LICENCE TO DREAM
Hello ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for having the two of us
here and giving us a license to dream in public.
The future is unwritten. There are best-case scenarios. There are
worst- case scenarios. Both of them are great fun to write about
if you're a science fiction novelist, but neither of them ever happen
in the real world. What happens in the real world is always a sideways-case
World-changing marvels to us, are only wallpaper to our children.
Cyberspace is the funhouse mirror of our own society. Cyberspace
reflects our values and our faults, sometimes in terrifying exaggeration.
Cyberspace is a mirror you can edit. It's a mirror you can fold
into packets and send across continents at the speed of light. It's
a mirror you can share with other people, a place where you can
discover community. But it's also a mirror in the classic sense
of smoke-and-mirrors -- a place where you might be robbed or cheated
or decieved, a place where you can be promised a rainbow but given
a mouthful of ashes.
I know something important about cyberspace. It doesn't matter
who you are today -- if you don't show up in that mirror in the
next century, you're just not going to matter very much. Our kids
matter. They matter a lot. Our kids have to show up in the mirror.
Today, we have certain primitive media for kids. Movies, television,
videos. In terms of their sensory intensity, these are like roller-coaster
rides. Kids love roller coasters, for natural reasons. But roller
coasters only go around and around in circles. Kids need media that
they can go places with. They need the virtual equivalent of a kid's
bicycle. Training wheels for cyberspace. Simple, easy machines.
Self-propelled. And free. Kids need places where they can talk to
each other, talk back and forth naturally. They need media that
they can fingerpaint with, where they can jump up and down and breathe
hard, where they don't have to worry about Mr. Science showing up
in his mandarin white labcoat to scold them for doing things not
in the rulebook. Kids need a medium of their own. A medium that
does not involve a determined attempt by cynical adult merchandisers
to wrench the last nickel and quarter from their small vulnerable
That would be a lovely scenario. I don't really expect that, though.
On the contrary, in the future I expect the commercial sector to
target little children with their full enormous range of on-line
demographic databases and privacy-shattering customer-service profiles.
These people will be armed and ready and lavishly financed and there
every day,# peering at our children through a cyberspace one-way
mirror. Am I naive to expect better from the networks in our schools?
I hope not. I trust not. Because schools are supposed to be educating
our children, civilizing our children, not auctioning them off to
the highest bidder.
We need to make some conscious decisions to reinvent our information
technology as if the future mattered. As if our children were human
beings, human citizens, not raw blobs of potential revenue-generating
machinery. We have an opportunity to create media that would match
the splendid ambitions of Franklin with his public libraries and
his mail system, and Jefferson and Madison with their determination
to arm democracy with the power knowledge gives. We could offer
children, yes even poor children in poor districts, a real opportunity
to control the screen, for once.
You don't have to worry much about the hardware. The hardware is
ephemeral. The glass boxes should no longer impress you. We've shipped
our images inside glass boxes for fifty years, but that's a historical
accident, a relic. The glass boxes that we recognize as computers
won't last much longer. Already the boxes are becoming flat screens.
In the future, computers will mutate beyond recognition. Computers
won't be intimidating, wire-festooned, high-rise bit-factories swallowing
your entire desk. They will tuck under your arm, into your valise,
into your kid's backpack. After that, they'll fit onto your face,
plug into your ear. And after that -- they'll simply melt. They'll
become fabric. What does a computer really need? Not glass boxes
- -- it needs thread -- power wiring, glass fiber-optic, cellular
antennas, microcircuitry. These are woven things. Fabric and air
and electrons and light. Magic handkerchiefs with instant global
access. You'll wear them around your neck. You'll make tents from
them if you want. They will be everywhere, throwaway. Like denim.
Like paper. Like a child's kite.
This is coming a lot faster than anyone realizes. There's a revolution
in global telephony coming that will have such brutal, industry-crushing
speed and power that it will make even the computer industry blanch.
Analog is dying everywhere. Everyone with wire and antenna is going
into the business of moving bits.
You are the schools. You too need to move bits, but you need to
move them to your own purposes. You need to look deep into the mirror
of cyberspace, and you need to recognize your own face there. Not
the face you're told that you need. Your own face. Your undistorted
face. You can't out-tech the techies. You can't out-glamorize Hollywood.
That's not your life, that's not your values, that's not your purpose.
You're not supposed to pump colored images against the eyeballs
of our children, or download data into their skulls. You are supposed
to pass the torch of culture to the coming generation. If you don't
do that, who will? If you don't prevail for the sake of our children,
It can be done! It can be done if you keep your wits about you
and you're not hypnotized by smoke and mirrors. The computer revolution,
the media revolution, is not going to stop during the lifetime of
anyone in this room. There are innovations coming, and coming *fast,*
that will make the hottest tech exposition you see here seem as
quaint as gaslamps and Victorian magic-lanterns. Every machine you
see here will be trucked out and buried in a landfill, and never
spoken of again, within a dozen years. That so-called cutting-edge
hardware here will crumble just the way old fax- paper crumbles.
The values are what matters. The values are the only things that
last, the only things that *can* last. Hack the hardware, not the
Constitution. Hold on tight to what matters, and just hack the rest.
I used to think that cyberspace was fifty years away. What I thought
was fifty years away, was only ten years away. And what I thought
was ten years away -- it was already here. I just wasn't aware of
Let me give you a truly lovely, joyful example of the sideways-case
The Internet. The Internet we make so much of today -- the global
Internet which has helped scholars so much, where free speech is
flourishing as never before in history -- the Internet was a Cold
War military project. It was designed for purposes of military communication
in a United States devastated by a Soviet nuclear strike. Originally,
the Internet was a post-apocalypse command grid.
And look at it now. No one really planned it this way. Its users
made the Internet that way, because they had the courage to use
the network to support their own values, to bend the technology
to their own purposes. To serve their own liberty. Their own convenience,
their own amusement, even their own idle pleasure. When I look at
the Internet - - - that paragon of cyberspace today -- I see something
astounding and delightful. It's as if some grim fallout shelter
had burst open and a full-scale Mardi Gras parade had come out.
Ladies and gentlemen, I take such enormous pleasure in this that
it's hard to remain properly skeptical. I hope that in some small
way I can help you to share my deep joy and pleasure in the potential
of networks, my joy and pleasure in the fact that the future is
National Academy of Sciences Convocation on Technology and Education.
Washington D. C., May 10, 1993
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