internet is doomed to fail, to be replaced by tightly controlled gardens of exclusivity. The Internet has extended beyond the capabilities of its origins: the trusting, open interactions among a few research universities. Today it is too easy for unknown entities to penetrate into private homes and businesses, stealing identities and corporate secrets. Fear of damaging programs and the ever-increasing amount of spam (some just annoying but more and more deadly and malicious), threatens the infrastructure. And so, just as previous corporate warlords used the existence of real inefficiencies and deficiencies in other media to gain control, equipment, service and content providers, large corporations will try to use the deficiencies of the Internet to exert control and exclusivity. All the better, they will claim, to provide safe, secure and harmonious operation, while incidentally enhancing profits and reducing competition. Similar arguments will apply to governments as well, invoking the fears of the existing Internet in order to exert control for the benefit of the existing ruling parties.

I have seen the future, and if it turns out the way it is headed, I am opposed. I fear our free and continual access to information and services is doomed to be replaced by tightly controlled gardens of exclusivity. It is time to rethink the present, for it determines the future.

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