Information Age: Dueling Futures

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There is an ancient Chinese curse -- "May you live in interesting times". Basically, it means, "may you have instability, uncertainty, and rapid change". It is a curse, because most people don't like change. Technology certainly keeps things interesting.

When I put on my prognostication hat (which looks surprisingly like a beanie, or dunce-cap, depending on your view), I start thinking about technology and the ramifications of innovations. After a few minutes my head hurts -- but the propeller starts going around (from the heat coming off my overtaxed brain), and all the pain is worth it for glimses into potential futures

Dueling Futures!

There seems to be a two extreme choices as to which way computer technology will go. The basic question is, "What is more import, our physical data or network access to that data?"

In one universe, physical storage rules. We will have infinite (or near infinite) storage, so that you can carry everything with you. You pop in your little info-card, pen or key, and everything you want is at your fingertips. Every book, article, or tidbit. Since computers are all over the place, and they all work with the same memory and same programs (give me my fantasies), then every application, movie, song, and so on goes with you. Each computer you plug into adapts and customizes to your settings, which you also carry with you.

In the other universe, we have infinite bandwidth (network mania), so that everything you want can be tapped into. If you want it, you can find it, get it, or just access the machine that has it, from wherever you are. Since everything you want to do can be done across a network, each computer adapts and customizes to your way of working (your preferences), and you can run anything from anywhere -- so you don't need devices, you just need access to other people's devices.

In case you didn't tell, things sound suspiciously similar in both futures. The only difference is whether you have it with you physically or virtually.

The world is not black and white, and we're actually progressing towards both digital utopias at once. The physical one is ahead for now, and humans feel better with things they can touch, but the network utopia may catch up. And we'll probably have a little of both. But the information age is coming; and it is changing how we do everything.

The scary part is that computers are evolving much faster than people. We've seen huge progress and changes in society already; but the speed of that change is growing geometrically. The Internet is just an infant -- we don't even know how to use this stuff yet. Our storage devices are just getting interesting with how much they can store. Momentum is growing. So don't think this is a fad, this is the beginning of change for society.


Whether we take the infinitely cheap data model, or the infinitely powerful network, we are going to change society in similar ways. Computers are going to become much faster, easier to use, and more adaptive. Our ability to use them and adapt to them, and have them adapt to us, is going to increase. Information costs ripple through society, and technology is rapidly eroding those costs towards nothing; this changes business, changes lives and will change society. The question is not how fast technology can happen; it is doubling every couple years - the only question is how fast can humans and society adapt to keep up. And if we old fogies don't keep up, there's a younger generation more than willing to push us forward.

So technology has made the Chinese curse a reality -- we live certainly live in interesting times!

Written: 2002.04.09