Atlantic Unbound

NPR Commentary -- November 21, 1994
by James Fallows

Computer Shows

BOB EDWARDS, Host: The Sony debacle was caused by investors with more vision than money. Commentator James Fallows has spent last week at the computer industry's trade show, known as COMDEX, says the computer industry is about to have similar problems.

JAMES FALLOWS, Commentator: That the computer industry is going somewhere is plain from the throngs of shows like COMDEX. Wherever it's going, it's being driven by hard two forces.

One is the sheer momentum of technology, the rapid leaps in hardware and slower advances in software, that make new things possible by the week. Right now, the hottest area of technical advance is communications, especially anything involving the Internet.

The other driving force is money. To be at a computer show these days is like being in the Klondike a century ago. Of each dozen people you see, you know that one will soon be rich; you just don't know which one. At COMDEX, the main commercial buzz surrounded interactive sex programs on CD-ROMs. The idea of people sitting at their computers to see somewhat grainy nude shots is pathetic -- why not just rent a video? -- but the market is huge.

The growth of the computer industry, like the growth of the car and the television industry before it, will certainly change our lives in ways we don't now know. Many of the effects will be good, in education and individual empowerment, but, some will probably be bad; for instance, in increasing the already large gap between an educated computerized elite and everyone else.

The one thing sure about these effects is that very few people in the computer business give them the first thought. The ones who aren't yet rich are too busy looking for their route to success. The ones who are rich naturally think that whatever the market has chosen, is right. The industry's dominant figure, Bill Gates of Microsoft, gave a vision speech at COMDEX that boiled down to a picture of lotsa lotsa computers in our future lives.

If the industry can't do better than that, it will guarantee what it most dreads - efforts by ordinary low-tech citizens, and the clumsy old government too, to question and limit computing's effects. This happened to the car business because of concerns about safety and pollution, and it happens to any business when people feel that the social impact of its technology has become too great for the business alone to control. The computer industry is still peppy and full of potential, but, for it, this moment of lost innocence is near.

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