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Technological Ambivalence

TR: Do you agree with many pundits that the next computer revolution will come from speech-recognition technology?

LUCKY: That’s a vision that people have had for a long time. But we’re not even close to having a Hal-like machine that can converse with us intelligently. And frankly, I’m not even sure I want to talk to my computer. This might be another example of an equilibrium state; maybe the mouse-icons-windows interface is going to be around for a very long time. Nothing better has come along.

TR: Another proposal to broaden computer use is to market inexpensive “network computers” that derive their power from the Net.
LUCKY: I think this is a dumb idea. When I give talks, I often ask the audience, how many of you would like one of these? Nobody raises their hand. It’s basically a control issue. Corporate CIOs would like to control the information infrastructure.

TR: Do you have any regrets about where technology has brought us?
LUCKY: Well, we benefit from the connectedness of the Web and e-mail and pagers and cell phones and everything. But I resent that these information tentacles are reaching out for you all the time, sucking you in and pulling you down. I find this a bigger and bigger personal burden. I just can’t seem to have it both ways. I thought early in my career that the goal of telephony was to have the Dick Tracy wristwatch phone-until the day I realized that when I have one, the world can call me at any time. I don’t want that-the world’s a big place.

TR: Is this part of the fashionable griping about “information overload?”
LUCKY: It’s not quite that simple. With e-mail, for instance, it’s annoying to have to deal with too many messages-100, say, is too many. But if there are too few, then the world has forgotten about you, and that’s scary. If I come in in the morning and there are only 10 e-mails, I get really nervous. The ideal number is somewhere in between-probably around 25.

TR: A similar tradeoff applies when you’re doing searches on the Web, doesn’t it?
LUCKY: Yes-I either get 10,000 hits or zero, and I never seem to find what I’m looking for. One expert told me that the search engine wasn’t failing-I was just incompetent. I didn’t know how to craft my queries. She may be right, but I said, look, that’s your problem. You’re giving me this complex query language stuff and expecting me to be able to master it. You’re just not meeting the market demand for a really easy, powerful search tool. And this is important-search engines are the key to the universe right now.

TR: Do you look at the Web as a giant library?
LUCKY: I think it can be a lot better than that. It’s really a library filled with people. If you tap into the wisdom of the people in the library, together with the books, then that’s what will make a real difference. Often in life when you want to find out something, you ask friends and you ask experts in that field, and they point you to stuff that they think is good. But the search engines on the Net are sort of disembodied right now-they have none of that wisdom in them about what might be really good out there.

TR: What do you fear is being lost in the digital age?
LUCKY: We’re not producing artifacts of our work in progress anymore. Go to the British Museum and look at their manuscript section. They have handwritten things from Mozart and Shakespeare. When you see the Bach manuscripts and you see that he scratched out that note and changed it to the one that you now know-that’s awesome. And when you write on a computer, that kind of document doesn’t exist.

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