SMART Letter #63
Amara's Law
November 26, 2001

!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*() ------------------------------------------------------------ SMART Letter #63 -- November 26, 2001 Copyright 2001 by David S. Isenberg -- "one to watch" -- -- 1-888-isen-com ------------------------------------------------------------ !@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*() CONTENTS > Amara's Law > Quote of Note Paul Saffo on Short-Term Stupidities > Smart Remarks from SMART People James McKenna on Conservatism Suchit Nanda's view from India > Conferences on my Calendar (not) > Copyright Notice, Administrivia ------- Amara's Law -- by David S. Isenberg Amara's Law says, roughly, "We tend to overestimate the short-term impact of technological change and underestimate its long-term impact." In the past, I attributed it to Paul Saffo, not surprising because Paul Saffo works at Institute for the Future, as did Roy Amara. People have attributed sayings embodying similar thoughts to Robert Heinlein or Arthur C Clarke or Winston Churchill or Mark Twain. (Further, when Elvis sang, "I'm all shook up," he was talking about here-and-now, with no regard for long- term impacts.) Whoever's Law seems true on its face. The first wave of automobiles was wowie, neeto, peachykeen, impressive beyond belief. The promise of swift, clean transportation that didn't leave anything to step in when you crossed the street heralded Utopia-around-the-corner. > > > > > > > fast forward > > > > > > > Today automobiles are ho-hum. They're too boring even to be called 'technology'. But the world has re-shaped itself to the automobile. Cars have permeated every facet of our lives -- social lives, work lives, architecture, cities, suburbs, the economy, the environment, and even foreign policy. No matter how starry-eyed we were at first, we underestimated the long-term impact of the automobile. So let us assume that Amara's Law is maybe mostly true. Why? What is the mechanism? What is the underlying principle? How do we explain Amara's Law? I got a clue from a recent edition of Phil Agre's Red Rock Eater News, (Notes and Recommendations, October 7, 2001, see I realized that the passage below contained a pretty good guesstimate: Phil Agre wrote: "It strikes me that the conventions of news reporting introduce a bias into our understanding of new technologies and their place in society. And it's not just news reporting: scholars who want to get tenure are asked whether they have discovered something, and the easiest way to discover something in the social world is to declare that something is new: for example, that we have entered an "information age", a concept that has been renamed many times. (James Beniger's book, "The Control Revolution", includes a huge table of these names, and it's already fifteen years old. Nowadays the table would probably extend to book length all by itself.) If you can't declare a vast world-historical discontinuity then you have to go to the trouble of analyzing the same old world more deeply than others have, and that's a lot of work." Then, much further into the same Notes and Recommendations, Phil Agre continued: " . . . producers of any information product, are competing with the past. Information products have the distinctive property that you can use them without using them up, and so much of the information that has ever been stored in a permanent medium is still out there. . . . To be heard, then, a musician must compete for listeners' attention not only with other musicians who are currently playing, but with the whole history of recorded music. Novelists, scientists, and many others are in the same position." To this list, we might add predictors of the future. In other words, we are told repeatedly, con brio, how absolutely earth-shatteringly new the news, music, book, scientific discovery, et cetera, is, as long as we get our news from news people, our music from musicians or music companies, our books from authors and publishing companies, our science from scientists, our et cetera from etceterologists -- et cetera, breathless et cetera. Information from an-expert-in-that-field, or from somebody- hired-to-write-about-it (even an unbiased newsperson) is hyped. We need to get used to it. [Corollary: It is nobody's job to think critically about what the *actual* impact of any given information might be, to tell us that things might not be so discontinuous or so awesome as they're cracked up to be -- there is no business model in doing that job. So how do we know what is really important? How do we know what demands our urgency?] That's the "overestimate the short-term impact" half of Amara's Law. What about the other half -- the "underestimate the long- term impact" part? Simple. Forgetting. New technologies (or other changes) that didn't have a huge historical impact are forgotten. There were hundreds of promising technologies introduced in the past -- to great fanfare and enthusiasm -- that never had an impact. I can't remember any of them. So it could well be that Amara's Law is composed half of hype -- innocent (that is part of the structure of many professional cultures) as well as deliberate, and half forgetting. What's that they say about laws and sausages? In summary: Amara's Law is boring and everywhere. But my deconstruction of it (above) is the newest, greatest intellectual breakthrough of the decade, if not the century. It will change the world. ------- Quote of Note: Paul Saffo "The US has an unhappy history of short-term overreaction to threats (just ask the Japanese-Americans interned in WWII), BUT in the long-term, we have always renounced those excesses and continued to nurture and extend our freedoms. My forecast is that the worse the short-term stupidities are this time, the more robust the positive long-term reaction will be." Paul Saffo, Institute for the Future, quoted in David Farber's IP List, November 4, 2001. [Paul, I want to react to your lack of over-hype, but like you, I am a student of Amara's Law. It worries me that ages of democracy are brief, and history's evidence favors tyrants. So if I were one to pray, I would pray that you would soon be proven right. And if I were one to act, I would act vigorously to right the wrongs I'm seeing. -- David I] ------- Smart Remarks from SMART People James McKenna [] writes: "Your brother's letter [Letter from my Brother -- SMART Letter #62] brings to mind a corollary of the law of proximity he discusses: the law of emotional investment. When I was young and didn't care about much, I believed I cared passionately about ideals. Now that I'm old(er), with a boy nearing draft age and another only a little behind him, plus family and friends all over the place, I find ideals to be shockingly simpleminded. I used to think that people got conservative as they got older; now it appears conservatism results from having things one wants to preserve. "From my current emotional vantage, it seems perfectly reasonable to put bullets in the heads of everyone who might threaten my family and friends. Of course, it would be irresponsible, at best, to let those feelings guide my behavior. But it would be as irresponsible to let an ideal [determine] my actions. "What's left is that gray area of discernment: trying to figure out what the hell to do and say that won't make things worse. Your thoughtful SMART Letter is a great aid in the process of sorting out where to stand. Mr. Snow may object to your using the SMART Letter to talk about current events, but, given events, it would be more inappropriate to continue as if nothing were going on." --- Suchit Nanda [,] writes: "Your piece and the reply from your brother Daniel [Letter from my Brother -- SMART Letter #62] highlight divergent view points. It was with great pain and anguish that we [in India] saw the live coverage of the [September 11] dastardly acts of violence. Unfortunately such terrorist-sponsored events are not alien to us [in India] - although of different magnitude but in greater numbers. The silent victims are many. And their voices unheard. My cousins work in Manhattan & DC and by God's grace are safe. However, the war cry and the show of force by the USA is simply playing to a domestic audience as brute force -- it is not going to achieve the desired objective. It's funny how the local sentiment here in India is, 'you still don't get it - do you?'. "It's no secret (but obviously being brushed under the carpet) that the Taliban was promoted, funded, and weaponized by the USA. The same forces have turned against their mentors. Today, it is Pakistan that is the front-line and therefore being pampered once again by [U.S.] funds & (quite likely) weapons. [Pakistan] has seen the largest number of people protesting the US actions - more than even Palestine. It is Pakistan that trained the Afghans and even post-11th-Sept had military trainers inside of Afghanistan. Pakistan had training camps and has been the best of buddies with the Taliban. And was the most stringent supporter. Today, that is rather uncomfortable to admit. "Do you really think, that the acts of terror have changed the loyalties [of Pakistan] overnight? Literally hundreds of thousands of people have been fed & brought up with the concept that Western ideas are anti-Islam. Or is it the fear of [the U.S. President's challenge], 'You're either with us or against us' that has caused a complete turn around? Has there really been a change of heart so suddenly? Or is it "lets get our pound of flesh or whatever we can from this". "Today's newspaper cover page talks about how Indian authorities gave concrete information to FBI on the link between Pakistani ISI Director-General Lt-Gen Mahmud Ahmad and WTC hijacker Mohammed Atta with a proof of wire transfer of $100,000 including mobile phone calls. This was the cause of the USA pressure on Pakistan to dismiss/retire him. Why is India involved? Because its the same person(s) who hijacked the Indian Airlines Kathmandu-Delhi flight to Kandahar, Afghanistan last December. "Want to read the diary of how westerners were specifically targeted and kidnapped inside India by [Pakistan's] ISI [secret police]? "[It seems that] we have the good terrorism, the bad terrorism and the I_don't_wanna_hear_or_know_terrorism. "Today Pakistan-India is a flash point. What's worse is that both always claimed and later proved in the open that they have the nuclear capability. A conflict in this region can have global consequences. In its 5,000+ years of history ( India has never attacked another nation. Period. Always assimilated those who came and to avoid conflict even given up its territory. Will this stand continue? Or will we turn the land of Gandhi and Buddha, who are epitomes of peace, into a country that reconciles to Israeli-like response. "Often I read, which is the largest selling English paper in Pakistan. I also read the journals that cover the Middle East, and Far East. These give a very different image and perspective. It's only when you have read more than one side that you can make up your own mind. The viewpoints out there are so divergent from what is on CNN that you wonder if its the same event being covered?!! "Have you read the local papers or heard the radio stations in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, etc.? Wouldn't it be prudent to question why do so many people in the world hate the USA? Not dislike - hate? One has to reflect on this thought. I'm not at all suggesting that they are right. Just that this is fact before us. Too many Americans are clueless about the world outside the US-borders. And that's a pity for a country that is today undisputedly the world's leader in so many ways. "Overall, I think there is great sympathy for the victims. There is a concern for the future on what further action & reactions will be there. At the same time, the fact is that 'average Americans' simply don't understand the global geo-political scenarios and have very poor understanding of other cultures, heritage & sensitivity. The US is perceived as a big bully. A lot of effort will need to be done to change this perception. "The more we dissect the events and happenings the more we learn that, above all, everything happens for a purpose and for some good. Even if we can't see it yet." ------- CONFERENCES ON MY CALENDAR Conferences are listed when I am invited to speak or otherwise participate. For the first time ever, there are no public conferences on my calendar. Advt: I give a pretty good talk, and most of it is even true! -- David I ------- COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Redistribution of this document, or any part of it, is permitted for non-commercial purposes, provided that the two lines below are reproduced with it: Copyright 2001 by David S. Isenberg -- -- 1-888-isen-com ------- [There are two ways to join the SMART List, which gets you the SMART Letter by email, weeks before it goes up on the web site. The PREFERRED METHOD is to click on and supply the info as indicated. The alternative method is to send a brief, PERSONAL statement to (put "SMART" in the Subject field) saying who you are, what you do, maybe who you work for, maybe how you see your work connecting to mine, and why you are interested in joining the SMART List.] [to quit the SMART List, send a brief "unsubscribe" message to] [for past SMART Letters, see] [Policy on reader contributions: Write to me. I won't quote you without your explicitly stated permission. If you're writing to me for inclusion in the SMART Letter, *please* say so. I'll probably edit your writing for brevity and clarity. If you ask for anonymity, you'll get it. ] ** David S. Isenberg, inc. 888-isen-com 908-654-0772 ** -- The brains behind the Stupid Network -- **