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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 8 Number 2 1998


A Review of Dertouzos' What Will Be: How the New

World of Information Will Change Our Lives


C. B. Crawford, Ph.D.
Institute of Leadership Studies
Fort Hays State University
Hays, KS 67601
(785) 628-4303



Dertouzos’ What Will Be: How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives reminds one of the once expression and song lyric "my future’s so bright I gotta wear shades". Dertouzos narrates a vision of the future based on his extensive history with the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science, connections outside higher education, and informed social trends.

What Will Be is broken into three equally valuable sections. The first, Shaping the Future, consists of history and fantasy about where we have been, where we are technically now, and where we are likely to go to. Dertouzos claims that the information marketplace is upon us, which while not a significant revelation, does lay the groundwork for what he considers to be the future of the marketplace. Dertouzos’ develops his vision out of a concise, yet revealing, history ranging from the earliest computer circuits to the Arpanet and Bitnet days, to the current version of the Internet that most people have at least a limited familiarity with. Dertouzos, in "humie" style, simplifies the process of networking by suggesting that a network is a pipe that carries 0s and 1s between locations. Pipes have vastly increased and will increase dramatically soon. Dertouzos leads us into the future by discussing the range of extra-bodily experiences that we may or may not wish to engage in. Clearly, Dertouzos’ goal in this section is to explore the possibilities of the ultimate human/machine interface, but most will find his future incredible if not unattainable by current generations. In the final part of this section is a detailed discussion about the technology-assisted players in the new drama that is unfolding before us. Dertouzos discusses the role of software moguls, pipe managers, and hyper-organizers working within a comprehensive information infrastructure. Dertouzos’ basic purpose in this section is to frame the vision and possibility for the future of information work. To paraphrase, Dertouzos might well say that we have come some distance with our technological tools, we are currently exploiting them to achieve a better future, and that future will be rich and full of opportunity and incredible benefits that technology and the information infrastructure can provide.

In the second section, How Your Life Will Change, is a futuristic exposition swollen with great possibilities and probabilities. Dertouzos paints an artful mosaic where art, health, commerce, sustenance, consumer goods, play, and pleasure are only a word away. Dertouzos makes the case that arts and entertainment, given the broad appeal, can be even broader with the possibilities of the future. Music and paintings on demand may well populate our existence. Health care is enhanced four-fold: improved record keeping via "Guardian Angel", improved physician skills through better simulation, better tools through robotics, and better access from any location. Our virtual mother makes us aware of the right foods to eat. Consumer goods are a vocal command or mouse click away. Play and the "forbidden pleasures", according to Dertouzos, will be enhanced by robots, better human-machine interfaces, and virtual realities that we have yet to fully realize. Our economic foundation will complete the shift from goods-based to service-oriented through electronic commerce. Leadership is forced to reorient from centralized workplaces to dispersed and outsourced interrelated units. Governments are forced to practice politics in an age where information exchange is immediate and interactive; where politics is more global than ever, where the process of warring is marked by smart bombs symptomatic of advanced technology, and where privacy is but a fašade for most. In short, Dertouzos’ future is one where our society is both more stable and less stable than present. Our social fabric is more stable in as much as people have more tools to do their tasks, more information to base decisions on, and more people in a network of support. Alternatively, our social fabric unravels when the technologies become invasive or are the domain of the chosen few controlling (elected and appointed) technocrats.

The final section of What Will Be, Reuniting Technology and Humanity, is welcomed and appreciated. Dertouzos works deductively, building on the promised "facts" of the future from the prior section, to more fully develop a vision beyond the "what" of technology, to the "how" and the "why". Dertouzos suggests that information, rather than new technology, is the tie that binds humans to the future. Dertouzos speaks of the upsides and downsides of the improvement in bandwidth that makes information exchange much richer. Bandwidth is improved through two human capabilities: the electronic bulldozer and electronic proximity. While some information gains value, much of our information in the future becomes info-junk. Dertouzos notes, "Information has economic value if it leads to the satisfaction of human desires. A small portion is final goods, which derive their value from supply and demand. By far the larger portion is intermediate goods that derive their value substantially from the value of the goods and services to which they lead" (p. 236). Our electronic bulldozers, or the enhancement in technology to the point that some human work is replaced by machines, both increases bandwidth and the information that travels in the pipe. The new era, Dertouzos’ Work Free Society, creates consumables and services on demand without factory workers. Though remote, Dertouzos’ possible future even gives him great pause. On the other hand, electronic proximity, or the ability to transcend physical, emotional, and intellectual differences through technology development, is a very real method used for expansion. Information workers, the new middle class, will use electronic bulldozers to break the current limits of the pipe. Dertouzos cautions that a widespread adoption of the future he is selling could have dire effects on humanity, specifically, interpersonal contacts. Dertouzos labels the intelligentsia of the future urban villagers. He expresses his concern, "If urbaneness dominates…, then electronic proximity is not likely to increase compassion, family cohesiveness, and concerns for community, because most people would agree that the physical proximity of urban living has dulled these qualities. If virtual urbaneness dominates, the twenty-first-century urban villagers may become more indifferent to their fellow humans, pursuing the self ahead of all else even more" (p. 280). Electronic proximity has the capability to undercut cultural expression, but Dertouzos contends that it is more likely to strengthen those ties. Dertouzos comments extensively on the nature of the duality of techie and humie in each person. While immersed in the possibility of technology, Dertouzos strongly suggests that maintaining the divide between techie and humie is problematic and does not serve the future well. Instead, Dertouzos suggests that the logics of the techie are mutable to the passion and practicality of the humie…technology is without value if its application cannot be humanly understood or applied. Dertouzos calls for massive expeditions across the techie-humie divide. Forging the bridge comes at the cost of learning and accepting the other side in the context of education, business, and the social. Finally, Dertouzos creates an agenda for action to minimize the downside of future innovation. His agendas (for the industrialized world, the poor, business, techies, humies, and the government) are comprehensive and sweeping, though quite rational and logical given his posture.

Dertouzos paints a picture of the future containing both answers and paradoxes. While technology serves humanity well in providing more quantity, quality, access, and utility of information, the same Work Free Society has clear detrimental aspects, even if it were feasible. Dertouzos is well on target in his discussions about the possibilities; those immersed in the technology would say that much of what he hypothesizes is attainable. Many should hope that some of the possibilities are less than accurate, especially in light of the invasive and detrimental aspects of some of the new technology. Dertouzos offers much insight for both the lay person (humie) searching for meaning and understanding in our digital world, but also offers some humanity for those technocrats that may need grounding in more than code, 0s, and 1s. In sum, this reader seriously recommends Dertouzos’ What Will Be to any reader interested in taking a look at some real and perhaps fantasy futures emerging from technology. To many, the future may be too bright, even with shades on; for others, the future is just right.


Dertouzos, M. (1997). What will be: How the new world of information will change our lives. HarperCollins: New York, NY.


Copyright 1998
Communication Institute for Online Scholarship, Inc.

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