|The Millennium Issue||Volume 8, Number 1 • January 2000|
Timelines to the Future: Three Movers and Shakers Point the Way
Editor, Super Searcher Books
Aubergine Information Services
From a writer’s viewpoint, a skilled editor is more than someone who doesn’t mince your words. A truly gifted editor can persuade you to take on assignments that you’re reluctant, out of fear of potential humiliation and professional ruin, to accept.
BQ is a great editor.
Physicist Niels Bohr once said, in a statement worthy of Yogi Berra, “Prediction is extremely difficult, especially about the future.” Paul Saffo of the Institute for the Future, whose salary as a seer I strive in vain to emulate, explained that forecasting consists of defining the cone of uncertainty — the zone beyond which we can’t confidently extrapolate — and looking beyond it for anomalies, events that don’t make sense.
I keep a file-folder labeled “Whither? Forecasts” stuffed with news of weird products, unfathomable comments from industry leaders, social phenomena that seem to jump the continuum, technologies that build on some as-yet unvoiced assumption or fill some currently undefined need. Every now and then I pull it out and, sifting through the contents, try to plot the cone of uncertainty and what lies beyond. And every time I go through this exercise, the cone appears larger, the anomalies less striking, the zone of undisputed reality at the center smaller and less commanding.
Short version: We’re losing our perspective. The future is up for grabs.
Since the advent and almost immediate commercialization of the Web, we’ve all been active, if reluctant, participants in this flashy multimedia pinball game called the New Information Economy. Sprrrrong! A Stanford grad student’s 3 A.M. brainstorm — tomorrow’s hot IPO. Sprrrrong! Two high-level execs in line at Starbuck’s discover that their kids go to the same school — joint venture! Sprrrrong! Search-site COO notices revenue hemorrhage — Red Ink, Inc. is reborn as a portal! (Tilt!)
Scores of successful Internet companies could boil down their business plan to two words: Whatever works. You want a 5-year-projection? When it doesn’t work any more, reinvent yourself. Stability and consistency hark back to the fusty old ’50s, an Ozzie-and-Harriet era when Dad could reasonably expect to retire with a gold watch from the company he’d worked for his entire life. Today’s core values are flexibility and change.
Not one soul along the information-economy food chain — users, intermediaries, suppliers, hosts, parasites, or hangers-on — knows for certain what’s going to happen 5 minutes from now. And yet BQ wants — get this — a timeline for the next 20 years.
Tim, Cliff — you
with me? All right; pencils up, and keep your eyes on your own paper. Begin.
Five years out marks the culmination of a period of consolidation and convergence. The chaos and confusion of the late ’90s — Which search engine is the biggest now? No, wait; that was last week! — has yielded to two powerful forces: economic reality and the collapse of the human attention span. The result: a simpler, more streamlined Net, with a relatively small, but substantial, cast of characters. An unruly universe riddled with black holes, meteors, supernovas, and inexplicable flying IPOs has evolved into an orderly cosmos with a handful of major planets against a stellar backdrop of tightly targeted niche players. The information business is starting to resemble the automobile industry and other mature sectors of the U.S. economy. One result of this maturation and consolidation: By 2005, two of the current big three professional-quality proprietary online services will be toast.
Through a complex cat’s cradle of acquisitions, assimilations, licenses, joint ventures, and court rulings, the great divide between Microsoft and Apple/AOL-Netscape/Sun/ everybody else — a chasm already somewhat compromised by Microsoft’s minor stake in Apple back in the ’90s — has been bridged, if not yet backfilled and planted with petunias.
E-commerce and communication maintain their positions as killer apps for the previously unwired. Net telephony and voice chat catch on despite lingering bandwidth constraints.
Encouraged by the opportunity to spend money and talk to the grandkids online, even the diehards cozy up to the Web. Smarter browsers coupled with a universal RealNames-type knowledge base eliminates the need to remember and type funky old URLs.
Microsoft vows to technologically empower the consumer by quadrupling the number of screensaver patterns available in Windows 2000.
Road warriors find power jacks for their laptops not just in business class, but in the furthest reaches of coach. Computer manufacturers, acknowledging the trend toward portable, ubiquitous computing, slow the production of desktop machines to a trickle.
widely used in Europe, finally migrate to North America, making those rare
offline transactions — parking meters, latte grandes, newspapers — more
convenient. The U.S. government halts production of pennies.
The Net gets its act together — partly through self-organization and natural selection based on researchers’ innate tendency to seek out and patronize sites that provide the most complete, reliable, current, and accessible information, and partly through initiatives such as XML and Dublin Core, which have finally gained a foothold in their efforts to index documents on the Web. With a coherent indexing scheme in place, the entire Web — or a significant chunk of it — transforms itself into a single, humongous, seamless, searchable database. Bots routinely fulfill most common online queries, interfacing with users via natural language voice commands as well as keyboard input.
Bandwidth issues have been resolved in most of the industrialized world, except for a few rural pockets. New music and movie releases, best-sellers and books-on-demand, multimedia greeting cards, and photos of the grandkids are delivered primarily via the Net.
Wireless connectivity rules. Airlines offer high-speed Net access at every seat, hotels in every room. Automobiles feature dashboard-based Net consoles as standard equipment. Travelers leave their laptops at home. Public kiosks abound — in airports, on city streets, in stores, restaurants, and theme parks — with secure connections over the Net to an individual’s home files. Your multi-application smart card verifies your ID and transfers funds to cover remote transactions. Smart cards and electronic wallets automatically handle micropayments to authors, artists, and other copyright holders for intellectual property distributed via the Net.
Microsoft and Apple merge to form Macgrowsoft. Cue the petunias. The new venture, buoyed by Redmond’s deep pockets, developer commitment, and unstoppable marketing juggernaut, enjoys tremendous success with the G32, a transparent, voice-activated, totally spherical computer. The device, which bears a striking resemblance to a fortune teller’s crystal ball, offers a mere half-dozen screensaver patterns, but they’re all insanely great.
On the legislative
scene, the Net. Punctuation Act of 2010 mandates lower-case generic usage
of the words web and net, and the long-anticipated end to hyphenation of
online and email. The second point is moot (like much legislation) since
the word mail already is assumed to refer to electronic message transmission.
The back-formation snailmail has been shortened through common usage, to
snail. A controversial clause that would have outlawed InterCaps was defeated
in the House.
Wearable computers are programmed with both individual and general knowledge bases. Forget AskJeeves; it’s AskSleeves. An infrastructure of embedded nanocomputers that interface with personal devices such as the thumbnail-sized Palm XXXVI (cool, though the optional keyboard leaves something to be desired) anticipates and answers our quotidian information needs — not just stock quotes, sports scores, traffic and weather, but key personal data such as meetings and appointments, phone numbers, birthdays and anniversaries, and the name of that person across the breakfast table.
On-demand searching — for the unanticipated, the abstruse, the retrospective, the complex — is the exception. Professional researchers jockey like X-wing Starfighter pilots through massive, three-dimensional visual data structures, making sense of symbolic shapes, and pulling needles, adroitly, out of haystacks. These experts in data mining, information architecture, knowledge management, and institutional wisdom-gathering enjoy a social status equivalent to that of neurosurgeons and celebrity chefs and are paid as handsomely for their expertise.
We live in Jetsonia. Your appliances remember that you get up at 6, take your coffee black, and prefer your bagel lightly toasted. When you return at the end of the day (assuming you’re part of the 14 percent of the workforce still commuting to an outside office), your lights turn on as you enter each room; the heat or air conditioning has been adjusted in anticipation of your arrival. The security module tells you that your kid slept in till noon for the third time this week, but that the cleaners arrived as scheduled and worked a full 4 hours. One of the ceiling sensors has detected the beginning of a potential leak and has taken the liberty of e-mailing the roofer. A note on the kitchen screen alerts you to tomorrow’s Net.grocery delivery; you were low on eggs, arugula, and extra virgin olive oil, and completely out of Ben & Jerry’s, again.
Passwords and mechanical keys have been replaced by biometric IDs. You never forget your fingerprints, at least, or lock your face in the car by mistake.
A brief foray into thought-activated microprocessors — known in retrospect as The Oops! Episode — ends abruptly amid embarrassment, anger, and incredulity. Consumers’ initially gleeful call, “Look ma, no larynx!,” loses its appeal in the wake of several large lawsuits. The healthcare, air traffic control, and banking industries withdraw their critical support; the neologism “accimental” is coined.
A dystopian turn of events is narrowly averted when the Federation reaffirms that data mining of Net conversations, buying patterns, and other transactions is subject to strict privacy controls. Users with “nothing to hide” can opt in, accruing frequent flyer miles in exchange for their willingness to be tracked.
The last laptop
computer rolls off the assembly line, bound for the Smithsonian Institution.
A major computer manufacturer tells The Wall Street Journal: “Between
PDAs the size of an Altoid and embedded systems in all our walls, anyone
who thinks they still need to schlep a 6.7-pound paperweight around is
meshugenah.” Chiropractors and massage therapists struggle to recover from
the economic setback.
Ted Kaczynski opens an ISP account.
High-speed Internet access comes to the extreme northwestern corner of Sonoma County, California.
Pointing to the deterioration in human reasoning ability brought about by over-reliance on slick but simplistic slides, the PowerPoint Liberation Army calls for a ban on PowerPoint presentations unless conducted by skilled, board-certified practitioners with graduate-level training in critical thinking, graphics, and user-interface design. (When bullet points are outlawed.…) The hand-crafted aesthetic of a hastily scrawled overhead transparency regains respect among conference-going professionals. Overflowing meeting-rooms attest to the powerful attraction of a well-thought-out talk delivered without visual aids of any kind. The Post-PPT era ushers in a golden age of oratory, debate, and incisive commentary unequaled since William Jennings Bryan and Mark Twain strode the earth.
After decades of fruitless attempts to replicate human thinking patterns, the artificial intelligence industry discovers the complex, multi-dimensional, cognitive mapping and information-management skills inherent in the minds of librarians and professional online researchers. Savvy super searchers and subject experts negotiate extremely favorable terms for the rights to map and mimic their logical thought processes and intuitive leaps. A new class of information professional billionaires is created. AI scientists eventually duplicate the searcher wisdom-base in chips and software, but commercial applications are stalled for several years pending the discovery of a successful pricing algorithm. Eventually, “intelligent” agents are developed that live up to their name. The scope, depth, precision, quality, reliability, and currency of automated on-demand searching increases exponentially. Wealthy information professionals contemplate the next phase.
Having successfully plotted my own personal exit strategy, I’m off to Kauai, Berkeley, and Amsterdam with cats, kin, a Net account, a pile of videos, and a lifetime supply of books.
Oh, one more thing.
Just before the dawn of the word-processor era, Selectric typewriters and
Corrassable Bond paper were state of the art and, like spell-checkers today,
a fast but sloppy writer’s technological ace in the hole. My final prediction:
SELectively CORrectable documents, in which failed prophecies are automatically
expunged from published works, in all print and electronic media existing
or yet to be invented, and replaced with uncannily accurate forecasts.
You’re holding the prototype in your hands right now. Sprrrong!!!
Reva Basch, author of Researching Online for Dummies and Secrets of the Super Net Searchers, is executive editor of the new Super Searcher book series published by Information Today, Inc. Of that much she is certain.
Everybody knows Web technology continues to change the world we live in. All you have to do is pick up a newspaper, watch network television, or listen to drive-time radio, and the hype alone will have you believing tomorrow will be a better day because the Information Superhighway has finally arrived. Very soon we’ll all buy goods and services from around the globe as if the online merchants were located just around the corner. With a few simple clicks the Web will design the home of your dreams; trade in your automobile and have a new one delivered; speak every dialect needed to shop the world; and video-plan your scuba-diving vacation to Bali, right down to confirming your hotel room overlooking the lagoon — all before noon, all from your desktop.
With everything this powerful Internet technology provides why would anyone want to leave home ever again? That’s the promise and the premise. Just stay online and let all the information, products, and services you want and need come to you. And if you don’t own a computer, don’t worry, no problem, the Web will give you one. Or if that’s too much trouble, the Web will wire your television set to provide you with broadband access to this brave new world of technological convenience through your handy remote control while you lounge in the LA-Z-BOY recliner. Sounds pretty good. A great technological advancement that may actually benefit not just a few people, but nearly everyone.
Potentially, this may be one of those rare moments in mass product development when the form accurately describes the function, if the promise of Web technology delivers the everyday practical applications that will enhance and advance the worlds we all live and work in. But how do we get to this envisioned Altruria from here?
• Advanced interactive
home access will be established on a global level within 10 years, by 2010.
Infrastructure Paves the Way
Today, right now, we are all in the process of trying to define who we are and what we have to offer this technological renaissance. Business models for information providers and e-commerce companies are built, then rebuilt, then scrapped in favor of better enterprise directions — responding, in theory, to the perceived demands of an increasingly sophisticated marketplace hungry for innovative technology and applications. Much like a football coach who approaches each game with a basic plan of attack, to win this game — to succeed — our plans and models and strategies must also be flexible and adapt to accommodate the realities dictated by the field, in our case, marketplace conditions. Competition has never been so fierce, barriers of entry never lower, the marketplace never more receptive to change.
In what is still the Web’s first formative phase of product and industry development, infrastructure is the single most important step toward realizing full potential. Product capabilities, practical applications, customer support, and methods of delivery — infrastructure — will decide the long-term success and overall acceptance of all Internet activities. As we have already witnessed, the challenge is not just to see how fast a company or product can grow and reach critical mass but rather, much more importantly, at what sustainable level one can profitably serve and retain the target audience.
Infrastructure, the nuts and bolts of the information superhighway construction, demands visionary thinking and proactive attention to design today, if we are to build and implement the reliable network of technology and ideas that will serve Internet travelers, our customers, well into the future.
infrastructure will be completed and globally accessible for all business
users within 3 years, for selected home users within 8 years.
If We Build It They Will Come
… And Stay
Who is your audience? Who are they now? Who will they be in 5 years? Who will they be in 10 years, and beyond? What are their wants and needs? What are they really trying to accomplish? These are the key questions we all must answer before offering a product or service to the Internet. This is truly an interactive technology in that the customer, the audience, the marketplace will determine what products and services hold value … if we listen. Beyond just the buzz terms of “customer service” and “customer support,” online providers and merchants must listen constantly to what their customers say, request, and criticize, or suffer the consequences of not being around for the long haul.
As we in the information industry look even just a few years into the future, it’s obvious our customers’ expectations and demands will change from what they are today. Those of us who serve business and information professionals communicate with a range of customers, each bringing a unique subset of objectives and priorities to the table affecting what they expect and want from our products. Today, tomorrow, and always, the responsibility of an online provider is to know our audience, our customers, and to play an important role in helping them succeed.
To try to be all things to all people is always a mistake and will prove fatal to Internet providers and merchants. The credibility and success of the Web depends on companies taking responsibility for who we are, what we offer, and who we serve — and being good at what we do. After all, what is a vertical portal but yet another way of saying niche marketing? Specialization is the key to Internet, and obviously Intranet, success. Within each category — business, education, finance, consumer, healthcare, entertainment — leaders will naturally emerge who do what they do better than anyone else. As Internet usage becomes as common and necessary as telephone and ATM access, as essential to living as water, electricity, and transportation, only those providers and merchants who execute with vision, focus, and dedication to their chosen sector or craft will profit and succeed beyond even the near future.
• Overall Internet
usage will reach 80 percent of the developed world population by 2010.
Partnerships for Success
The trend today in preparation for the future is to partner with another Internet company, or companies, to strengthen the products and services being offered. Ideally, the relationship brings complementary benefits to everyone involved, foremost the customer. As we work together to establish the Internet as a necessary staple in homes and workplaces around the world, there is very much a cooperative spirit — some call it “coopetition” — at work between the major providers and merchants who steer Web technology and Internet design in the direction of future users.
But what do these strategic relationships mean to the big picture of Internet advancement? The goal of these symbiotic relationships is to marry the best of each company, to optimize results, and to maximize investment. Because so much of the focus thus far has concentrated on developing infrastructure and designing product, the benefits to the marketplace are only beginning to become evident. Customers are receiving a wider selection of products and services through more efficient channels of distribution at a higher level of assumed technical proficiency.
Internet “norms” for doing business are being established. For the World Wide Web to live up to its name, global partnerships are needed to provide a universal perspective to the content being delivered. The success, acceptance, and popular usage of this powerful interactive technology depends on the quality standards of the foundation currently being set. Joint ventures, partnerships, and cooperative efforts make complete sense in this innovative, entrepreneurial environment we all share while building this global Internet commerce community. The ultimate goal of many Internet partnerships in formation today must be to provide indispensable productivity tools for customers around the world. We can expect more partnership announcements to appear as companies identify alliances that make sense toward enhanced performance. Competition is always good, but in the crusade to build an Internet that thrives and endures for the benefit of all, cooperation is the mantra.
• Within 10
years, eight of the top 10 Internet commercial sites will be ones you don’t
Inclusive Technology Invites
In a world that has become increasingly exclusive, the Web offers an open window to a universe of equal opportunity and access. Who will be the user of the future? Anyone and everyone we can think of. School children who want to learn more than what appears in their textbooks. Parents seeking knowledge and direction in making the best decisions for their family. Universities extending the reach and impact of higher-learning curriculum to students of all ages and backgrounds, who otherwise could not reach the classroom. And workers, in all areas of business and government, eager for information solutions that will help them do their jobs better. Clearly, Internet access and Web usage bring better lines of communication and offer powerful information perspectives to a broad and still-growing audience. We are challenged to deliver this global invitation to users of the future: All Are Invited to Attend.
In the business world, we have already seen dramatic change brought about by the introduction and implementation of interactive desktop access to essential information. Undeniably, productivity, efficiency, and profitability have been enhanced, and in many cases revolutionized. Projects that once took days or even weeks to accomplish now are completed in a matter of minutes. As a result, the workplace as we knew it has undergone a massive transformation. The “virtual office” we hear and read so much about today is reality for an increasing number of professionals, managers, and workers who have the discipline and desire to work productively beyond the confines of traditional corporate environments. Through Internet access and related interactive technology, standard operating procedure has been disrupted in a very positive way.
Inevitably, for both the near- and long-term futures, we can anticipate a workforce with an entirely new set of computer skills and technical training that will harness and advance the Web’s intelligence gathering and customer response capabilities in new ways. Notably, it is the younger generation that comes much better equipped, with a higher cyber-comfort level and a cultured computer literacy, to seize this opportunity to succeed in the Internet’s next phase of implementation. But any worker willing to accept change and learn new job functions will be valued and should become an integral part of the Web’s continued growth and success.
• By 2008,
more than 75 percent of all U.S. workers will use the Internet at least
once a day.
Providing Solutions to an
The role of the Internet provider and merchant is still being defined through a constant state of self-examination as the online market develops. We’ve already learned it isn’t enough just to sell a product or service and leave the rest to the customer. To ensure profitability through customer satisfaction and retention, the relationship must continue beyond the initial transaction to provide implementation, technical support, and quality control. One example is the growth and popular usage of company intranets linking outside information sources to internal online distribution networks. Providers must ensure that product offerings will fit within the technical and design parameters of the company’s existing intranet to support convenient enterprise access and usage. Successful services will expand and provide technical advice, product training, and in some cases, intranet design services. Customers rely on full-service providers to generate the online solutions needed to implement Web technology and to roll out advanced interactive products for their companies.
Within each market, Internet providers and merchants will become valued consultants to their customers, their audience, to build the relationship that will establish brand loyalty. As competition increases, customers will decide which companies offer the best products and services, based mainly on their online experiences, and make these providers and merchants their core choices through continued usage.
From a purely technical standpoint, the Web stands ready to deliver all the modern conveniences, reliable services, and relevant information that have been promised and promoted. In fact today, many online business users already enjoy Internet services and benefits not yet available to the home audience. Infrastructure, already in-place in the business world, has sped implementation and usage of Web technology through intranet integration. Interactive business services and applications will continue to flourish and lead the way. Ongoing efforts to establish universal access to home audiences through telephone, broadband, and desktop networking have progressed, but still face serious infrastructure challenges to realize full market potential. We will see many more partnerships formed between major global concerns to accomplish this important objective of worldwide access.
• Within the
next 5 years, by 2005, intranet advertising will represent 20 percent of
all Web-based advertising revenue.
Where do we go from here? We continue to establish Web access and Internet services in the everyday world of a marketplace only beginning to understand, accept, and utilize the advancements this evolutionary technology brings. By ensuring content credibility and technical performance, leaders in the information industry will continue to deliver quality products that fulfill the Web’s promise of a future filled with exciting possibilities for genuine holistic breakthroughs.
• By the time
this article appears, many of these predictions will be outdated.
Tim Andrews is leading Factiva, the joint venture of Dow Jones and Reuters, in serving corporations around the world with the news and business information they need every day, throughout the day. Under his direction, Factiva is building on its current products to create a new offering with mission-critical news and information for the global business marketplace.
When Barbara Quint invited me to prepare a timeline for an information future — which I choose to view broadly as encompassing knowledge, data, and entertainment in the digital age — I could not resist, having been an inveterate reader of science fiction and addict of future histories from Robert Heinlein to the miraculous Continuing Time stories of Daniel Keys Moran. However, as I worked on this project, I found myself developing not predictions, not a predictive timeline of the future, but rather a set of scenarios in the spirit of Peter Schwartz’s Art of the Long View: stories of possible futures designed to provide insight into how we might prepare for and understand the future as it actually unfolds.
I had hoped to offer two scenarios. One would honor creativity and intellect, the empowerment of individuals, and the use of information as a force for social and cultural change. It would envision a future where information is valuable but also plentiful; in some sense an unlimited and constantly renewed and enriched resource. It would describe a future that includes and values those who help society to manage and navigate information, as well as those who create it.
The second scenario was to be more disturbing: one dominated by the commercialization and control of information and influenced by emerging technological and legal mechanisms for controlling information at an unprecedented level. I have spent a good deal of time on these issues recently, in part due to my service on the National Research Council’s Committee on Intellectual Property in the Emerging Information Infrastructure. (The scenario here in no way represents the conclusions of that committee. By the time this article reaches print, the committee’s report should be published and I urge you to read it.) This scenario views information as a scarce and precious commodity that needs careful protection — but less to reward creators, than to optimize returns for massive corporations that control information dissemination and their shareholders. This is a world in which cultural and social values have been all but abandoned in favor of the marketplace.
Rather than fully
developed, coherent scenarios, however, what emerged — and what I present
here — are notes towards these two scenarios. They sketch pieces of a future
history that are sometimes contradictory. Part of the fun for the reader
lies in deciding which fragment he or she finds appropriate for each of
Notes and Fragments
Item. In 1998 the U.S. Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act, which extended the duration of copyright to life of the author plus 75 years. In 2005, Congress, in its wisdom (and liberally encouraged by the contributions of various “copyright industries”), extended the term of copyright again to the life of the author plus 120 years. In 2010, even as the average life expectancy of individuals approached 120 years due to breakthroughs in biotechnology, Congress again extended coverage to the life of the author plus 200 years, essentially halting the migration of works into the public domain for the imaginable future. Information became for all intents and purposes a permanently private good. A movement, encouraged by class action suits, emerged to make these extensions retroactive: the sons and daughters of Mark Twain, the children of Socrates, and the descendants of the Ice Age all attempted to make the case that they should be entitled to royalties for the creations of their progenitors. In the global Internet, the act of copyright “outing” — the public distribution of a protected work by and for anonymous access — becomes a common hacker activity. We see the launch of a new “war on infringement” that continues for decades.
Item. In 2001 the Supreme Court determines that the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act of 1998 is in fact unconstitutional, violating the constitutional provisions to protect creators’ works “for a limited time.” This is a key turning point in a shift in public values to honor and enlarge the public domain, which includes commonplace provisions in wills that place everything authored by the deceased in the public domain. (The Library of Congress maintains an obituary database of people who do this, as well as a broader database of death dates to assist in determining when materials not specifically released will pass out of copyright.) Society comes to consider it in poor taste for authors or other creators not to register in rights clearance databases even while living. The bias moves to permitting others to build upon your works. The slogan is “on the shoulder of giants.”
Item. 2002 was a bad year for the information industries, with much negative press coverage and congressional hearings on their treatment of creators and the general public. In 2010, various information moguls who found 2002 to have treated them particularly unfairly began to buy up the rights to various accounts of what happened in 2002 and to withdraw them from licensing. Cultural historians, even in 2020, refer to 2002 as the “lost year,” a measure of the effectiveness of the removal of materials dealing with 2002 from availability.
Item. Towards the end of the 1990s various nations were establishing national information firewalls — attempting to control, by a mixture of legal and technical mechanisms — information that flowed into their countries. This was strengthened by the international information border treaties of 2001-2002, which subjected international transit of information to stiff regulation. Digital information objects increasingly became “localized” — carrying control labels matching them with the countries in which they could be used. Another part of the “new world information order” established at the beginning of the 21st century assigned national archival responsibility for national literatures. A series of coups by religious fundamentalists in 2005 moved much of this literature behind national firewalls and meant that people in the U.S. no longer even had access to the key documents of the cultures that opposed them.
Item. A massive program was mounted in the U.S. in 2001 to digitize the holdings of key research libraries, partly funded by lottery revenues, following the leadership of Scotland. The net effects were numerous: In particular, the literature of the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries became part of the overall cultural heritage by 2005. In 2007 an earthquake destroyed the UCLA library, and later that year a fire at the Library of Congress damaged other key historical collections. While the news media suggested that these tragic events ranked with the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria, in fact only artifacts were lost. Although some of these losses were indeed tragic, the digitized content was preserved at a variety of repositories on the Net.
Item. Trial lawyers, having finished with the tobacco, firearms, liquor, and fragrance industries, turned in 2002 to the “mother of all torts” — the information industries. Independent information professionals are driven out of business by liability issues. Many libraries close; all others require patrons to sign complex release forms before granting permission for any use. Authoring, reviewing, advice-giving, and advertising become extremely dangerous and litigious activities. Government as an information provider legislates protection against such lawsuits and becomes the dominant source of information for many people. In a related development the nature of the software authoring industry changes fundamentally. Virtually any authoring of software violates a vast array of patents. Authors are guilty not by virtue of plagiarism, but of independently reproducing patented techniques. Authoring of software becomes the exclusive domain of a handful of large companies who share patent pools for algorithms. Programming is no longer taught or practiced except within these large corporations.
Item. Starting in about 2010, with advances in computation and artificial intelligence technologies, a new series of art forms and entertainments arise. It is possible to construct simulations of famous performers and permit them to interact with each other and with consumers. The construction of imaginary bands and movies cast with actors from throughout the history of film becomes commonplace. We finally hear what happens when Jaco Pastorius, Jimi Hendrix, and Miles Davis get to play together and watch John Belushi co-star with the Marx Brothers. Intellectual property law struggles with ownership not only of the simulations, but of the works produced from them.
Item. The 1990s, looking back, are viewed as the apogee of the age of information overload. By 2010, a number of technologies — filtering, personal agents, recommender systems, sophisticated information merging and summarization and correlation, and effective selective dissemination of information — have been coupled to the personal information appliance and have brought the sense of information overload under control. These technologies are accompanied by a series of social and cultural shifts that elevate the value of researchers, reviewers, information organizers, referees, and similar roles that provide part of the knowledge base exploited by the technological revolution. By 2015, it becomes clear to many people that what they have been doing is building relationships with machines that act as personal assistants and create very complex structured databases of personal preferences, knowledge, and experience. Because of the rapid cycles of technological obsolescence, however, migrating these databases from one generation of assistant hardware and software to the next becomes a major problem; a new kind of consultant arises to assist individuals and organizations embarking upon technology-driven “rites of passage.” Also, because of progress in information selection technologies, a certain amount of disintermediation begins to occur in the publishing and music industries. Technology has made it possible for consumers to locate works they like from among a huge mass of undifferentiated and unfiltered offerings with reasonable success. Opinion circles form in the digital world and become important social constructs for locating information.
Item. A series of developments begin in the late 1990s with the Secure Digital Music Initiative and E-books that provide consumer technologies with the ability to distribute information in highly protected and controlled ways. In 2001, we begin to see performers and authors use these technologies to market their works directly, but by 2004 it becomes clear that a few large companies hold the rights to these technologies and have in some sense regained control of the production and distribution channels. The marketplace splits, with one very diverse content market moving to the Net and a much larger consumer market remaining with appliances and under the control of a few major industry players. In 2007, these industry players attempt the “great obsolescence,” rendering old formats for music and video unplayable and attempting to force consumers to purchase all of this content again in a new format (or, more accurately, to relicense it for a 10-year term). A massive consumer revolt follows, resulting in the passage in 2009 of the “Consumer Information Persistence Act” by Congress, which for the first time regulates the activities of the information industries in this area.
Item. In 2003, the first explicit information literacy components are established in the K-12 curricula of three states; by 2010, all but 10 states have adopted such requirements.
Item. By the 1990s, massive trading in personal financial and medical records and databases of purchasing behavior has already begun. In the late 1990s the first major commercial databases of information consumption by consumers begin to be created and marketed. In 2002, the government begins to use these databases to identify people whom they believe may need help, or supervision — for example, people who watch too many violent movies. In 2005, the first major biography making heavy use of these databases to trace the development of its subject is published.
Item. As part of the continued restructuring of the health system, and as a way of compensating for the distrust that managed care has engendered in many consumers, in 2001 we see health plans, including Medicare, making explicit provision of information advocates and researchers to advise patients. A major study in 2004 documents that this program, in conjunction with a continued investment in health information for the public by the National Library of Medicine, has reduced costs, measurably improved quality of life for patients, and, most importantly, saved lives.
Item. In 2004, the first Nobel Prize for literature is awarded to an author who works primarily in multimedia digital genres rather than print publication. The literary world is scandalized.
Item. By 2003, the role of authors has begun to change substantially. The distribution of a work is viewed as an invitation to continued discourse between authors and readers. Readers have also begun to assume that authors of many types of works have an implied obligation to update them. In academic circles, choice of first publication becomes very important, because it often defines the author’s academic career by more and more frequently becoming the only publication with dialog and updating related to that work consuming all the author’s subsequent time. A certain backlash occurs as some authors refuse to discuss their works and explicitly deny any ongoing connection to them after publication.
Item. Building on technologies such as markup languages, database schemas, and metadata, a knowledge structuralist movement begins to emerge in about 2002. This movement holds that all information should be structured and tagged for machine processing, and calls for the end of unstructured textual discourse. While this movement ultimately fails, it has short term impact as a fad in businesses as the successor to “knowledge management,” and a lasting influence in scholarly discourse that increasingly combines textual discourse with highly structured information. It also helps to improve the interchangeability of information used by consumers — for example, bank and credit-card records can now easily be imported into personal financial packages.
Item. With network distribution of entertainment, an age of scarcity for improvisational works comes to an end. By 2001, you can actually purchase every concert by the band of your choice if you want to, at relatively low cost, either by concert or by subscription. This develops as a second, parallel music industry to studio CDs and represents a significant source of income for some performers, though it never reaches the levels of hit CDs. Old rock bands scramble to locate tapes or bootlegs of their performances, so they can repackage and sell them into this market. As a by-product, the scale of the recorded history of music expands immensely, causing complex changes in scholarship and music criticism.
Item. By 2010, omnipresent video surveillance of public places has come of age. These records are now on the Net and kept for long periods of time, rather than being stored in systems like ATMs and discarded or overwritten after a few weeks. By 2015, progress in face and scene recognition makes it possible to effectively mine these records. The implications of these developments unfold rapidly after 2015: new intelligence industries for business and government, new law enforcement approaches, new forms of personal memory aid databases.... (See David Brin’s The Transparent Society for one exploration of where this might go.)
2005, society recognizes that the creation and dissemination of digital
libraries for network access is a tremendous force for social change. The
government underwrites the creation of a complete set of courseware for
K-12 and basic college courses as a public good. International development
agencies create and deploy digital libraries. Public interest groups and
corporations create large network collections of information for education
and advocacy. Launches of new software products or consumer electronics
are accompanied by network-based digital library and instruction strategies.
And the underwriting of digital libraries becomes a favorite form of philanthropy
for those that have grown rich in the digital economy.
After Words: Technology Revolutions
In rereading these notes, I’m struck by the extent to which they extrapolate current sociology, law, economics, markets, politics, culture.... They extend the present into the future. This is deliberate. At some point in the not-too-distant future, breakthroughs — discontinuities, rather than refinements of current practice — will dominate; these developments will break all the rules and radically redefine our culture. They will bankrupt current intellectual property law, for example. It’s difficult to predict the nature and timing of such breakthroughs, other than to note that dire circumstances such as major wars tend to accelerate their occurrence (“Desperate times call for desperate measures”), and that while such situations don’t appear on the horizon today, they are never as far away as we’d like to believe. Just look at the technology cornucopia that came from World War II, or the Cold War. This is also a theme well explored in science fiction: it is woven into the background of William Gibson’s Burning Chrome and Neuromancer, for example, and is also a centerpiece of Dean Ing’s Systemic Shock and Single Combat, to name only two interesting examples.
reshape human-computer interfaces, the capture and replay of human consciousness
and human behavior, developments in biotechnology and nanotechnology and
artificial intelligence, all have the potential to lead us into discontinuous
futures. At some point in the 21st century these factors will become dominant.
At that point, all bets are off. They promise a future so alien and so
challenging that our concerns will become fundamentally different. For
now, at least, I’ll leave this to the novelists.
is the executive director of the Coalition for Networked Information and
an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s School
of Information Management and Systems.