Thu May 2, 2013
Digital Life

A Look Ahead At The Future Of Tech



This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Technology's already changed our lives in ways we couldn't have imagined just a few years ago, and now seems ready to reinvent our future. As we continue our series of conversations looking ahead, we've invited Farhad Manjoo to join us - he's Slate's technology columnist and a frequent guest on this program - on the latest gadgets, on the business of consumer electronics and on how we've adapted our lives, our jobs and our manners to all these changes.

We want to hear from those of you who work in tech. What's changing, and how will it change us? Join us: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro joins us from her new post in Brazil.

But first, looking ahead with Farhad Manjoo, who joins us now from his office in Palo Alto. Nice to have you back with us.

FARHAD MANJOO: Hi, good to be here.

CONAN: And that's rumblings of a Skype as we stumble a bit there. Farhad, we'll get to the new stuff in a bit. I wanted to start by asking you: What surprises you about how we use the devices that are now so omnipresent in our lives?

MANJOO: Well, I think one of the things that surprises me is how quickly we've sort of gotten used to - they've integrated into our - they've - sorry, I think we a problem with Skype there for a second.

CONAN: All right, we're on the phone now (unintelligible).

MANJOO: Yes, we're on the phone now. I had to switch. This is - this sort of explains what I was trying to get at. We - technology kind of behaves in unexpected ways. It's integrated into our culture. But like as we saw with the way Reddit tried to capture the Boston bombers a couple weeks ago, all of a sudden, technology will sort of rear up in a way that we hadn't really expected, and then we'll all have to try to figure out, you know, what role it's playing in our lives these days.

CONAN: So crowdsource the investigation.

MANJOO: Yeah, that's what they tried to do a couple weeks ago, and as a result, they - you know, on - by looking at security camera pictures and other photos of the bombing, of the crowd around the bombing, they wrongly - people on Reddit wrongly fingered several, you know, innocent people as being possible suspects.

That's the way in which - I think it suggests both the potential, you know, potentially, we could have gotten the bombers that way, but we didn't, and suggests the downside of technology in our lives.

CONAN: As reporters, we're used to being in the situation where we're not necessarily experiencing something directly, but trying to record our observations, to communicate them to a wider audience. More and more, you see everybody is in that situation. People don't go to watch a ballgame. People go to take pictures of themselves watching a ballgame, and then send text messages.

MANJOO: Yeah, I used to - that used to bother me when I would go - you notice this especially at, like, concerts, at rock concerts and other things, where people - you expect people to kind of experience the event. And now we want to record the event for, I think, some kind of posterity, but oftentimes, we don't ever go back to those videos.

And so that used to bother me until I had kids. So, like, two years ago, you know, my son is two and a half, and now I actually have a small - a baby. And now, I try to - I get upset at myself for not recording. I try to record kind of every moment, because I think that it would be kind of magical in, you know, 10 years or 20 years to kind of go back to those videos.

And I expect that those videos are going to be searchable, so that even if it seems like a mess right now, even if it seems like there's no kind of organization to all the little videos that I'm getting of my son, like, learning to talk, at some point, there will be some organization, and maybe I can make something coherent of it.

And it will be interesting just to go back to some random day and figure out, like, what he was interested in when he was two and a half.

CONAN: It will be curious to see the extent to which technology allows you to access that without going through it minute by minute and taking notes, the way we do it now.

MANJOO: Yeah. I mean, I think that one of the things we're noticing is that, you know, companies like Google, companies that kind of analyze - whose mission it is to analyze and organize information are, you know, they started out cataloging the Web, public information. But more and more, they're focused on cataloging your private information.

So, you know, my photos, I manage them in a program called Picasa, which is owned by Google, and it does face recognition. So now I can go through my photos based on pictures of, you know, my family and kind of see all the photos of my son or all the photos of my mom, which would have been very difficult, you know, 10 years ago. The technology didn't exist to organize photos in that way.

And now - so I - now I don't spend any time organizing my photos. I just put everything on my computer, and I expect the software will organize it for me. And I think more and more, that's what's happening. We'll be able to organize all of our personal data in the kind of the way we're used to having, you know, public data organized.

CONAN: Yet by doing that, you raise an interesting point. All of us talk about, well, we want privacy. We want to make sure these companies aren't hawking our images elsewhere or using our personal information to sell our identities in some way or another to advertisers. Yet we all put more and more of our personal lives on the Web.

MANJOO: Yeah. This is the great paradox of social networking. You know, for the last six, seven years, as Facebook has become a bigger force in our lives, you know, every time Facebook made more - made some part of its site more public, there's been a huge outcry. And, you know, people get really upset, and they join groups on Facebook where they claim they're going to stop using Facebook, and they never do because - and what happens is Facebook's, sort of, traffic always goes up.

And I think that indicates that while people say they want privacy, they're also, you know, as human beings, we're deeply social, and we like to share things. And so it's not that people want privacy all the time or want to share things all the time. What's difficult is figuring out when we want privacy and when we want to share things.

And that line, I think, technology is helping that line move. So, you know, now people share things that they wouldn't have, you know, 10 years ago. They share very personal, intimate details of their lives and their medical histories and, you know, their romantic interests online in a way that would have, I think, seemed awkward 10 years ago, five years ago, even. And now it seems acceptable to people.

CONAN: It's amazing what has become acceptable, the idea of people walking down the street apparently talking to themselves. It would have gotten you a quick ride to Bellevue in New York City a few years ago, but it's now commonplace. And it is the degree to which people are in communication with their friends, their universe via text messages in situations where you wouldn't think that would apply at all.

MANJOO: Yeah. It's become commonplace. But I guess I would also say that we still haven't figure out the rules for these - the etiquette and the norms for how we should use these devices in life. So I read - I read a story recently about - that was interviewing HR managers, people who were hiring young people. And one of the complaints of these interviewers is that many young people, many college graduates are going into interviews and - into job interviews, and they don't realize that they're not supposed to text.

And some people are kind of reaching for their phones and looking at their phones while they're in job interviews. And, you know, that's - at first, I found that hard to believe, but then when I thought about most people I meet every day, that seems very - that seemed, actually, like, not unsurprising.

And then so what I think, you know, this will either - this will evolve in one of two ways. Either it will sort of have a rule, kind of an etiquette about how we should use our phones, and that etiquette might say if you're in a formal situation like a job interview, you should not use your phone, and people would sort of come to adhere to that.

Or I think the opposite could happen, where, you know, people - job interviewers might just come to see it as just what young people do these days: They text in job interviews, and it's not a big deal.

CONAN: We're talking with Farhad Manjoo from Slate.com about, well, the future of technology, not just what's happening to us, as we've been talking about, but, well, what's going to be coming down the pike in terms of gadgets and what's going to be coming down the pike in terms of the business that has become such an important part of our economy.

If you work in tech, what's changing? How will that change us? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Mary's on the line with us from Berkeley.

MARY: Hi, there.


MARY: Thank you for (technical difficulties). The observations that I want to share, just from working in the industry, and one of the big forces that I'm seeing is this sort of subscription-based economy and how that is impacting large companies. So what we're seeing is that there's a real expectation from the marketplace, from other companies and large companies, small companies, to not buy hardware and infrastructure, but instead to consume as - on a monthly basis with whole different levels of price points and margins that are really challenging companies to rise to the occasion to be able to provide these services and also stay profitable.

So I don't think that that has hit Wall Street to the degree it certainly has impacted the earnings of companies that we've seen over the last two years, but I think there is more to come in that area. And I think that's going to be a pretty major economic shift.

CONAN: Well, you're talking about the sort of HBO model, where you have to subscribe to this service, and expanding that to all kinds of things where - in areas where people were used to getting things for free?

MARY: Well, I don't think it's just free. I think it is - you know, we call it a CAPEX expenditure. So when a large company goes in and they decide to buy hardware for their company, that has a whole level of price points and margins. And now the expectation from companies is that they don't want to buy that hardware, they want to buy it as a capital expenditure, like a subscription, where they're buying these services that are being delivered in a whole new way, such as through the cloud - not just software, but also infrastructure as a service. And that...

CONAN: Farhad, I just wanted to ask if you've been following this, as well.

MANJOO: Yeah. I mean this is happening all over the tech world. We notice this. You know, there's a whole new kind of companies that are, as the caller said, called cloud companies, where, you know, they're providing services that companies - bigger companies used to buy as kind of hardware. So, like, now if you're a startup, instead of having to buy a whole bunch of servers or rent servers to store all your data that you're going to be using on your website, instead you use something called Amazon Web Services, which...

CONAN: OK, Farhad Manjoo is with us. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. In the 1960s, "The Jetsons" memorably predicted the future, the year 2063, to be exact. We're halfway there, and much of that - what that animated family had - routine camping trips on the moon, a nine-hour work week, flying cars - seems unlikely to materialize 50 years from now.

But some of the things that seemed wild when the Jetsons were on TV have actually happened, in a way. The Roomba is a kind of household robot. Flat screens are almost everywhere. And we can watch TV on our phones. So for the next installment of our series Looking Ahead, Slate's technology columnist Farhad Manjoo is here to weigh in on how far we've come and where we're going next.

If you work in the tech business, we want to hear from you. What's changing, and how will our technology change us in the future? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Farhad is with us from his office in Palo Alto. And as we look at the companies that have so dominated this business, particularly smartphones, there are giants like Samsung and Apple, of course. Is there room anymore for startups or somebody with a good idea?

MANJOO: Yeah, I think so. I mean, those companies, Apple and Samsung and Google and Facebook, are huge, and it's difficult to find markets where they're not operating in. But every year we see, you know, several new companies come along that give us new services that those big companies haven't thought of.

We saw this a couple years ago with Instagram, the photo-sharing service that got wildly popular, and then it was purchased by Facebook. We saw it also recently with the really popular cataloging, sharing site called Pinterest. And I think, you know, in a strange way, in a way that people here in Silicon Valley are celebrating, these big companies kind of help the little companies because they're a market where the little companies can one day kind of sell their - sell out to.

So, you know, Instagram didn't really have any business model. It didn't - it wasn't making much money. But it found a willing buyer, and the people, the founders of Instagram made a lot of money by selling to Facebook because Facebook felt that it could make money from Instagram at some point, and Facebook paid a billion dollars for it. So that helped everyone.

You know, people - that was a big incentive for startup developers everywhere to keep working on new companies.

CONAN: We all saw the tech bubble, which burst memorably. Things have been going much better since then. There is some concern, though, we're in a new bubble.

MANJOO: Yeah, you - every time things kind of heat up in Silicon Valley, people worry that, I mean that that experience in the early - in the late '90s was kind of a searing experience for many in the Valley, especially venture capitalists, who lost a lot of money. And I think people don't want to repeat the, you know, the bubbles popping, but they do want to repeat kind of the good times.

So they're always sort of on this high wire where they're trying to get as much from these technology companies, they're trying to get the market to kind of go as big as possible but to make sure that we don't sort of cross over into the excessive territory, where really, really dumb ideas like pets.com are being funded.

So it's hard to say. I mean it's always hard to say if you're in a bubble until you're - until the bubble pops.

CONAN: Until it bursts, yeah, right.

MANJOO: Yeah, so at this point, I mean I think people worry about it, but I think it's sort of instructive and probably helpful that there are people who are worrying about it and perhaps trying to make sure that the stupidest things don't get funded.

CONAN: Let's go to Thomas, Thomas with us from Domain in Massachusetts.

THOMAS: Hi, I just wanted to say that I work with - I create software for Verizon Wireless, and pretty much what the future holds is that it's no longer going to be just a phone company. We're trying to become a technology company. We're trying to make sure that in the future we create software and software integration and pretty much apps and some hardware for everything: your car, you appliance, and by appliance I mean dryer, washer, water heater, toaster, et cetera, your TV.

Right now it's your phone and a few other things. So you know, you can only go so far when you are selling a certain product. So for example, that's just one example of a company that has been meddling with all these technology companies, and it's trying to expand in the terms of software. Definitely I think software is the future when it comes to technology. Thank you.

CONAN: Thomas, thanks very much for the call, and he's talking about something, Farhad, that we keep anticipating, yet our experience at the beginning of this broadcast with Skype suggests that these things are just not quite reliable enough.

MANJOO: I agree. You know, one of the things that is - seems true of our age and technology right now is that we have a lot of ways to do a certain thing. We have a lot of ways to, like, hold this phone call, for example. They all kind of work sometimes, but they're not perfect. And we've gotten used to kind of the imperfection, because instead of sort of perfect fidelity, perfect quality, what's more important to us is kind of convenience or something that is available everywhere.

We saw this happen with MP3s, with music. Like MP3s, any audiophile will tell you that, you know, MP3 files that you listen to on your iPod aren't as good. They don't sound as good as, you know, as vinyl records or even as CDs. But you can't listen to a vinyl record, you know, when you're on the subway, and you can do that with MP3s.

And we trade, I think we often trade convenience for quality. So like I - the Skype call, it cut out, but the good thing about the Skype call, when it works, is that it's free. I can call anywhere in the world for very cheap. There's video. And, you know, it's kind of available everywhere you have an Internet connection. So you can do it anywhere. You're not tied to landline carriers or cellular carriers, or you can - it's sort of everywhere and ubiquitous.

And that's sort of what the Internet is getting us, this ubiquity, convenience, sometimes at the cost of quality.

CONAN: Let's go next to Brian, and Brian's on the line with us from Silicon Valley.

BRIAN: Yeah, I was curious if anybody has comments about how commercials and commercialism is creeping and becoming more pervasive in the mobile platform and set-top boxes that we're using. I've developed a lot of these devices, and we're actually putting hooks in so that you can't turn the commercials off and that, for example, on a very cheap laptop in a third world country, you may have dedicated space on a display that always shows commercials, but you get it very inexpensive.

And we're doing the same thing with mobile platforms. There are more commercial delivery devices rather than content delivery devices, or certainly not content creative devices at all.

CONAN: And Farhad, this goes back to the eternal conundrum of how do we get somebody to pay for this.

MANJOO: Yeah, I mean it - like anyone, it bothers me that there are ads everywhere now, and there are going to be more ads over time because all of these devices, many of the services that we use on these devices, like all the websites that Google runs or Facebook runs, those are going to get paid for primarily through ads. And so that means that we're going to be seeing a lot more ads.

On the other hand, you know, I really like the fact that I get completely free, really great email service from Google, and I - you know, it's great that I don't have to pay anything for it. A dozen years ago, me or the company I work for would have had to pay Microsoft a lot of money for something like Microsoft Outlook, and it wasn't available everywhere. You know, I couldn't run it on my phone.

Now I can get a really wonderful service for free, and all I have to do is look at some ads. I think many people accept that tradeoff implicitly, and they're OK with that tradeoff, but if you ask them about it, they kind of don't like it. And there's, you know, there are lots of programs you can get for your phone or for your Web browser that block the ads; it's just kind of like a, you know, a subversive way to get the free service but not pay for it by looking at ads.

CONAN: Ryan, thank you.

BRIAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Will, Will's on the line with us from Boulder.

WILL: Hey there.

CONAN: Go ahead.

WILL: OK. Well, you know, I just wanted to call and talk about real quick, about Google Apps and other cloud-based services. I heard you guys talked about Amazon cloud earlier. But I work for a company up in Boulder called iSupportU, and my owner recently in a meeting was talking about how our job is constantly changing and how we don't provide technology services, essentially, anymore.

I mean, currently, I'm the PC technician. You have a broken PC, broken sound, broken hard drive, I'll fix it. But in five years, that's not going to be around. We're going to be using Internet gateways. So we're going to be moving toward an entirely cloud-based system where you access all of your items in the cloud.

Your OS is going to be online, and you just need a computer or a phone to be able to access that content. And, you know, we're in this business of support now, and the business of actual hardware - you know, I completely agree with the idea that software is where it is. But it's very interesting to see, you know, the explosion of Google apps where you can entirely run your business off of this Google infrastructure.

CONAN: Farhad, is this - is he right? Is he working himself out of a job?


CONAN: This was to Farhad.

MANJOO: I think he is right. I feel bad for him and for IT people in general because, you know, the office IT person, the person who would help you with your technology, I think that role is, sort of, going away, because what often is going to happen in companies - what's happening right now is people are bringing their own technology.

People just want to use their own phone and their own laptop, and they're kind of managing it through services like Google. And the companies themselves are signing up for services like Google apps, so that, you know, they can just outsource everything to this big company that manages everything, and they don't have to hire local people to, kind of, fix your email or fix your - you know, anything else that's going on with your computer. It's, you know, it's another one of those ways that technology is kind of getting rid of some jobs, like travel agents, for example.

CONAN: Wil, what are you going to do next?

WILL: Well, you know, as I said to you - explain that it's an ever-changing environment, and we're in the business of support. You know, me, I'm actually getting certified in Google apps now so that I can provide that kind of service for my business. I'm changing with the environment and, with that, trying to create my own product.

So I'm going to school for computer science right now, trying to develop my own application on the Web, and software is the way to go. And the more that we can bring to the cloud, the more that - you know, the more money that I can make, personally, in the different areas. But the biggest thing is that we need to keep up with the change as IT individuals and stay in the business of support, not in the business of hardware.

CONAN: Wil, thanks very much. Good luck to you.

WILL: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Farhad Manjoo, one of our series of conversations, "Looking Ahead." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And as we look ahead, we would not have anticipated 10 years ago the iPad, which has become almost universal. The smartphone has developed to the point where people say, well, you know, it's really not going to develop too much further. Where are we going?

MANJOO: It's a good question. I think people who are kind of watching the way that smartphones and tablets are, you know, integrating into our lives and, for many people, replacing PCs, replacing sort of the functions that they used to do on traditional desktop or laptop computers, people who are watching this kind of wonder where it's going.

I don't quite know, in two years or five years, how much of my computing I'll do on a device like the iPad versus the desktop computer I'm using to - I use to write most of my articles at this point. There are people I know already who write long stories on the iPad. They do it by just sort of attaching an external keyboard. And the fact that the iPad has, you know, 10 hours of battery life, obviously it can sort of connect to the Internet anywhere, and it's so small and light, makes it preferable to them over, you know, a large PC, even a small laptop. It's better than that.

So I wonder if more people will, kind of, move to those kinds of devices because they're just - as I said, they may not be good enough for all tasks, but the fact that they're everywhere, they're convenient, makes them, maybe for some people, kind of preferable to old-school computers.

CONAN: And are we going to finally get those breakthroughs that we continually get promised? Google Glasses, for one.

MANJOO: We think Google Glasses are going to come out. Most people who watch Google thinks that this year or next year they'll release this product to the public.

So these are glasses that you wear that - they're not actual glasses. They don't have like a - they don't block out most of your vision with glass. Instead, there's a small, tiny screen that kind of sits a little bit above your eye so you can look at it from your - when you tilt your eye up.

And it shows you, you know, a digital screen. It kind of superimposes information that you used to kind of get from your cell phone, like a text message or maps. It superimposes that onto your field of vision. That's going to come out.

The question is whether people will take to it. I think some people will use it, but I wonder if it's going to be as - if it's going to sort of take off in the way that the smartphone has, you know, where it's something that everyone got - and people - lots of people use and it's not seen as kind of lame.

Or, you know, like the other technology is like Bluetooth headsets. Like lots of people use them, but I think that in kind of polite company, they're considered - it's a little like a faux pas to wear a Bluetooth headset to a fancy dinner, and people who do it, they're marked as a certain kind of person that you maybe not - don't want to be friends with.

CONAN: There's another promise we've all been made. Typing, we will no longer have to do. The touch screen will go away. All we have to do is talk to our computers.

MANJOO: Yeah. That - I mean, that's definitely going to come. The - I don't think typing is going to go away, but there are going to be more and more situations where we'll talk to our computers and - than, you know, where we type. That's because the technology is getting much better so speech recognition systems now can, you know, detect what you're saying even if you have an accent. And they're getting better at, kind of, just figuring out what you're saying but also at coming up with like holding conversations with these, so they understand pronouns.

There's like Google search engine, if you use it on your mobile phone, you can ask it a question like who is Barack Obama, it'll tell you he's the president. And then you can say who is his wife? They used like a pronoun there referring to Obama. The computer will understand that you meant Barack Obama's wife and it'll tell you, you know, he's married to Michelle Obama.

CONAN: Well, Farhad, as usual, it's a revelation. Thank you so much for the conversation.

MANJOO: Thanks a lot. Good to be here.

CONAN: Farhad Manjoo is with us from his office in Palo Alto. He tried to get on by Skype, we trusted him. Coming up next, we'll be talking to NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro who's got a new gig in Brazil. She joins us to talk about changing beats - reporting beats that is, not bossa nova. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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