Ray Hammond has the right history for an IT futurist. His first computer, an Apple, was given to him by Steve Jobs. For most, that would be enough to launch a lifetime's devotion. Hammond, though, is not so much devoted as passionate, and with good cause - dyslexia. From his early days of being branded a dunce at school, to his first attempts at becoming a writer on local newspapers, the disorder felled him at every step. Computers took the hurdle away with a single click of the mouse - to launch the spell-check application.
Hammond is also different because he is British. It is remarkable to hear an IT prophet without a hint of a mid-Atlantic accent. Thirteen books and three best-sellers later, we meet on the eve of an Olivetti business conference at which he is the keynote speaker. His staple diet these days is provoking the industry to think differently, more expansively, about a future of bits and bytes. But even in the midst of smart business formality the person, and the personal, shines through.
"If you want to know about computers and the future," he says, "do not ask what technology can do, but work out how people will use it. What we are doing is building a prosthetic to the human intellect. It is impossible to overestimate the transformation that the global networking of computers will bring."
With Leonardo da Vinci, he believes that all inventions are extensions of the human hand. The difference now is that this one has global reach. And with "commodity" virtual reality just around the corner, the invention will not so much be an extension of the hand as of the eye, ear and mouth as well, the logical endpoint of the networked age being a near complete collapse of boundaries, if that is what you choose.
Hammond has even experimented with virtual sex - for a TV programme, that is. Though we can't yet select our physical appearance from a pop- up menu, for the TV camera, at least, he had a body double portray him wrapped in pressure belts and sensory stimulators.
Hammond believes we are in a period of transition where the real challenge is one of the imagination. The emergence of the Internet following the silicon revolution is likened to the birth of cinema as a departure from the stage. At first, directors only had stage plays to capture on celluloid. It was not until writers produced film scripts that the glories of the silver screen could truly be seen.
Thus Hammond thinks the Internet should be regarded not as a medium but as a digital space running in parallel with physical space. "This decade will see the birth of the real place where we conduct business and the majority of our social lives." It is not so much an application as an opportunity, a brave new world into which the adventurous rush, charting the territory upon which futures will be built. Both the joy and the struggle will be in discovering and inventing the language and grammar of tomorrow.
But not all or even most of Hammond's talk is abstract speculation. Indeed, one of the notable qualities of his book Digital Business is its practical suggestions for commercial life on the Net. So, concerning online shopping, he says: "The model of the mall has got to go. There is nothing more absurd. If I want to buy a pair of garden shears then I want a pair of garden shears, not a tedious trawl around a chemist, a bank and a bookshop on the way."
He argues that Web surfers are typically the new kids on the block. Web users, the ones who spend money, want "specificity", to get where they want to go fast. He thinks the best examples of Web commerce are the online auction houses such as www.onsale.com, because they exploit to the full the super vertical nature of the Net, with the logic of trade and the facility of technology finding optimal resonance and settling the prices for goods across a global market.
But if Hammond is upbeat so far in the conversation, the tone changes when the most famous name in computers crosses his lips. In Digital Business, written almost three years ago, he expressed his concern about the dominance of Microsoft. But a lot has happened in the meantime. The company has invested in Apple Computer, for a start. But Ray Hammond is, if anything, even more fearful of the monopoly controlled by Bill Gates. "If you were sitting on the M25 and noticed that 90 per cent of the vehicles around you had the same shape, the same interior and the same engine, would you think this was a good thing? [Information technology] is the engine of endeavour and all this is entrusted to one company. What does this say about the future of the human prosthetic?"
Hammond is, of course, not the first to voice a warning about Microsoft's ubiquity. The real problem is what can be done about it. It would be a near impossible task for anyone, even Bill Gates, to launch a rival operating system to Windows. A look at the latest chapters in the Apple story is evidence enough.
However, Hammond has an alternative solution. Governments should intervene and isolate the control of operating systems by placing them in the hands of new, independent companies. "The operating system must be separated off from other software products. Of course, Microsoft should be compensated. But we are talking about a monopoly that is highly dangerous. I do not think it goes too far to say that the future of mankind cannot afford it."
In fact, his concern runs so deep that his next book, nearly complete, is entitled Why Bill Gates Must be Stopped. In it he not only extends the wrongness in principle of Microsoft's supremacy but raises a new spectre of Gates's dominance. Hammond has investigated his involvement in genetic research and discovered that the world's richest man is throwing some of his billions at this controversial work. In fact, Hammond claims Gates has had a hand in many significant breakthroughs to date and is gathering patents through involvement in a number of companies, including the decoding of the ageing gene. Having mastered the computer operating system, Hammond fears that Gates now seeks mastery of the human operating system.
Hammond's book may never actually be published. Although it has been touted in publishing houses on both sides of the Atlantic, all so far have refused to touch it for fear of the billions being mobilised to sue.
There is at this point a strong smell of conspiracy theory in the air, not to say a hint of green lights and billowing smoke as if on an X-files set. But Hammond is too pragmatic a thinker to be so easily disregarded. He does not believe that Gates is a malicious man. But one does not need a cabal for there to still be a threat. Microsoft already has an inflated impact upon the US shares market, with blue chip stocks closely tied to the company's prospects. The extension of Bill Gates's influence into another huge growth industry, Hammond claims, could undermine the security of Wall Street.
No, Ray Hammond believes the real dangers are quite enough. And the man whose life was saved by computers plans to do all he can to secure their future.
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