Fear of Failing

By Zachary Block '99 / November / December 1998
November 22nd, 2007
In a world dominated by computers and impersonal contact, says New Yorker writer Ken Auletta, you can't discount the importance of the human factor. Whether because of insecurity, hubris, greed, or love, even media moguls make decisions based more on gut feeling than facts. Or so Auletta told an October audience gathered in the Salomon Center to hear a lecture on the same subject as Auletta's seventh book, The Highwaymen: Warriors of the Information Superhighway.

E. Gordon Gee launched his first President's Lecture by calling Auletta our flagman on the information superhighway, a phrase for the Internet that Auletta is credited with popularizing. Auletta, the author of the New Yorker's Annals of Communication column since 1992, attempted to guide the audience through the confusing and complex technological future by outlining some truisms of the information age.

The most important of these is that, despite all the increased information at our fingertips, technological developments and even fundamental business decisions are still primarily influenced by the vagaries of human psychology, and by one emotion in particular. "The highwaymen who rule the information superhighway are afraid," Auletta insisted, afraid above all of not anticipating the next big technological breakthrough, of being left behind as yesterday's innovators. "Change doesn't creep in on little cat's feet...it strikes like a missile," Auletta reminded the audience. Because of this, he said, the technological elite is unusually distrustful of government, of Wall Street, of reporters, and of anyone else likely to obscure its view into the future and its capacity to exploit it.

The fears of the highwaymen are not unfounded, Auletta added. The world of technology changes so fast that even such successful visionaries as a Microsoft's Bill Gates and Intel's Andy Grove seem clumsy and slow when trying to predict what the future will bring. "You have a bunch of human beings bumbling their way to the future," Auletta explained, "all of them, just like me, guessing." Making the right bet on the future is crucial to gurus such as Gates and Grove, because if they can control it early, their profits will be limitless. And with control, Auletta believes, comes a threat to the rest of us. "The vision of the highwaymen is to create a world that is pay-per-view," he argued, describing a world so completely wired that telecommunication companies, for example, get a piece of every business transaction.

But Auletta's vision of our technological future is finally hopeful. Pointing to the inability of countries such as China, Singapore, and Iraq to limit access to the Internet, Auletta sees technology as a democratizing influence, rather than an instrument of oppression. And thanks to the difficulty of predicting and controlling the future, as well as to the zany spirit of many of the most forward-seeing innovators, Auletta believes that computers are still ultimately liberating. "George Orwell was wrong," he said. "Technology is not a friend of big brother or big government."

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November / December 1998