Social implications of computing

Yesterday I attended an event at Xerox PARC honoring the 30th anniversary of the computer networking standard Ethernet. It was a true geek-fest, with most of the key people who created and brought to market Ethernet in attendance. Of interest to me was the panel discussion on the future of Ethernet and of computing. Dr. Rebecca Grinter from PARC challenged the panelists to discuss the social implications of a world in which not only are networks now Ad Hoc, in other words, devices naturally connect to other devices without users needing to configure anything, but also a world in which there is networking ubiquity. Everything is networked to everything else.

The panelists had an easier time discussing the future of technology than its social implications, understandably. When the transistor was brought to market 50 years ago, no one could have possibly envisioned the developments of technology that has occurred, let alone how these developments have shaped society. Stephen Squires, Chief Science Officer at HP, described how the extension of Moore’s Law into nano-technology will drive underlying device technology, bringing extraordinary computing power into small, cheap devices everywhere. One theme that emerged from the panel and Dr. Squire’s closing message was that Silicon Valley has produced great technology that should be used to improve the lot of everyone on the planet. It is no longer sufficient to create technology for technology’s sake, but we need to think about how it is being used. There was an air of uneasiness knowing that the networking technology developed was being used by our military to great advantage to kill people. And there was the sobering recognition that future technology will more often be focused on security and fighting terrorism.

My take on all this is that just because our technology for communications has improved, doesnít mean our actual communication is improving. As cultures more and more rub up against each other through improved communications technology we will need better and better skills in conflict resolution. We will need broader world views, more tolerance of different beliefs, and more maturity with how we express ourselves and operate in the world. We cannot afford to take to arms at every disagreement, both in the world and in our own interpersonal relationships.