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New World

May you live in interesting times

Part 1
JAMAIS CASCIO advises suits and other Hollywood weasels on what could happen over the next hundred years. He worries about being called a futurist.


y nephew Nicolas turned ten years old last week. In twenty years, he'll be nearly as old as I am now. What sort of world will he live in? What will information technology be like? In this New World column and the next, I'll explore this in some detail.

Twenty years out is a fun concept. 2020 will be the moment of the second generation, in both human and technological terms. For people, by 2020 we'll see the mass of first generation digital kids becoming digital parents. For machines, by 2020 the next generation networks--wireless, distributed, smart--will be in place. If the first generation is for experimentation, the second is for consolidation and growth.

Nicolas was born in 1989, the year that Windows became popular and the Macintosh truly hit its stride. He never knew a world without computers meant for non-technical consumers, and started school just as the Internet became ubiquitous. Digital kids like Nicolas, the children for whom a computer is as obvious a tool as a TV or a toaster, will in twenty years be rearing children of their own. The parents will be as technically comfortable as the kids, less likely to harbor irrational fears of new technologies and more likely to see them as natural and fun.

The one-two punch of technically savvy kids and parents will very likely lead to an explosion of electronic commerce and community, even greater than what we see today. The age of the pioneers will have passed; now will come the time of the settlers. The real uncertainty here is whether this new double-digital generation will trust other people using the technology. In broad strokes, there is a possible future of users willing to let themselves be 'transparent' to the net, willing to give information about themselves in return for better products and services. There is also a possible future of users keeping close control over that information, selling it to the highest bidder if they choose to release it at all.

There is a striking parallel between the changes in human generations and the upcoming transformation of technology. Over the last two decades, we've seen the spread of information technology as early adopters wrestle with the discovery of what these tools could do for them. It's not coincidence that the dominant metaphor for file management is that of seeking: the Mac's Finder, Windows' Explorer, Netscape's Navigator... even the cutting-edge Be operating system's main interface is the Tracker. The next generation of technology will move from the age of discovery to the age of clarification. We now have a pretty good idea about what these tools can do for us -- now it's time to make them work better.

I think it's a reasonable argument that the next twenty years of information and communication technology will develop most swiftly along three major fronts:

  • Bandwidth & medium
  • Distribution
  • System intelligence
In the United States, cable modems and DSL -- a technology for pushing fast digital signals over standard phone lines -- are becoming increasingly common in the home. But far faster technologies are just over the horizon. In early June, a company called MediaFusion (http://mediafusioncorp.net/) announced a new system to use the electrical power grid as a medium for digital communication. They claim that the system, which will begin testing this year, will provide bandwidth of at least 2.5 gigabits per second (fifty million times faster than a standard modem -- faster than the Internet backbone for most countries) over devices that will plug into standard home electrical outlets and cost under US$100. Even if this system doesn't work, other technologies are pushing ahead -- by 2020 bandwidth will no longer be the bottleneck.

But bandwidth is only part of the system. Mobility is another key element. The first decade of the next century will see the rollout of several satellite broadband systems, including Globalstar and Teledesic (partially owned by Bill Gates). There are also a number of new short-range wireless technologies in development for use in the home. While the speeds for these systems will be high enough for general business use -- about as fast as a modern-day T1 line -- they will remain a sluggish second-best to wired connections; later versions, coming on-line as we approach 2020, will likely solve those issues.

Of course, not all users of these networks will be human consumers. Already a slim majority of the traffic on the Internet is automated--indexing spiders, newsbots, and the like. The rise of independent software agents, acting under the direction of the human user, has been long predicted; while we wait for such independent software robots to emerge, existing tools (such as search engines) take on increasing complexity in order to provide users with what they want (the Google search engine, at http://www.google.com/ is a great example of a next-generation system). As the first two decades of the next century progress, we will continue to see advances in the sophistication of user agents of all sorts and the hardware upon which the network is run.

Of particular note is Sun's Jini project. Jini (details at http://www.sun.com/jini/) looks to be able to give a network the ability to recognize and utilize components as they are added and removed, without bothering humans with the details of the problem. This is no small feat; if Jini performs as designed, it will mean that computer networks will finally function in practice as users have long believed they should. They will finally "work". Jini (and its competitor from Microsoft, "Universal Plug & Play") has the potential to be the lingua franca for the net, allowing components of all sorts, from cell phones to servers to coffee makers, to understand each other.

Distributed systems will likely come to include a wide assortment of embedded processors, microchips inside everything. In some cases, these chips will be largely passive, watching materials for microscopic strain or degradation. In other cases, they will give us extraordinary control over seemingly everyday items: glass that can become opaque at a user's command; ink that can reconfigure itself on signs; walls that are digital displays.

Add to this the curve of Moore's Law. Breakthroughs in microprocessor development and utilization strongly suggest that the doubling of power every 18 months that Moore's Law describes will easily keep going through the next decade. Microprocessor companies are working hard to improve chip fabrication methods; potentially even more revolutionary are new ways of making use of processors. The TERAMAC project, for example, makes use of arrays of broken CPUs in parallel to run at blinding speeds; error-correction software routes around the broken parts of individual components. This technique is not limited to damaged CPUs -- it could easily be applied to biocomputers or nanocomputers, operating at a molecular level.

It's worth underlining the fact that these are not science fiction stories -- these are technologies that are moving from the lab to the shelf today. The next twenty years will be, to put it mildly, interesting times. We will see faster machines, communicating with each other over faster links, undertaking more complex tasks. More importantly, they will be used by a population that not only isn't scared of new technologies, it revels in them. As fascinating and scary as the changes brought by computers have been, they are only a foreshadowing of what will come. The revolution is only just beginning.

© Daily Mail & Guardian - June 23, 1999

* Jamais Cascio is a consultant and writer specializing in scenarios of how we may live over the next century. His clients have included mainstream corporations, film and television producers. He has written for many publications, including Wired and TIME, and is currently working on a screenplay. He is an active member of the oldest and most influential online community, The Well, and believes that new technologies are pushing people into new social, economic and political realms.



* Arthur Goldstuck: Webfeet
* Douglas Rushkoff: Online
* Mish Middelman: Dr Byte


* Comments to Jamais Cascio
* Jamais Cascio homepage


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Published weekly by the Electronic Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg, South Africa. Send email comments to the editor, Gavin Dudley