Walt Mossberg is the author and creator of the weekly Personal Technology column in The Wall Street Journal, which has appeared every Thursday since 1991. With Kara Swisher, he currently co-produces and co-hosts D: All Things Digital, a major high-tech conference with interviewees such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and many other leading players in the tech and media industries. The gathering is considered one of the leading conferences focused on the convergence of tech and media industries. In addition to Personal Technology, Mr. Mossberg also writes the Mossberg's Mailbox column in the Journal and edits the Mossberg Solution column, which is authored by his colleague Katherine Boehret. On television, Mr. Mossberg is a regular technology commentator for the CNBC network, where he appears every Thursday on the mid-day Power Lunch program. He is also a regular contributor to Dow Jones Video on the Web.
In a major 2004 profile of Mr. Mossberg, entitled "The Kingmaker," Wired Magazine declared: "Few reviewers have held so much power to shape an industry's successes and failures." Mr. Mossberg was awarded the 1999 Loeb award for Commentary, the only technology writer to be so honored. In May of 2001, he received an honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Rhode Island. In May of 2002, he was inducted into the ranks of the Business News Luminaries, the hall of fame for business journalists. That same year, he won the World Technology Award for Media and Journalism.
Walt Mossberg: Well first of all, when you say “technology,” you got to realize that that’s a ridiculously broad and vague term.
Bio technology is going to be immense. There’s all kinds of other tech. I deal with what you might call digital technology, or information technology. Well it already has changed the world. Where do you want to begin? It’s changed the world in every way. People are always connected. People are always on the grid. There are very good things about that, there are very bad things about that.
It’s no longer the case that if you live in a physical neighborhood and don’t go into some other kinds of physical neighborhood, you’ll never meet other kinds of people. There are no boundaries anymore; digitally at least. You can meet people from the other side of town where you might never have gone 50 years ago. And you can meet people from the other side of the world. These are hugely powerful and transformative things.
I can remember when I was using CompuServe, which was an all-text, very crude thing on my old Apple II. I can remember how thrilling it was that I could go look up something in some library from, I think it was Poland or somewhere, that had been put online.
And you would say to yourself, “I’m sitting in my house, and I’m able to go look this thing up.”
I think sometimes we take this for granted. It’s happened so fast.
But in all of human history, there is no doubt that only in the last 20 years, or even 10 years, have average people gained the power to tap so much of the world’s knowledge. And we don’t really even know what the implications of that are going to be down the line.
There’s also tremendous potential for harm. There’s fraud. There’s identity theft. There’s child predators out there who find it easier to snare victims because it’s all anonymous, and it’s all digital, and they can pretend to be anyone they want.
But there’s even subtler things that you have to wonder about. Are people sitting in their houses looking at screens instead of going out and meeting people and experiencing the world? Are the tools that we have developed for social networking, or even for normal, innocent commercial marketing online, tools that could someday be used by some totalitarian figure, or dictator, or some new sort of Hitler or Stalin? Perfectly possible.
I’m not predicting that, but I’m just saying these technologies are neutral. They are what people make of them. And I think we just have too little experience.
I also think the less you hear the word “Internet,” the more integrated into our lives it will be. I compare the Internet to the electrical grid. The electrical grid is all around you. It’s in your home. It’s in your office. It’s in your hotel room. And there is an uncounted number of things that plug into the electrical grid. The television cameras we’re using to record this interview plug into the electrical grid. So does the toaster oven, and the electric toothbrush, and the hairdryer that you might have used this morning.
But you did not think to yourself when you put your toast in your toaster oven, “Hey, I’m using the electrical grid.” Or, “I’m going to use the electrical grid.” It would be laughable for you to say that.
I think the same thing is going to happen with the Internet. Instead of being seen, as a lot of people do, as some sort of activity you perform on a device that happens to be called a “personal computer,” the Internet is really an enormous grid or ocean of information – communications services, commerce, marketing, entertainment, all of these things. Information.
And there are going to be innumerable devices that will connect to it, tap into it, and just use enough of it to perform whatever function it is they are good at doing, in whatever context people want to use them in. So for instance, you wouldn’t necessarily expect a pocket-sized device to do the same thing as a device with a larger display. You wouldn’t necessarily be surprised, I think, in 10 years that your microwave oven is plugged into the Internet. I think it will be. On the other hand, it won’t be plugged into the Internet for the purpose of you getting your e-mail on the door of the microwave. It’ll be plugged in so that when you put a package of frozen food in there, the oven will just read the barcode. It will have a connection to the Internet. It will have a database that will be constantly updated, and it will be able to properly heat up the food. That’s the only thing it will need the Internet to do, but it will need the Internet to do it.
So the Internet is a grid. Many devices, many kinds of software, many kinds of services running on those devices, all of which take advantage of the grid.
Already this is true to some extent, but it’s gonna become universal in 10 years. Whenever you watch television, you’re going to be on the Internet. Whenever you make a phone call, you’re going to be on the Internet. And nobody’s going to say, “I’m going to go online tonight and look this up.”
I think in 10 or 15 years when you see movies from today where people say, “I found this online. I’m going on the Web. Let’s go online and check it out,” people are going to laugh because we’re always going to be online. And so those are some of the big things that I think are going on.
Recorded: Sep 13, 2007.