GATES: I’m very optimistic about the role of human beings in the Information Age, because this is an era where people-their knowledge, and their ability to put that knowledge to work-will be more important than ever before. There are great dangers to thinking that just because manual labor-whether on the land or in factories-is playing a relatively smaller role in wealth creation, then people are also playing a smaller role. In fact, the Information Age is enabling people who were previously forced to pursue a single means of wealth creation-those, for example, who lived in remote areas had no option but to work on the land-to choose from a far wider range of work. Technology such as the PC, the Internet and cheap telecommunications have brought amazing mobility to the factors of production.
The Information Age has brought people together in even more fundamental ways. The increasing speed and flow of information has opened up closed economies and helped democratize the most repressive regimes. You can close geographic borders but you can’t build effective borders in cyberspace. So technology is giving people more freedom, and the power to do more with that freedom. And technology will never replace the wonders of human interaction-no matter how good PCs get at recognizing voice or handwriting, they’ll never read body language or smile back at you.
DERTOUZOS: I fully share your views and optimism on human beings and the future uses of the technologies we are developing. However, I am concerned about a split that started 300 years ago in the Enlightenment that busted up faith and reason, man and nature, which until that time were united. The liberation of reason caused science to blossom and led to the Industrial Revolution, which made our part of the world wealthy. By now, this split has taken hold, and each of us goes through life in a compartment, labeled technologist or humanist, rational or spiritual, logical or emotional. I don’t see the Information Revolution curing this split. It may even aggravate it by increasing our reliance on virtual encounters and machine knowledge. Meanwhile, the world around us is becoming explosively complex with a myriad of intertwined challenges and problems that straddle these divisions and cannot be handled with such partial mindsets. To cope with this new world, but also to enrich ourselves, I believe we need to unite our divided selves and try to become whole again. That’s what I mean by a fourth revolution aimed at understanding, beyond things, ourselves. Any thoughts along these lines?
GATES: If the Information Revolution did lead to a reliance on virtual encounters and machine knowledge, then I would agree with you. In reality, though, the computer is increasingly a gateway to knowledge, to the arts, to new cultures, and so on, that were simply not accessible before. It is creating communities that, far from being mere virtual entities, serve as the foundation for real relationships. So to the extent that the computer can link people with knowledge and cultures and each other more efficiently than any other past technology, it can help push them toward healing the rift you see. But technology is only a tool-and, like all tools, its effectiveness depends on the skill and intentions of the user. In the end, you have to put your faith in human nature. If you think the invention of the book was bad, then you will feel the same way about the changes that are coming. If the book was a good thing, then these advances carry the empowerment even further.
DERTOUZOS: I agree with you on this last point: The angels and the devils are definitely within us, not within the machines we use. And so are our divided selves. That’s why I view this as a human problem in need of a human revolution. Speaking of human problems, I believe that left to its own devices, the new world of information will increase the gap between rich and poor people, simply because computers make the rich more productive and hence richer, while the poor are standing still. Do you agree?