Your computer is doomed

photo / Extra Ketchup Creative Commons licensed: Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 

Ten years from now, surfing the Web won’t require a computer. So says futurist Jamais Cascio, a researcher with Silicon Valley’s forecasting think tank Institute for the Future. He’s been following the development of the Web for years, serving as a consultant to Web industry groups such as Mozilla, makers of the popular Firefox browser, about directions they might want to take their research over the next 10 years. He believes the Web itself might not change much, but the way we get information from it will.

The Web, Cascio told me recently, will come to us on all kinds of devices. Already people can stream movies from the Web to a mobile, or grab a radio show from the British Broadcasting Corporation Web site to listen to on an iPod. But in a few years, all these devices will be far more specialized. You might have a special pocket-size electronic map that’s just for grabbing maps off the Web and displaying them in a simple format. At the same time, every device you own will become computer-network-ready. Instead of having a 50-inch plasma screen TV and a computer monitor, you’ll just have a big flat-screen monitor that you can use to tune into Torchwood or read your favorite blogs. Why have two monitors when TV and the Web are both streamed over the Internet, anyway?

Columnist Annalee Newitz 

Cascio thinks that in the next couple of decades, Web devices will become aware of human presence, turning on and off as people move from place to place. “It wouldn’t be difficult to have your movie stop on your cell phone when you came home, and then get picked up on your big TV,” he suggests. I love this idea because it’s a corrective to the lazy futurist notion that computers will just keep evolving into bigger and better machines, with more (or fewer) blinking lights depending on who is telling the story. Think of all the sci-fi you’ve seen where everybody basically has a Macintosh 50 years from now, but the screen is transparent and dangles in the air. Or the keyboard is made of light instead of plastic. Few people are willing to challenge the regime of the PC and boldly state that this important technology will merge with other ones and basically cease to exist.

But if you look at the history of communications tech, Cascio’s vision makes more sense than a tomorrowland filled with computers that have to stay stationary at a desk and are operated by that old-fashioned typing thing. After all, a more evolved society will at least have gotten rid of typing, since it’s crippled so many people with repetitive stress injuries over the past two decades.

In the future, people will expect ubiquitous Internet access. We will be comfortable with the idea that we live in a haze of information, and we’d be shocked at the idea that we should need one particular kind of tech to get at it. Already, the profusion of Internet-enabled mobiles attests to this shift in perception. But I’m talking about a shift that goes deeper: one that comes at a moment when everyone, not just the kids and the techies, is completely at ease with the idea that their bodies will always be connected in some way to a data network.

Yeah, in some sense I’m talking about the death of privacy as we have known it. But I’m also talking about breaking down the information juggernaut into little pieces that are easier to control. Maybe your movie will follow you from room to room, but you’ll also have more control over the devices that make that happen. Shutting off the network’s access to you may become as simple as shutting your eyes.

Or maybe it won’t. Maybe your individuality will be stripped away with your privacy, and you’ll have no room to screw up or be subversive because everything you do will be uploaded immediately to Facebook.

My personal theory is that as the Internet becomes a part of our bodies, we’ll gain a new kind of privacy – call it temporal privacy. There will be so much information swarming around us that nobody will ever be the center of attention for very long. So you may be infamous as a dork today, but in five minutes the next dork will drift across everyone’s retina screens and they’ll forget about your Star Wars dance as they laugh at some kid’s Segway accident. In the future, your infamy will not be remembered. Is that comforting? I’m not entirely sure.

About the author Annalee Newitz (annalee at techsploitation dot com) is a surly media nerd who did something really bad about 20 minutes ago, but you’ve already forgotten about it.

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tweakvi's picture

“It wouldn’t be difficult to have your movie stop on your cell phone when you came home, and then get picked up on your big TV” I love this idea too, thanks for your article, excellent.

electronwill's picture

1) One of my friends already uses a giant LCD TV on the wall behind his desk as his computer monitor— and movie player, of course. Also, my friends are already using laptops and even smart phones as map readers. So even though I’m sure it’s what hardware sellers want to hear, I think Cascio’s wrong about devices getting more specialized. I do think he’s right about changes coming in the devices connected and the uses of the web, and not as much in “the web itself” meaning routers, fiber optic cables, and protocols.

2) As for privacy and infamy, the cruel mockery of anonymous crowds is nothing compared to the REALLY malevolent anonymous crowds, Kafkaesque bureaucracies. If a government wants to hurt someone in 10 or 20 years, will they be able to sort through every email, chatlog, website, or post that person has ever read or written, looking for mentions of sex, drugs, or politics? As a programmer who has studied the AT&T/NSA wiretap story with interest, I am certain that the US, Russian, and Chinese governments have the money and privacy to do this secretly, and unless masses of users start screwing around with crypto or proxies or something, these governments either have the technology now or will within a couple of years. Only legal, cultural, social, moral, and bureaucratic constraints, if any, will stand in their way.

(Reading online can also be much more revealing than reading paper. For example, buying a map of a whole city is much less revealing than searching for one address on Google Maps, and the same goes for a whole newspaper or just some articles.)

3) Finally, I think you’re wrong about typing. I’ve been scouring my brain and the web for years trying to come up with a good replacement for the century old keyboard, and unlike replacements for the simple little mouse, there aren’t any good ones. Voice recognition and sign language don’t work yet and will still suck when they do. Subvocal recognition doesn’t work yet. Chorded keyboards are the best replacement around, since they’re fast and small, but they take ages to learn how to use and are still keyboards.