Question: Are you generally optimistic or pessimistic about the way the world is headed?
Walt Mossberg: I’m generally an optimist, but I think there’s a lot of things to worry about right now in the world.
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.
I love laughing at stories I read online, or in print, or on television, or wherever I see or read them, where people make these grand predictions. In this digital technology business, you can’t predict more than two years out. And I’m not even sure you’re right about two years if you try to predict. So I’ve studiously stayed away from that in my columns.
You got to remember that we’re sitting here; it’s the year 2007. I don’t know when people will be seeing this. Presumably this will somewhere be in some archive online forever. But it’s the year 2007. The personal computer itself, the mass market personal computer that a normal person who is not a techie or an engineer could actually use, is only 30 years old. That’s it. It’s 30 years old.
The online service that is the predecessor to the Web and consumer e-mail – not e-mail for a bunch of scientists or executives in a company, but wide consumer e-mail – are probably not even 20 years old. Or maybe they’re just about 20 years old.
Instant messaging, same thing.
I wrote the first article in a national newspaper about AOL. It was 1992. I believe they had 200 employees and 200,000 members. That was in 1992. That was 15 years ago. So if you’re 25, 15 years sounds like a long time, but it really is not a long time. And so all of this is just very new.
The Internet, the Worldwide Web is about 10 or 11 years old in terms of really any significant number of people using it. I mean the Internet itself is much older, of course, but it was only used by a small group of scientists and government people for many, many, many years. So we’re just in the first or second inning of this digital revolution, and we don’t really know where it’s going to take us.
Question: What are the risks of technological innovation?
Walt Mossberg: 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.
Question: Do you think the new web bubble will work?
Walt Mossberg: I’m very fortunate in that I don’t pay the slightest attention to the stock market, even though I work at the Wall Street Journal.
Under our very tough ethics policy, I don’t own a single share of stock in any company whose products I might write about. I can’t have any kind of financial relationship with them. So in terms of whether these companies stock prices are too high, I pay no attention to that.
Recorded: Sep 13, 2007.