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Inventing the Future

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Fundamentally, technology is an extension of the stick. When the arm could not reach, the ingenious human found a long object to help. Any discussion of the future of computing has to consider its use in human practice. When I look at technology I evaluate its maturity, its readiness to transform practice. As such, I see three waves of invention on the way.

Now: Social relationships reinvented. I was in New York City recently with my husband and daughter visiting colleges. My daughter wanted to go shopping in another area of the city, I wanted to walk, and my husband wanted to purchase a new wristwatch. My daughter called me from her cell phone to let me know her next shop while my husband used his cell phone to coordinate our activities. My daughter had her independence; my husband had his watch; I had my walk. No one felt trapped, out of touch, or worried about being lost in the big city.

I sat at a table having a coffee watching two couples. The men were each on cell phones, ignoring the women. Who were these men with—the women physically present or the people on the end of the line? Soon thereafter, while visiting in Holland, an older man leaned over to berate me for using my phone in a restaurant.

It has been said that business-to-business transactions are really about individual person-to-person relationships; that making financial deals and getting personalized information happens because people know each other; that people create personal communities in which they do business. This has tremendous implications for the concept of global B2B. It means that supporting B2B on the Web is supporting relationship and community, not just buying transactions.

My son, a social activist, wants to build a democracy wall: a Web site where students and people all over the world can speak out about their causes and oppressions. The democracy wall is better than newspaper and radio, as these are both mediated by the reporter and editor. Whether we like it or not we are reinventing social, communal, and political relationships.

Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.
—Albert Camus, philosopher, writer

Next: Education and knowledge deliberately transformed. The most significant information revolution happened when we moved from oral to written forms of communication. Story and interpersonal dialogue have been replaced by written text. Inquiry can be considered a version of a library project.

I envision a knowledge communication revolution coming. Web technology is mature enough to manipulate and reinvent the way we learn, teach, and inquire. Now most knowledge currently on the Web involves simple translations of old genre: documents look like documents, videos have video controls, and so forth. But over the next 10 years books and other printed material, lecture and discussion, movies, and laboratory settings will give way to integrated communication environments that recombine text, photo, film, animation, demonstration, and live communication creating whole new approaches to knowledge sharing and inquiry.

Any discussion of the future of computing has to consider its use in human practice.

A professor at a major university recently asked me: Is it ok for chemistry students to learn chemistry without reading? If they see demonstrations online, visualize and experience the science both physically and through animation and dynamic presentation, it might be possible they could get a academic degree without really reading.

Whether we design it deliberately or by accident, knowledge communication will reinvent itself. Will this new form feed us information in bits, bytes, and bites quickly available for a society in a rush? Will it give us a way to make inquiry and critical thinking a part of daily life?

Coming: The quest for leisure. Within 10–15 years I think technology will be mature enough to have an impact on leisure in the home. Now, virtual reality is cumbersome: no one wants gloves and heavy glasses; wall-size screens are expensive; and system management is a burden. But I think it will get there. Throughout the world, we are working more and more. We take on more things and we look for more rest and diversion. If we have money, we build giant entertainment centers, put in hot tubs, watch videos, go to spas. We are looking for a retreat.

Interactive installations are now limited to museums: Electronic music and water-flow environments encourage relaxation; flat screens distributed across the room depict the story of the Vikings; and floors responsive to movement create music. In the forthcoming 15 years we will be ready to bring the technology underlying these experiences into our homes. I envision rooms that create moods and activity retreats by using shifting walls to make restful places with visuals, music, and smells, all responsive to movement and command. The walls can contain knowledge, and can be moved around and explored physically.

As a society we are moving to the in-home retreat. I don’t know exactly what it will be like. Will it enhance life or enhance isolation? That depends on how we reinvent it. All technology is just a stick. The stick can reach something far away and it can poke out an eye. What we do with it, how we redesign our lives, is the challenge we face in the future. It’s a matter of design.

I desire no future that will break the ties with the past.
—George Eliot, Victorian novelist

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