Thursday, March 03, 2005

The Future - Technology

This is the first of a short series of posts in which I will try to predict what the first 25 years of my child's life will be like, particularly in comparison to mine. Predicting the future is notoriously hard to do, especially when you're talking about decades rather than months, but I'm not going to let that stop me. In writing these posts, I am going to borrow a trick from various books and publications and refer to my child as 'he' and 'she' alternately. We don't know which sex it will be but it doesn't matter much to what I want to write.

The obvious area to look at first is the fastest changing of all - technology. And where better to start than with the internet.

The internet is still relatively new to me. Yes, I may have been using it for years but I can clearly remember what life was like without it. The world seemed a lot bigger back then. My son will truly be part of the online generation; for him, using it will be as natural as watching the television is for me. Tad Williams' brilliant fantasy series 'Otherland' is set in the not too distant future and paints a picture of the internet as a fully virtual world, almost indistinguishable from reality. Okay, that may be taking it too far (at least for the next quarter of a century) but the internet will develop far beyond what it is today.

For example, it is likely that all forms of mass communication will converge until they are all online. Already, you can listen to the radio through your internet connection and watch news reports and make telephone calls, too. I can foresee a time when programmes are no longer beamed through the air on the back of radio waves. Once every home is connected to the internet and it has become faster and more stable, then why bother broadcasting in the traditional way when you can just stream it all online, giving people a level of access they have never had before? Successive generations of mobile phones will progressively give you more and more access to the online world until there is nothing left to differentiate between them.

The last couple of years has seen an explosion of portable data storage devices, which currently looks like a continuing trend. Already, you can carry about gigabytes of music, movies and other data in your ipod or equivalent. Who can say where that will end? Will we be carrying round vast amounts of data in our pockets in 20 years' time? Actually, I doubt that we will. I think the age of the portable digital storage devices will be really quite short. It's far more likely that in the future all our music will be stored online and we will simply be able to access it remotely from wherever we are, along with everything else. I can imagine my son being able to listen to one of thousands of albums that he owns or work on his doctoral thesis from anywhere in the world, using any device he comes across to access everything he needs.

Whether that particular vision comes true or not, the effect is still the same. My son will grow up able to manipulate large volumes of data without really thinking about it. Music, movies, online content, work - all of it will be held digitally and he will have to learn how to get the best out of it. The likelihood is, he will be playing with terabytes of digital files, whether he carries it all with him or not. In order to do that successfully he will have to develop smart new ways of searching to find what he wants quickly and easily, and be able to access it instantaneously and precis it intelligently to give him exactly what he needs.

Clearly, my son will feel much more at home with computers than I ever will, since he will be exposed to them from the very beginning of his life. In comparison, I didn't regularly use a pc for anything other than games until I went to university and I'm still not entirely comfortable when it comes to the administration side of it all. I give it between ten and fifteen years and I reckon he will put me to shame.

When it comes to the world of technology, my son's life will be nothing like my own. When I was young, I had very little interaction with technology. We only had a handful of television channels and the internet was just a twinkle in Tim Berners Lee's eye. When the weather was good we used to play in the garden or kick a football about in the park down the road. When it was bad we played inside instead. We were active children and therefore pretty healthy. If there is one thing about the future that I am sure of, it's that my son will not miss out on real life in favour of a virtual one.

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