Political power, computer power

Computer guru David Farber has some ideas about how advances in computer technology will change the world.

Recently returned from Washington, D.C., where he was the Federal Communications Commission’s chief technologist, Farber, the Albert Fitler Moore Professor of Telecommunications at the Moore School, spoke on “Predicting the Unpredictable” Feb. 5 as part of the Provost’s Lecture Series. He also spoke about his role at the FCC.

Provost Robert Barchi, quoting the Philadelphia Inquirer, introduced Farber as “‘one of the most influential nerds in the United States.’” Famous for daily e-mails to a list of about 25,000 people, Farber “is why our bandwidth is having problems,” Barchi joked to the crowd of 140 people in the Hall of Flags.

Farber said his function at the FCC was to explain technology and unmask lies about technology to the commissioners and staff there. The FCC aside, Washington decision-making about technology-related issues is irrational, Farber said. “Nobody knows the truth—the technological truth. He who has the most political influence wins.”

Political decision-making will affect the Internet, too, with Congress trying to micromanage it. But he later pointed out that China and Singapore both tried to censor the Internet and failed. “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it,” he said.

Computer speed, Farber predicted, was about to take a giant leap, thanks to an increased use of light as the transmitter of information. The speed might affect computer and software system design and the companies that will be the big players in the field, he said.

But, as in the past, predicting how that speed will be used is impossible, he said, reminiscing about the first modems that crept along at 110 bits per second. “There was a debate at Bell Telephone over whether anyone would want anything faster.”

Farber also touched on other issues, including the threat to privacy. “We are more and more recording what people do. …We are capable of monitoring everything. What to do with it, technology does not dictate; society dictates.”

Originally published on February 21, 2002