Harley Hahn Interviews
Interview with Harley Hahn
(April 17, 1998)
(The following interview was conducted by the writer Michael Pastore and was first published on the Youthtopia Web site. Michael is the the Editorial Director of Zorba Press.)
MICHAEL PASTORE: Your book Harley Hahn's Internet Yellow Pages has been around for a long time. How did you come to write it?
HARLEY: The Internet is a global communications system. If you want to compare it to something, compare it to the worldwide postal system or the worldwide telephone system.
The Web is an information delivery system based on specific technologies like HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol). However, the Web is just one part of the Internet. The most important parts of the Internet are electronic mail, the Web, Usenet discussion groups, and mailing lists. There are other parts, but if you understand how to use these four main resources, you'll understand most everything you need to use the Internet well.
When we talk about the Internet, we're dealing with something that has two important characteristics. The first thing to recognize is that using the Internet is a brand new activity, and we still don't know how to think about it. The second thing is that the Internet is a large-scale activity. You put those two things together, and what you find is that many people are desperately trying to understand what's happening.
There is no way to measure how many people are on the Internet, how many computers there are, or how many Web pages are available. What you want to do is disregard all such numbers — there's no way they can be accurate.
What is important to realize is that there are more people using the Internet than it is possible to understand, and there are more Web pages out there than you are ever going to have time to look at. The number of people joining the Internet is growing quickly, and the number of Web pages is growing quickly.
I don't think we should say more than that. To try to put numbers on these ideas brings a false sense of meaning to something that cannot be understood quantitatively. Moreover, there is no possible way to get accurate numbers, so if you are reading an article that purports to give the size of the Internet or the Web, just ignore it and turn the page.
How can the average person, who is not a specialist, get some reliable ideas about the Internet and what it means?
We don't have to depend on the scientists or the technical people when we want to understand what the Internet means. We can talk about how significant the Internet is to us right now by looking at how it affects our culture.
The Internet is helping us make long-term changes in our cultural evolution and our society, including our political systems. One enormous change we have seen is the opportunity to share information with people all over the world. People send countless email messages back and forth all day, and people share enormous amounts of information all around the world 24 hours a day. In particular, the Internet allows people to discuss issues and solve problems via email, Web chat rooms, Usenet discussion groups and mailing lists.
The effect of the Internet on the global economy has become so large as to be almost beyond human understanding.
Another area in which the Internet has enormous significance is in our economy. The effect of the Internet on the global economy has become so large as to be almost beyond human understanding.
Certainly we know there is a lot of commerce on the Internet, such as people using credit cards to buy things. In particular, there is a huge industry based on sex-related businesses, where people pay money to look at pictures or to look at live people doing sex acts. You can also buy sexual devices, pornography, just about anything you can imagine, and there's a large amount of money changing hands.
As anyone knows who uses the Web, there is a lot of advertising and there are a great many goods for sale. But the Web is more than a marketplace. For example, people are starting to maintain their bank accounts over the Internet, and many people use the Internet to buy and sell stocks.
At first, when a computer technology is new, we use the technology to do the same things they did before, only with a computer. The next step occurs when we find ourselves using the computer for all kinds of other activities that didn't exist before the technology became available. If you examine how the world economy is changing, you can see there are now economic transactions based on information that didn't exist before the Internet, and we have already reached the point where we won't be able to do without the Internet.
For example, it wasn't too long ago that most of the banking system was run on paper. Now, of course, it is run using computers, and if you took away the computers you couldn't have a banking system; our whole economy would collapse. Although many people do not realize it, the majority of the money in the world does not exist on paper; it exists only inside a computer.
The reason I'm dwelling on the economy and on money is because, in a real sense, a lot of what we hold to be important in the world is affected to a great degree by money moving around. And when the Internet starts to change our economic system significantly, it changes our culture significantly.
More and more companies are starting to offer services over the Internet. For example, within a few years, the principal way to buy airline tickets will be over the Internet, and if you don't have access to the Internet, you may have to pay a service charge to talk to someone on the phone.
What happens in a culture when you have some things that are accessible only on the Internet? You end up with two types of people: the haves and have-nots.
Once you have an Internet connection, you have access to huge amounts of information — as long as you know how to find it and how to use it. You also have access to an enormous variety of services that simply aren't available without the Internet.
Now, what happens in a culture when you have some things that are accessible only on the Internet? You end up with two types of people: the people who have Internet access and know how to use it, and everybody else. Right now, there is some difference between these two groups. Within a few years, however, there is going to be a huge difference. We are going to see the haves and have-nots. If you don't have access to the Internet, or you don't know how to use the Internet, you're going to be a have-not.
Will this be like being illiterate?
Not really. It will be more like having a dial phone when everyone else is using one with push buttons, only the effect will be much more amplified. Having the technology at your fingertips, having Internet access, broadens your choices. More and more we're going to see a lot of things that you just can't do if you can't access the Internet.
The Internet has to be learned, and some of what you learn changes every month and you have to keep up with it. There's going to be an important dichotomy between people who use the Internet and people who don't. The people who don't use the Internet are going to be ones who are not smart enough to use it, or don't have the opportunity, or they can't afford to buy a computer, and so on. I see this dichotomy as being a crucial division between the lower and upper class.
Right now, it doesn't cost that much to access the Internet, about $100 dollars a month including everything you need: a computer, a connection, and so on. In the future, the great discrimination among people may be based less on your religion, your skin color, or how much money you have, and more on your intelligence and knowledge — the qualities that are the most valuable on the Internet. This is something that people don't really anticipate or think about very much, but as the Internet and computers in general become more and more empowering, the individuals who don't have access become less and less powerful compared to everyone else.
In other words, we are going to have an information underclass. An underclass consisting of people who don't have the access and the knowledge and the motivation to use the Internet well.
Would you say there's an information underclass already?
Absolutely, but it's not as important as it will be in a few years.
Herbert Read wrote that the Romantic Revolution in literature, beginning with Rousseau around the year 1750, was more than just a change of style, it was "a sudden expansion of consciousness — an expansion into realms of sensibility not previously accessible to the human imagination." Is the Internet as important as this?
What Read says about romantic literature has to be seen in the context of the whole romantic movement. Read was looking backward, and he saw the romantic movement as being a different way of thinking compared to the older classical system, in which people and ideas were more black and white.
Is there some application today to what he said? Yes, particularly the idea that there can be a sudden and enormously significant change in consciousness over a few decades. However, what we are seeing is the process happening over a few years. The same type of changes are happening, but as with Read, we're not going to really understand them until we can look backward through the binoculars of history.
We certainly have passed over a watershed of some type. I think that, many years from now, kids who study history in school and historians who analyze what really happened will talk about the bulk of human history as having a "before" and "after". And the dividing point will be the availability of affordable computers and the beginning of the Internet, a change that took place over the last 35 years of the twentieth century.
People will look back and, even in our lifetimes, talk about human culture before and after the Internet. But the change is not one in sensibility, like looking at the classical world through the eyes of a romantic. Rather, what we have is a sustained release of power in a way that has never happened before in the history of human evolution.
By connecting the minds of millions of people all over the world, we are unleashing a power that was never dreamed in the history of mankind, a power that we still don't even understand.
Like the Industrial Revolution?
When we look at the Industrial Revolution, we see an increase in mechanical and electrical and human power. What we have now, with the Internet, is a way for millions of people all over the world — without even knowing that they're doing it — to share their minds in such a way that we are creating far more than we could ever have dreamed.
By connecting the minds of millions of people all over the world, we are unleashing a power that was never dreamed in the history of mankind, a power that we still don't even understand.
I can't think of anything like it, even in science fiction.
In science fiction you see a lot of guesses of what the future might be, but before the mid-1990s, you never saw anything like the Internet, where the whole human race, millions of minds all over the world, can collaborate and work together unconsciously and consciously. In a way, we have a huge organism made up of millions of smaller organisms, and even the visionaries among us, the science fiction writers, never dreamed of it.
Even H.G. Wells with his brainchild, the World Brain, was thinking merely of a database of knowledge. He didn't grasp the interactivity of it at all.
Nobody really predicted the idea that, rather than create a huge artificial brain, we would instead take many small things and hook them up in complex ways, and that would be the thing that grows larger.
That's why it's hard to talk about the Internet. Because these ideas are so new, we don't even have the proper words to discuss them. We can talk about a lot of technical things, but we won't be able to understand the significance of it all until we develop the vocabulary.
What about the term "global village?"
The global village is a pretty much meaningless term. It was Marshall McLuhan who coined that phrase. He did see things in a way that other people didn't, but he saw them from a 1960s point of view. What we have today is a lot different from a global village.
A village has certain characteristics that you lose as the village grows into a city and as people become more distant from one another. The idea of a "global village" describes a time when the world itself will have some of those same characteristics as a village, primarily because the time it takes to move information around from one place to another will be small, just like a real village. However, this idea does not really capture some of the important characteristics of what is happening now. What we need is a Marshall McLuhan for the twenty-first century, because what we have now, and what is developing, is much different from a global village.
And that is?
What we have is an organism that we can call the Internet or, more informally, the Internet. The Internet is — and I believe this to be literal — a new life-form. However, this is hard for a lot of people to believe, so if you want to take the idea as a metaphor, that's fine.
I read about this idea in the introduction to one of your books. What exactly do you mean?
The Internet is a life-form that is different from anything that has ever existed on Earth before, a life-form composed of four different parts.
One part consists of the millions of computers all over the world that are connected into the Internet. The second part is all the communication lines that connect everything together, that is, the infrastructure: the telephone wires, satellite links, optical fiber, and so on. The third part is the information that is stored on the Internet, accessible to everyone. There is a huge amount of information to which we are constantly adding and making changes.
I think it is important to consider these three things — the computers, the connections, and the information — separately, independent of one another. In particular, we should realize that the information has a life of its own, regardless of what computers we choose to use to build the Internet.
The fourth part of the Internet, this new organism, consists of the millions of human minds that, at various times, are connected to the Internet.
Now, when you connect to the Internet, you are, of course, an organism on your own. But during that time, you are also part of the Internet. You are part of a much larger organism, one so large that we can't even understand the significance of it. In the same way that you can be a person in your own right and a member of your family, you can also be a person in your own right, and, at the same time, a component of the Internet. And that's what you are every time you connect.
Can you explain why it's more than just a metaphor to say that the Internet is a life-form?
The Internet is an organism that is growing larger, an organism with four basic components: computers, communication lines, information and people's minds.
We tend to think of the "brain power" of the Internet as being provided by computers, but I believe the real power of the Internet is provided by the people's minds. Connecting to a Internet is something we have never been able to do before in human history. Nobody ever planned it or even dreamed of it — it just kind of happened biologically. Thus, I say the Internet is an organism that is growing larger, an organism with four basic components: computers, communication lines, information and people's minds.
Now, when you study basic biology, one of the first things you discuss is the question "What is life?" What does it mean to say something is alive? What is the significance when you say, for example, that this object is a rock and it's not alive, but this other thing is a cat or a human being or a tree or a mushroom or a bacterium, and these things are alive? There is certainly a huge difference between a plant and a bacterium and a person and a tree, and yet we say they're all alive. What do they all have in common?
When you answer this question, you end up with particular characteristics, and you say that if something has most of these characteristics, it is alive. For example, you ask if the object can respond to change in its environment, if it can grow, and so on. In this basic biological sense, if you look at what it takes to classify something as alive rather than not alive, I believe the Internet fulfills that definition, and thus qualifies as being alive.
You can't call the Internet a species, and you can't think of it as a type of life similar to ours. The Internet is not a biological life-form. But human beings are very different from bacteria and viruses, and, yet somehow we've learned to understand all those things so well that we have no problem recognizing they are alive. However, just a few generations ago, almost everybody would have thought you were crazy to think that there were such things as tiny microorganisms that were alive.
Do you think this idea — that the Internet is a life-form somehow connected with machines — could frighten a lot of people? At the very least, would people have trouble accepting the idea or even understanding it?
It's a good question. Maybe I could divide your question into two parts.
Is the idea of a live Internet frightening to people, and should we be frightened by it? To start, the idea of the Internet being alive is not frightening to most people because almost nobody realizes it's happening. You can't be afraid of something if you don't know it's happening.
But should we be frightened?
No. It's true that we have a new organism growing, and that it is imposing significant changes in the behavior patterns of human beings all over the world. It is also true that we never planned for any of this to happen.
What I find amazing, however, is that, although we don't seem to be able to control what is happening, and although it happens with such firmness that it seems as if it is in our biological blueprint, the changes seem universally good. The Internet has lowered prices for many goods and services. The Internet is one of the most important reasons why the Dow Jones average is breaking new records all the time, and why the economy is doing so well, even though, according to the theorists, it shouldn't be doing this well for so long.
I could go on and on, but the point is, almost everything that happens because of the Internet is good.
Do you have an explanation for this?
Basically human nature is good, and the Internet allows us to express and amplify our nature.
If you blur your eyes and look back through several thousand years of history, you can see that we certainly had a lot of downs. But overall, there has been an enormous evolution toward improving the world, our life spans, and our quality of life. We have made great progress in helping other people and in increasing our cultural awareness and our cultural achievements.
As I said, I believe that, overall, human nature is good. The Internet taps into a huge, hitherto unrealized potential of human nature, and that is why the Internet is bringing us so much good.
The first thing that impresses people about the Internet is the spirit of sharing and cooperation that you don't find in a lot of places—
Who would have ever thought — would anybody have ever predicted, even a decade ago — that if you could connect millions of people from around the world, they would almost always want to share and cooperate and get along with one another voluntarily. Human nature is good; it just needs to flourish under the right conditions and in the right ways.
Of course, this is not a revolutionary idea, but it is the reason I feel so positive about our collective future as a species. Because now we have the Internet, and it is never going to disappear. We will always have it, and it will always be there to help us help ourselves. It will help us in ways that we don't even understand yet. As I said, there are still very important things about the Internet that we can't even talk about yet, because we don't have the words.
So the Internet will help humankind to realize this better future?
There have always been spiritual futurists who have prophesied that, sometime in the future, something important is going to happen and life is going to be oh-so-much better. The Jews have a long tradition of a messiah. The Christians have a very old tradition that a messiah lived on the Earth, and many believe he will come back to the Earth at some future time. Many other religions, and many different cultures and philosophies, believe that someday, something wonderful will happen, and life for everyone will become better forever.
This same idea has found expression in many different ways. For example, in Arthur C. Clarke's book "2010: Odyssey Two", the planet Jupiter is transformed into a mini-star named Lucifer. In this particular view of the future, the new sun in our sky reminds us that we have a frontier to explore and colonize which (according to Clarke) is something wonderful that will make life become much better.
Thus, throughout the centuries, we have expressed this idea of life becoming wonderful forever in various ways: God will come back to Earth, a messiah will come to Earth, a messiah will return to Earth, or maybe we'll just get a new sun that will give us hope and lift our eyes toward the heavens. Many thinkers through the ages have thought that, eventually, something would happen, and human culture would be changed for the better forever.
However, most people thought that whatever happened would happen from the outside, literally from off the Earth's surface. Nobody ever really dreamed, or even predicted, that something wonderful was going to arise spontaneously from people who designed computers and connected them over telephone lines. And now, all of a sudden, we realize we have the Internet, and the Internet is going to change our lives in wonderful ways. And as far as I can peer into the future, the Internet is going to be with us forever.
But will the Internet really last? Could the lust for censorship cripple the Internet or shut it down?
The Internet is such a robust organism that no one can turn it off and no one can kill it.
The Internet is such a robust organism that no one can turn it off and no one can kill it. I can't foresee any way that anybody can stop the Internet. If the president of the United States and the entire U.S. Congress decided they wanted to shut down the Internet, they couldn't do it. It's past that point.
Similarly, we're past the point where we have to worry that censorship is going to affect the Internet in any long-term significant way. It just can't happen anymore. By its nature, the Internet has always been the antithesis of censorship.
Twenty-five years ago I threw away my television set, so I was interested to read that you don't watch TV. In your book Harley Hahn's Internet Yellow Pages, you wrote: "My hope is that one day someone will find a gene for TV watching and we'll all be saved."
Or maybe it will be a vaccination. Imagine a doctor saying, "Mrs. Jones, our tests indicate that your baby is going to grow up to be particularly susceptible to watching a lot of television, so what we recommend..."
I think that, in the future, we will understand TV watching a lot better than we do now, and we will be able to tell parents, if you don't want your kid to grow up and be a slave to television, you can do such-and-such at a certain age. Perhaps we will even be able to find the children who are most at risk.
So the vaccination might not be something that gets injected into the body — it might be more of an intellectual serum. Once we understand these issues better, we will figure out how to help our children become immune to television for the rest of their life. For example, we might find that we have to read to the kids when they are young. Later, when they grow older, we encourage them to read to themselves, as well as use the Internet and a computer in a certain way.
Think about what a wonderful gift that would be for a child: to help him avoid needing the stimulation of television. At the same time, he would be avoiding all the brainwashing and all the deceptive misinformation he would otherwise encounter. I bet that, a hundred years from now, people will look back on the last half of the twentieth century, and say: "All these people must have been crazy. How could they spend so much of their time watching television?"
Most of the time, we tend to think of the future as being simply a variation of whatever we have today. For example, I have read many science fiction books in which television has turned into some futuristic TV system. I believe that, overall, the human race has proved itself to be too smart to let this happen. Eventually, we will figure out that there's just too much television, and it's just not good for us. I believe the future will be a more pleasant one than we imagine right now, and, in particular, there will be alternatives to spending so much time in front of the TV.
In the meantime, using the Internet is unexpectedly showing itself to be a good alternative to watching television, especially for children. Overall, it's a much more satisfying experience. Moreover, using the Internet provides for better development of a young nervous system than does passive stimulation by a TV, many times a minute, for hours on end.
What suggestions do you have for educating children about technological literacy, and for learning how to use the Internet?
Well, there are two basic suggestions that work well with children. First, give them an opportunity to do what is good for them. Second, set a good example. To set a good example, you first have to learn how to use the Internet yourself. You can't allow yourself to say "I'm too old, I don't want to bother, I don't want to learn."
We talked earlier about an "information underclass": people who, for one reason or another, do not have access to the Internet and who suffer for it. Remember, no matter what you do, your kids are going to learn something about the Internet, at school or with their friends. You can get away with avoiding computers and avoiding the Internet, but it's only temporary. Within 25 years, all the kids who are five years old now will be 30 years old, and they will have been using the Internet all their lives. Where does that leave you?
Once someone realizes that it's important for him or her to understand the Internet, what is the best way to start learning?
Traditionally, the best way to learn how to use a computer system has been to get a friend to show you. So my advice is find a friend to teach you, find an acquaintance to teach you, find someone to teach you. It's the absolute best way to get started.
Once you get started, you will find people on the Internet who will be glad to help you, but, in the beginning, just getting started is a big deal, and it helps enormously to have someone right beside you.
Once you start to learn how the Internet works, you have a social obligation to help somebody else.
The other side of this pedagogical coin is that, once you start to learn how the Internet works, you have a social obligation to help somebody else. Today, you may be a beginner reading this interview, and tomorrow, you may be sitting at your computer with a friend, trying to figure out how to send an email message. But, within a few months, you will start to really feel at home, and, when that time comes, you have an obligation to start helping other people.
In one of your books, you say, "The Internet connects our separate economies and social systems in such a way that war will soon be unlikely." Can you explain this idea?
Suppose you had a sore arm that was really bothering you. You would never think about cutting it off. Why? Because you need it too much. History shows us, over and over, that when groups of people become dependent on one another, they realize they have to solve their problems and accept their differences. They don't destroy their relationships, because they can't afford to.
For example, let's say a lot of people in the state of New York decided they didn't like the people in New Jersey. They can't go to war. Maybe a long time ago it might have been possible, but not now. It's unthinkable because all of these people are part of an economic and political union, which makes them dependent on each other — goods, services, money and people move back and forth every day. Once you are part of a strong political and economic union, differences with your neighbors have to be resolved by the legal system or by diplomacy and politics.
In the U.S., it wasn't much more than a hundred years ago that the states did go to war against one another. In the 135 years since the Civil War, the economic and social and cultural union has become so strong that it is not possible that such a war could occur again. Problems arise all the time — sometimes, larger problems than 100 years ago — but the issues have to be solved differently, because we are now dependent on one another.
And the Internet is making us interdependent?
There was a time when America's sworn enemies were Germany and Japan. Now, Germany and Japan are our economic allies. Our economies are so intertwined that there is no way to go to war against them again.
One of the most important goals of the European union is to bind the various countries in an irrevocable economic union. Such a union will permanently end the long history of war and bloodshed that has characterized European relations. And that is exactly what is starting to happen, wherever long-standing traditional enemies have become business partners.
It's not that the thought of war is inconceivable. It's just that starting a war with someone with whom you share a strong mutual dependence is like cutting off your own arm — you just wouldn't do it. When your economic wealth depends directly on your relationship with other people, you are not likely to give up that wealth in order to go to war.
Similarly, the Internet will facilitate the union of disparate economies and cultures all over the world, and, once we connect in certain ways, we become economically and culturally dependent on one another. At that point, war becomes unthinkable, because it's just not a viable alternative.
If we can strengthen the relationships and interdependence between countries and between people all over the world, that is what will lead to world peace. When you look at the world as a whole right now, it is more peaceful than ever before. And now that we have the Internet, we can look forward to a better and more peaceful world.
Would you go as far as saying that the Internet is helping to create a planetary civilization with one world society?
The Internet is becoming a planetary information system, one that is creating wealth and comfort based on mutual interdependence.
No. The Internet is something different from human civilization. The Internet is becoming a planetary information system, one that is creating wealth and comfort based on mutual interdependence. This does not mean we will all end up with the same government, speaking the same language, following the same traditions, and holding the same values. What it does mean is that we are going to learn how to be tolerant and respectful of one another.
A group of people might be willing to go to war because they have a grudge against their neighbor, but they're not going to do it if they have to give up their second car, their TV set, their computer, their microwave oven, and their retirement fund. If that's the case, the people will just learn how to get along.
How does this relate to our individual lives? Some people say that life is a game, and you get one point for every sunset you watch. Do you agree?
Well, games are self-contained and have rules, so to say that life is a game is a particularly attractive and popular metaphor. However, life just isn't that simple.
There is one sense, however, in which life is like a game. It's finite. None of us know how long we're going to live, but we do know our time is limited. I think it's safe to say that most everybody who's alive today won't be here in 100 years. Personally, I'll be lucky to be here in 50 years. We know we have a finite number of days left, we just don't know when it's all going to end.
I have heard about a computer program that estimates how much time you have left to live.
I list a Web site in the Yellow Pages book that offers this service. It's called the Death Clock, and the point it makes is a powerful one: you only have a finite amount of time left, and with every second that passes, you have one less. You can visit this Web site, type your birth date and your gender, and see an estimate for the date on which you will die. You can then watch a clock count down the seconds in your life.
How do you personally keep track of everything that is happening on the Internet and the Web? It sounds like an awesome task.
For someone like me, who publishes a regular annotated guide to life with Internet resources, it takes a lot of work. New Web sites appear every day. I use the Web a lot, and when I encounter something I like, I make a note of it. However, most of what I need I find by looking.
When I revise the Yellow Pages, my researchers discuss what we need, and then we go out and look for it. That's why I tell people not to send me information about their new Web site. My researchers and I know what we want, and we look for the best. We look for Web sites, Usenet discussion groups, and mailing lists. When people ask me how they can get in the Yellow Pages, I tell them, if you are the best, we will find you.
However, keeping up on what is new goes way beyond finding new resources. Much of what is new has to do with technology and ideas and software and new ways of doing things.
To keep up on everything, I use the Internet a lot. I also download programs and try them out. I talk to a lot of people, including my researchers. Thus, I am able to see what is happening through a lot of different eyes. In addition, I read a lot, and I spend a great deal of time thinking about what I read.
What makes my job so interesting is that, every now and then, I need to go out and relearn almost everything. For example, each time I revise one of my books, I take many hours to explore new resources, new ideas and new services. I figure out what has changed and what ideas people need to understand right now.
Part of my job is to explain to people what they need to know and how they should think about it. The other part is to put everything into perspective. I spend a lot of time thinking and forming new theories.
Would you care to speculate on what's on the road ahead? What can we expect from the Web? Is that too difficult a question, in the context of what we've been talking about?
No, not at all.
I can tell you two things that will happen. First, the Internet — and remember, the Web is only one part of the Internet — will get a lot larger.
And that means?
That means there will be more Web sites, more information, and more people participating every year. Just as important, there will be more and more new types of things. The Internet won't grow indefinitely at the same speed as today, but there is still a lot of growth before it begins to slow down.
The other prediction is much more difficult to make, but a lot more interesting and useful: a lot of new things are going to happen, and almost everything is going to be different from what we expect. In a way, I am making a prediction about predictions.
I used to follow the computer industry as an independent analyst, and I was able to spend time with people whose job it was to comment on what was going to happen in the industry. I would always challenge them, "Make any prediction you want, and I will bet you that it doesn't happen."
The point is, there are so many different ways in which humankind can unfold, no matter what you predict, you are probably going to be wrong. Let's say you took a dart and threw it at the wall. The dart is going to stick at one particular point on the wall. You know this ahead of time. What you don't know, and what is impossible to predict, is the exact point that dart will hit.
In the same way, we can predict with certainty that we're going to have very large and significant changes. I would guess that they're going to be changes for the better. However, to predict the nature of those changes is like trying to predict exactly the point at which the dart is going to hit the wall.
When we look backward, we can comment on what happened and why, but to predict in advance is almost impossible. The variety of possibilities is so vast, no matter what anybody predicts, they are almost certainly going to be wrong. I used to see this all the time among the computer industry analysts.
Thus, I predict great change, but I can't tell you exactly what. All I can do is predict some of the nature of the change.
Can you say anything about the rate of the change, or the acceleration? Is that increasing as time goes on?
This is a very important idea in an interesting way.
It is common to talk about the rate of change in our society. For example, if you compare how we live now to how a human being lived in 2500 B.C., you see huge differences. Clearly, life has changed a lot, and we get the feeling it is changing faster and faster.
At it's most basic level, change in human culture is caused by people exchanging information.
What we need to do is ask the question, "What is it that causes the rate of change in human culture to increase?" I believe the major reason is the increase in the flow of information between people. At its most basic level, change in human culture is caused by people exchanging information.
Now, in 2500 B.C., how easy was it to move information from one location to another? If you lived in the same village, you could talk to someone, but, aside from that, there was no easy way to move information. Hence, there was very little change.
The 20th century has been characterized by ever-increasing rates of change, because the 20th century has enjoyed ever-increasing facilities to preserve information and move it from one place to another. If you say to me, I think that life changed faster in 1970 than 1920, I would say that's because information moved faster in 1970 than it did in 1920.
As long as we can move information from one place to another, we're going to have change. The faster we can move information, the faster the change will be. So to ask, "Is the rate of change of our culture going to get faster and faster?" is really asking the question, "Are we going to be able to move information faster and faster?"
What I think is that, in our everyday life, our ability and our willingness to move information faster is going to reach a point where we just don't care about increasing it. For example, let's say you're reading a book. Does it help you to be able to turn the page faster? Maybe, but only up to a point.
In information technology, we encounter similar boundaries. It's not that you can't always find a way to do something faster; it's just that you don't need to do it faster. Let's say Internet technology becomes so fast that when you click on a link on a Web page, the new page comes into view in a hundredth of a second. Would anybody want to invest the money to make this happen in a millionth of a second?
In the same way, we have to look at how information travels around our country and around our world. We can bounce information off satellites, we can put information on the Internet, we can use the telephone wires, TV cable, and so on. People all over the world are working on ways to move information faster and faster.
Eventually, however, we're going to reach the point where, for most everyday purposes, it won't do us any good to make information move faster. When that happens, we're going to stop spending time and money to increase the rate of information transfer, because it is already fast enough. And when that happens, the rate of change is going to level out. Life will still have the capability to change quickly, but the time will come when grandparents will say to the grandkids, "Life changes fast, but it doesn't change as fast as when I was a kid." We have to understand that, as far as the human race is concerned, the 20th century was a big deal, and we are still going through the adjustment period.
So, does that mean your vision is a hopeful one in the sense that we will grow to be able to handle all this change?
The disorientation we have felt in the last century is the result of an increasingly fast change in human culture. However, this disorientation is a temporary phenomenon. One of the big deficits in human thinking is that we tend to look at the way things are now, and think that they will be that way indefinitely. No doubt the people in the future will have their problems, but they will be much better than us at being able to handle change.
What do you want people to understand about all of this?
I would like people to understand that, in a real sense, they have more power than they think, and they can control their destiny more than they imagine. Not just by wishful thinking, but by understanding and embracing new patterns of thinking, and new ways of looking at the world.
I want people to understand how to use and contribute to these new resources — not just the information, but the fact that millions of people on the Internet are willing to help you, at least indirectly.
The potential for having a useful, productive and happy life is greater now than it ever has been in the history of mankind. And a lot of it has to do with the Internet and with what we are talking about.
There is so much power — not only for us as a human species, but for us as individuals. However, we need to reach out, join, and learn how to use that power. We are finding that an individual's power increases almost beyond measure when the individual becomes part of something that is extremely large, as long as the person doesn't have to give up any of his own individuality. That is what's happening on the Internet, and that is what I'd like people to understand.
To achieve this understanding, do people need to learn how to use the new technologies like the Internet? Is that a prerequisite?
The Internet allows us to be part of something that is much, much larger than ourselves, and it allows us to do so in a highly concrete, personal and satisfying manner.
Very much so. It's almost like what Timothy Leary used to say: "Drop out, tune in, and turn on."
You drop out from your old way of thinking and the conceptions of how things work. You tune in to the new technologies. And you turn on to this new global organism — not a global consciousness, but a new global organism — what we call the Internet.
Once you do, you will find yourself enriched in a way that you wouldn't even understand was possible before you started. The Internet allows us to be part of something that is much, much larger than ourselves, and it allows us to do so in a highly concrete, personal and satisfying manner.
Is there a final thought you'd like to leave in the minds of your readers?
Aside from the idea that we should all read Harley Hahn books as often as possible?
In the scope of our tiny part of the universe, a human being is something that bursts into life, flourishes, and extinguishes itself and dies in a very, very short time. We don't get to choose when we are born, and to a large extent we don't get to choose when we are going to die. We also don't get to choose the time period in which we live.
However, we are living right now. That may be good or bad, but we didn't get to make that choice — we just happen to be living right now. Other people have lived before us, and other people are going to live after we die.
But it happens that we are living through a cultural watershed, an enormous change, bigger than the Industrial Revolution, and bigger than the 20th century technological and information revolution. We're living through a change so large that I believe eventually people will look back and talk about "before the Internet" and "after the Internet".
It certainly would be interesting to live 500 years from now, and, in some ways, it might have been interesting to live 500 years ago. But even in our limited way of looking at the world, it's not too hard to stand back and say: this is not just regular human change that we have right now at the end of the 20th century. This is an enormous universal human transition, and to live during this exciting time makes us very, very lucky people.
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