The debate was extremely space-limited, and as I edited down my remarks I found that I had reduced a very important point to a single passing reference: "Being open to physically handicapped or geographically isolated workers can improve the prospects for finding a highly qualified candidate."
Recently I had the pleasure of participating in a debate, on BusinessWeek.com, about the pros and cons of letting employees work from home. Those who know me will be unsurprised to hear that I argued the "pro" side of the debate. Having worked at home for most of the last 30 years, any other position would have been grotesquely hypocritical.
This comment only scratches the surface of the importance of Internet technology in empowering the handicapped to play a more full role in our society and our economy. Had I more space, I would have mentioned not just the benefit to the employer of being able to employ skilled but handicapped workers, and not just the obvious benefit to the handicapped themselves of being able to find more meaningful and satisfying work. I would have mentioned the benefit to all of us that comes from getting to know some amazing people who are otherwise invisible to us because of their handicaps.
Most of all, I would have mentioned John Ferguson.
In 1994, I was the co-founder of a company called First Virtual, a pioneering Internet payment system. During our salad days, our service was growing so fast that I calculated that, if it continued, everyone on the planet would be our customer in 16 months. Obviously that didn't happen, but the growth posed a customer service challenge that we met well enough to get accolades from our customers. Much of the credit for that goes to John Ferguson.
We hired John as our first customer service representative, and he developed most of the templates, processes, texts, and procedures that served us well as we grew. Customers often told me how helpful and efficient he was, and how happy they were with him. But there was something about John that none of them even imagined.
John was a quadriplegic. Confined to a wheelchair, at best, for virtually his whole life, he did all his typing with his mouth. I'm not sure anyone has ever felt as liberated by his job as John did -- even Stephen Hawking was 21 before he was first afflicted, but John had been fighting his disease since early childhood, and he'd had few chances to put his talents to productive use.
First Virtual gave him a chance to be truly useful and appreciated, and he thrived in that role, and in not being seen primarily as a handicapped person. In fact, even one of my friends and colleagues who worked with John very closely had absolutely no idea of his handicap for the first year or so they worked together. Internet technology didn't just allow John to work from home; it allowed him to be as close as he could ever get to a "normal" -- non-handicapped -- person. He never wanted pity, and he clearly delighted in having his disability be, at least in this one context, utterly invisible to the world.
I believe that working with John enriched the lives of all of us who knew him at First Virtual. It was impossible to come to know him and not become more sensitive to the situation of the disabled, more aware not only of their difficulties but of their potential and their dignity. Handicap or no, John was simply a great customer service agent, and it made a big difference when you learned that fact before you learned anything of his handicap. Working with John changed me forever, making me aware that even sympathy and pity can be a form of discrimination.
Several years into his time at First Virtual, John died rather suddenly. I don't think he expected a long life, and he certainly knew how limited the time he had would be, but he was determined to make as much as he possibly could of the life that was given him. I will always remember him as an inspiring example of how determination and technology can overcome even the most extreme handicap. And I will always be glad that we at First Virtual were daring enough to hire someone who worked from home not by choice, but out of necessity.
So that's another argument for having people work from home, one that I couldn't possibly do justice to in the space available in Business Week. If you go down the path of hiring remote employees, and you're very lucky, you might meet someone like John Ferguson, and he might just change you for life.
Vint centers his argument on the claim that "technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself." This is patently incorrect. Among the most widely recognized human rights are clothing and shelter, which are among the most fundamental of human technologies. It is true that some rights are more abstract, but many are not. The US Bill of RIghts guarantees freedom of the press and the right to bear arms; technology is fundamental to both of those rights.
In his January 4 op-ed piece, Vint Cerf argued that Internet access is not a human right. While I consider Vint a friend and have tremendous respect for his achievements, I think he's wrong in this case. Perhaps out of modesty, the man often called the "father of the Internet" is undervaluing the global network he played such an important role in developing. I fear his underestimation may be as fundamental and consequential as his belief, 30 years ago, that 4 billion Internet addresses would be sufficient -- another of the rare times I disagreed with him. I believe that in the future, the Internet will be nearly as fundmental to civilized human life as food, clothing, and shelter.
The UN Declaration of Human Rights goes further, in Article 19, asserting a fundmental human right "to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." It is no great stretch to say that Article 19 itself makes Internet access a basic human right. Article 27 declares a right "to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits." Does anyone really believe this is possible, in the modern world, without access to the Internet?
More broadly, it is increasingly impossible to participate fully in the political life of a developed nation without Internet access. All rights related to such participation will, in the future, be meaningless without a right to access. In his modesty, perhaps, Vint fails to recognize the extent to which the Internet is transforming almost every aspect of society, certainly including the political and cultural spheres in which many of our hitherto-guaranteed rights will become meaningless without Internet access.
It might be argued that this just means that Internet access is necessary for, and implied by, some of our existing rights. The truth of that statement, however, in no way negates the fundmental importance of Internet access. The right to participate fully in society also implies a right to food and shelter, but that doesn't mean we don't view those things as basic rights themselves.
What's hardest for us old Internet hands to accept is that the Internet hasn't just been a success; it is changing the very nature of what it means to be human. Recent studies have already shown that the availability of the Internet changes the way we use our own memories -- that is, it alters the very fabric of our thought, let alone our discussion and debate. Increasingly it will be impossible -- and already is in many countries -- to be a full participant in civil society without Internet access. If Internet access is a prerequisite to full participation in citizenship, it should certainly be viewed as a human right.
Vint, the Internet is more important than even you think!
Click here for Part One of my predictions, covering January through March Click here for Part Two of my predictions, covering April through June Click here for Part Three of my predictions, covering July through September October
- Microsoft releases WinHealth Vista. Designed to make healthcare more friendly, this version is quickly found to provide a beautiful user interface, and to time its crashes to cause maximum damage to patients' health. "You can't have everything," says CEO Ballmer.
- Atos announces the implementation of a voicemail-to-Jabber gateway. Unfortunately, many Jabber clients break under the weight of large audio messages, so Atos announces a preferred Jabber client that its employees must use. That software also supports email, but Atos disables all email-related features and begins developing Jabber-related features that do the same things.
- Feeling left out by Apple and Google's settlement offers to the victims, the Eastern District Court of Texas sues Apple and Google for damages in the courthouse collapse. "We're going to need to rebuild, of course," says a local judge. "Besides, why shouldn't we get a piece of this pie?"
- IBM announces a global expansion, hiring 35,000 new employees, nearly 3% of them in the US. IBM stock skyrockets to 400.
- Microsoft releases WinHealth 7. Designed primarily to undo the damage caused by Vista, WinHealth 7 is generally found to be stable and usable. Unfortunately, by now most health care providers have converted to Apple's iHealth platform.
- A rash of workplace heart attacks leads to a series of lawsuits against Microsoft for its Kinect 365 product. A slimmed-down Steve Ballmer reluctantly announces the withdrawal of the product from the market. However, he is later photographed gleefully destroying his own Kinect 365 by jumping up and down on it while stuffing himself with donuts.
- An employee of Atos in the US fails to receive an email notice of his child's illness at school, and files a lawsuit against his employer. Atos announces another upgrade to its Jabber/email gateway, this time to accept messages from any email address, not just those of its customers. Atos employees immediately begin receiving Jabber messages from deposed Nigerian dictators.
- Atos also announces that it has lost 25% of its customers in the third quarter. CEO Breton says this is unrelated to the ban on email.
- The few remaining independent patent litigation firms rush to go public. Fish and Richardson overnight becomes the seventh most valuable company in the world.
- HP announces that it is discontinuing the Blackberry product line. "None of this stuff is working out," says Whitman. "We're pretty sure there's no future in smartphones, and we're just happy to be figuring that out while Apple and Google are still wasting all that money on it."
- Microsoft announces that buyers of the now-discontinued Kinect 365 product are eligible for steep discounts on WinHealth 8, whatever that turns out to be.
- The Atos Board of Directors fires CEO Breton. However, because they notify him by email, he shows up at work the next day, unaware. He is promptly escorted out by security personnel, who turn out to have been using email all along.
- Apple and Google settle the lawsuits related to the courthouse collapse, paying the victims, survivors, and Eastern District Court a staggering total of $95B. Apple, Google, Samsung, and HTC then announce a mutual settlement that withdraws all lawsuits between them, with no cash changing hands. "Combined with our lawyers' fees, we've now fulfilled our obligation to Steve Jobs' memory by spending every penny of our cash reserves on this case," says Tim Cook. "I know Steve would have been proud."
- IBM announces the construction of new campuses in India and China, to consolidate operations there and accomodate the influx of new hires. In an unrelated development, IBM also consolidates operations at its home base in Westchester county, New York, where three of its sites will be closed. IBM stock rises to 450. Her stock options make CEO Rometty the highest paid female executive in US history.
- Mei Su, a college student in China, is allocated the world's last remaining IPv4 address. Still, most IT directors feel that converting to IPv6 is just too scary. The Internet is now full. ICANN announces that it will unilaterally seize any unused IPv4 addresses and sell them to the highest bidder. When asked what gave ICANN the authority to do that, a board member replies, "Who's gonna stop us?"
- Atos announces a next-generation email offering for its customers. "No one understands the value of email better than Atos" says the new CEO, Peter Bauer, who is absorbing Atos into his larger company, Mimecast.
All of us at Mimecast want to wish you a much happier new year than the one I've just described!
- Microsoft releases WinHealth 2000. This proves a popular upgrade to WinHealth NT, supporting modern medical equipment on a larger scale. Confusingly, the product is released in 374 different editions, one for every major hospital in the US.
- Atos announces that it lost 20% of its customers in the first two quarters. Recognizing that its customers are not ready to be as forward looking in abandoning email, the company announces an email to Jabber bidirectional gateway, so that its communications will look like email to customers but like Jabber on the inside.
- Tragedy strikes the sleepy town of Marshall, Texas, the country's most favored patent venue, when the federal courthouse collapses under the weight of documents filed in the Apple patent litigation. A judge, two marshalls, and three clerks are killed, while dozens of others are injured. The survivors and the estates of the victims promptly file wrongful death suits against both Apple and Google.
- HP buys Research in Motion. "RIM's Blackberry is a perfect match for our portfolio of failed smartphone operating systems," says CEO Whitman. "It will coexist with Palm wonderfully. We expect this to be our best acquisition since Palm. Or Compaq. Or maybe EDS. Whatever."
- Facebook goes public in the most successful IPO in US history. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes when the weight of his cash causes Mark Zuckerberg's home to be swallowed up by the Earth, taking half of Silicon Valley with it. IBM immediately asks Congress for emergency aid, which it uses to fund a major expansion of its operations in Russia and Brazil.
- Microsoft releases WinHealth ME, playfull named for "Mayan End-Times," in tribute to the alleged Mayan prediction that the world would end in 2012. Unfortunately, the world actually does end for a disturbing number of patients. After a large number of fatalities the product is withdrawn amidst a flurry of lawsuits and government investigations.
- Kinect 365 is officially released to wide acclaim, and quickly becomes a staple in many offices. Health insurers begin to offer a "healthy working" discount to office workers who use it, and obese workers in particular begin to find themselves pressured to use it rather than their traditional keyboard and mouse.
- A reporter for CNET discovers that a simple LinkedIn search gives him access to a remarkable amount of internal Atos communication. Atos announces that employees should only use Jabber from now on, noting that their extensions have managed to turn it into a tool that's almost as useful as email.
- Eager to curry favor with the Marshall, Texas, authorities, Apple offers a $350M settlement package to the victims of the courthouse collapse. Not to be outdone, Google offers a cool billion, and a bidding war ensues.
- IBM announces record profits, and its stock hits 300.
- Microsoft releases WinHealth XP -- at last, a version of WinHealth that does everything its users want it to do. A big hit, this version lasts longer in the market than any other, and Microsoft will struggle for years to give XP users a reason to upgrade.
- An Atos executive returns from vacation to find over 10000 Jabber messages, constituting over 300 scrambled threads. Atos announces it will develop a threaded Jabber client to make asynchronous communication more efficient, like email.
- Apple sells some of its non-core assets to bolster its cash on hand to a whopping $300B. "We're willing to spend every penny on lawyers," says CEO Cook. "We know Steve would have wanted it this way."
- HP announces it is killing PalmOS. "Now that we have Blackberry, we don't need Palm any more. We, uh, just figured that out," says Whitman.
- In a shocking major announcement, CA (formerly Computer Associates) stuns the industry by announcing that it does, in fact, still exist.
Part Four of my predictions may be found here.