Chapter One Excerpt

The Information Age

The silent, uncomplaining spacecraft aims its camera at the moving earth far below. The salesman in the hardware store patiently records a sale in his ledger. Tapes spin in a computer complex, their slight whir unheard beneath the roar of air-conditioning, as volumes of newborn financial transactions are given their freedom in the electronic network beyond. The teenager with a towel wrapped around her wet hair scans with anticipation the daily television listings in the newspaper, while millions of her counterparts in the daylit regions of the world listen, work, and dream in crowded classrooms. all about us information is being generated, processed, and exchanged. Who can doubt that information has become the cultural and economic ether of our time?

When I was a youth I lived at the end of a new street in the suburbs. Civilization ceased at our dead end; the woods beyond were there to serve as the playground to which our neighborhood gang was obviously entitled. But every morning I would see crews of workmen arrive and obstinately begin or continue construction on yet another new house. In the evening when they left, the playground had diminished. Civilization had advanced. These were the only working adults I ever saw, so I came to believe that this was what people did when they grew up. They made things.

One day many years later as an adult I made a great discovery. I looked around at all the people about me, and I suddenly realized that I did not know anybody who made anything! Not a single person. Not a single thing. For the first time I felt personally the impact of the information age. We all made our living by trading bits! When I went to my office in the fresh throes of this momentous discovery, I felt shame for my own work. Instead of leaving each day with a growing edifice for all to admire, I left with a pile of neatly bundled bits. Sometimes they were not even so neatly bundled, and few people could see them from any distance at all!

In the United States about two-thirds of is work in information-related jobs, such as in the insurance industry, teaching, financial services, and the professions. Only one-seventh of our population is required to produce all the food and material goods to satisfy not only our own needs, but those of a large export market as well. Our farms are so productive that we are all fed by less then 3 percent of our population, in spite of policies that selectively reduce crop yields. While the heavy industries have dwindled and drifted abroad, the service industries have flourished. Steel, coal, and cars are heavily imported, but law firms, financial services, government functions, health services, publishing, software, education, and so many other service providers have expanded and multiplied seemingly without bound. The industrial revolution has come and gone; the information age is here.