CNET and CBS News Senior Producer Dan Patterson sat down with the Future Today Institute founder and quantitative futurist Amy Webb to discuss her experiences watching the rise of smartphones while living in China, and how the East’s approach to technology runs parallel to that of the US. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.
Dan Patterson: Let’s start in the present day. Let’s start now. And maybe even in the past in China, you lived in China for quite a while, you experienced technology in China in ways that is probably parallel to what’s happening in the West, but quite different. There’s this conversation that is technology in the West is tethered to the market and technology in China is tethered to the government. You first introduced me to this idea. I wonder if you could expand on that and help us understand not just that idea but what’s happening in China, with technology and with things that we’re hearing a lot about right now, which is artificial intelligence, 5G, that kind of thing?
Amy Webb: In the mid ’90s, I lived in Japan and in China. And the mid ’90s were a really interesting time for technology because while we had digital phones, actually, we had those Nokias. I don’t know if anybody in the audience can see, but there’s an old school Nokia sitting behind us on the set over there.
We had digital phones that made phone calls, but they didn’t do other things yet, like allow us to send email. And in the mid ’90s, I witnessed the very first phones that had cameras in them, that were connected to the internet. That not only took photos, but also allowed me to send those photos to somewhere else. I could download ring tones, which we don’t do anymore. But I had the ability to order Shinkansen tickets in Japan, and to do similar things in China.
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And to me, this was witnessing a great transformation at ground zero, because I knew that while at that point in time, we didn’t yet have the compute power to do large file transfers. And the cameras weren’t great enough yet to take high resolution photos. It was just a matter of time before those improvements came. And that meant that all of these other devices that we had like portable DVR players, some people may remember those. Enormous laptops, I had a Toshiba satellite Pro, which weighed like 15 pounds, and doubled as a self defense weapon when I needed it. All of those devices would eventually find their way into a singular device.
Now, that being said, there were vast differences in the approach to technology in China and Japan. And as a result the consumers using that privacy or that and as a result, the consumers using that technology. So when I lived in China, I had zero expectation that I had freedom from surveillance. I just expected that I was being surveilled in some way, that I was being tracked. I also assumed that the technology that was being developed individually at some companies, but also at some universities was being done in concert with, and in some cases, for the purpose of decisions made in Beijing.
In Japan, things were quite different. So there was another hotbed of activity but these companies were developing fairly independently, working on their own technology projects, which is analogous to what we see here in the United States, which is a way of saying the way that our groundbreaking technologies have been developed in the West, have been in response to the market. The way that the technologies have been developed and tested in China have been very much been done in response to and in some cases are guided by the CCP and the party leaders in Beijing, China.