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Into penalty time

I have nothing much to say right now because I have my head stuck so far up the back end of a novel that I can see daylight past its' tonsils.

Hopefully there'll be a burst of blogging when I finish the first draft, in a week or two, but until then, feel free to talk among yourselves.

Meanwhile, your starter for three points: try to remember what life was like, oh, fifteen years ago, before you had the internet and a mobile phone and cable/satellite TV and bandwidth coming out of your ears. Remember how society was subtly different? Now project the same curve forward another fifteen years and tell me where we're going ...

115 Comments

1:

The future is one of those "boiling a frog" things. I am sitting here surrounded by technology that was straight out of Sci Fi when I was younger (I am nearly 40 for reference). I have 6 or 7 computers in the garage that have become obsolete because they have been replaced by virtual equivalents sitting in some datacenter in the US - something I would not have even predicted 6 months ago.

I had one of those "this is the future" moments watching the demonstration of Promise TV a while back. On the other hand I found myself irritated with my car radio for not having a built in hard disk so I could record a program that had just come on that was interesting while I was in the supermarket.

Interestingly, for me at least, one thing is going backwards. The current trend for security theater (ie. making the traveller feel like a criminal) is making travel less and less appealing - I suspect that in the future (ie, very soon) that there will be much less travel in general as virtual alternatives become much more attractive than the physical alternatives.

2:

Ubiquitous connectivity.

Your watch is your phone is your vidcam is your book/newspaper is your computer + more unforseen functionality. And it's always connected, always on. Call it the Device.

Google world (or whatever) will allow you to search for everything. Can't find your car in the huge uber-parking lot? Your Device will find it for you. Then it'll help you plot your best route home through traffic in your commute, and find you the best place to buy a (whatever product) on your way home. You may even pre-pay, just stop by to pick it up en route.

Instant information. Times have changed so that now if I want to know something, I just look it up online. Since I'm not the superconnected geek that I want to be, I sometimes have to wait to do this. But in 15 years (less, I imagine) that will no longer be so. The entire web will always be at my beck and call with the Device.

There will still be "dead spots" where you won't have connectivity. But they'll be fewer and much farther between than they are now.

Just a few things off the top of my head.

3:

Agreed on the instant info-I was discussing this recently with a friend, how "brain itches" of the who was that actor/title/thing are at worst a few hours away from being scratched. I remember when I first got online and looked up all the crap that had been wandering through my brain for ages but I can't really remember what it felt like to just store those questions away for months of even years (I'm mostly talking trivia but this applies to other information as well) I cannot wait until I have this ability all the time.

On the ubiquitious connectivity angle: not that I spent a lot of time worrying about this before I had a cell phone, but knowing you're almost always a phone call away from the world makes it feel a lot safer. I think Iain Banks touches on this in the Culture stories. As connectivity and hardware gets better there will be a whole generation that essentially never had to worry about getting lost, figurative and metaphorically speaking.

4:

Don't - I can remember when we had our 'phone (re)-installed (1952), and there were only 3 radio channels - we got a TV the following year - the first in our street.
I'm out the other side now, don't have one, the net is better.
I also remember the first CROSS-CHANNEL TV broadcast.
Yes, we have come a long way, and it is still accelerating.
The first computer I used was an old IBM with real Core Store, and punch-card input.

Trouble is, even all this new, extra, processing power is linear, not parallel, or truly multiplex (many-to-many, simultaneously being taken to be the meaning here).

The Singularity will (probably) not come until we overcome that obstacle, and get real AI ??

5:

We're just entering the era of the "personalized experience", you know, when Amazon presents you with a list of recommendations tailored for you when you hit their front page. Extrapolate that out in two ways: the software gets smarter about deducing what you are interested in based on past information, so Amazon's recommendations get more likely to be to your taste, and there's some metadata standard for "taste info" that lets your personal agent cache and transmit it in a controlled way, so that it's available when you arrive at sites that have never seen you before.


People tend to act based on comfort, ease and familiarity a good part of the time. For example, many people I know order from a selection of at most 2 or 3 items every time we go out for Thai food. They've found things that they like, usually after trying no more than 2 or 3 things ;-), and it's easier to order what's known. I would be surprised if having your tastes well known in advance wouldn't result in most people sticking to what's recommended to them, once they start to trust the recommending software.


Note that I'm not just talking about buying books or eating out. If everything you access easily on the web is filtered by whether you can be expected to be interested, it's likely that a lot of people will have their entire world view created by the recommendation software.


And now, what if it's not just your own taste the software is taking into account? How much control of how many different aspects of a society could be influenced, if not outright controlled, so that some group or groups can acquire power, money, fame, sexual gratification, worship ...

6:

well, 15 years ago, I was 3, but I've spent my entire life with computers. My father taught me to use a computer when I was extremely young. I cannot remember a time when I didn't have my own computer. Although I haven't experienced it, I know that this is different from people not many years older than me. Many of the differences in my experiences in technology have been less related to changes in technology, and more to my age, and what I was interested in. Off the top of my head, the most major change for me has been in media, and that's been only in the last 2 years. Podcasting has been a huge change for me. Basically, I've stopped watching TV. All of my media comes from the internet now.
I guess the future I see involves not only ubiquitous connectivity like john said, but, you could apply that to media, the ability to watch or listen to something over the internet from anywhere. I think that this leads to many more niche groups. An group who makes a podcast feels like a sucess is they get 200k downloads per episode. that would be a huge failure on TV, this leads to smaller groups, and a more segmented population, as everyone can watch or listen to things that far far fewer other people are hearing.
Sorry to be longwinded, I'm not even sure If i was actually going anywhere interesting with that.
-David

7:

John: Ubiquitous connectivity ... nah, I've got that now. (Always-on 3G smartphone with a near-as-dammit all you can eat data tariff.) Try never getting lost and paper maps going the way of log tables and slide rules?

I'm not sure how much more of a fundamental change in the human condition you can get than abolishing the ability to not know where you are.

Bruce: think in terms of blogrolls and personal taste, and then David's comment about getting all his news from the web, and hybridise with the decline of conventional media. We're coming out of a three century long period during which we all had the same news, more or less, to orient our view of which way the world was pointing. Now the compass is swinging freely and wildly as media segmentation (see David's comment about podcasts with 200K downloads per episode) nukes our consensus view of reality.

How's that for a state of affairs? Physically we can't get lost, but cognitively we're all at sea, out of sight of land, without an anchor ... and not even sailing the same oceans.

8:

Unfortunately, I'm also projecting the social/political curve ahead that far. Where are we going? Rather, why are we in this handbasket!

9:

"think in terms of blogrolls and personal taste, and then David's comment about getting all his news from the web, and hybridise with the decline of conventional media"

this is now though. Ok - it will take 3-4 years to become ultra mainstream but it is the present not the future.

" ... and not even sailing the same oceans."

We are sailing on the seas of information now - today we are building shakey sailing ships and sextants. Fishing by hand. The future will come when we have had the equivalent of the industrial revolution on this sea - GPS, factory ships, container ships etc....

10:

Being able to change personas. Not just multiple online personalities, but the ability to access data not only by searching for it but by having it come to you (like this thread) We can access the groupmind and get all the information we need to become vegans, change careers, move to Europe, etc., practically overnight. You can suddenly access a whole community to help you adapt to a new lifestyle (fandoms, volunteer organizations, careers, lifestyles) I don't know if this makes it easier for people who already have a propensity for major life changes or if it encourages people to adapt new lifestyles but it's interesting.

I agree travel could become a lot less desirable. OTOH, I'm afraid of flying and am crossing my fingers that truly ubiquitious connectivity will allow for the revival of passenger ships. Spending a couple of months on a ship is easier if you are connected and requires less energy/pollutes less.

Since everything I've said so far is basically positive (to me) I'll add one for the negative side, connectivity-withdrawal; right now I spend all day online at work and I sometimes miss it when I go to lunch nevermind when I'm offline for a day. If one was raised having constant access, without exterior hardware even, being in a dead spot could be worse than a modern city dweller finding themselves in the middle of the Rockies, at night, naked. Disconnecting could be the new extreme sport.

11:

1) No privacy. The privacy you have today is an illusion that is governed by laws. Once we have so many recording devices, feeding into databases, the illusion will be removed.

2) No certainty of facts. Unless things like Wikipedia become beyond reproach of fact, we will not be able to tell the difference between any side of a politically polarized debate.

3) Flash celebrities. Celebrities that are celebs because they are in the right place at the right time and said the right thing wearing the right clothes.

4) Neural interfaces. Now that we have simple biometric computer interfaces, our children or their children will learn a new mouse - one that uses the mind and has it's own metaphor.

5) Fractioning of society extremes. Because no facts are certain, opinions will carry more weight (like the blogosphere). Because Flash celebs have no barrier of entry, pundits who capitalize on their celeb status will be able to carry weight. Think of a Nicole Ritchie/Paris Hilton + Ann Coulter's politics + Aum Shin Rikyo's cult status.

6) Ubiquitous Terrorism. Because people will be desparate to get on TV, terrorism will become ubiquitous - for religion, for rights, for environment, for whatever reason du moment. What's worse, to protect our societies, our societies will adapt appropriately either creating more terrorists by laws or by proxy to motivate the politicized populace.

7) Super-poverty. Those that can't learn, can't use technology for whatever reason will become outcast, to the point where they will have a completely separate economy and will live in a scale that doesn't compare with the rest of the world.

12:

I'm not sure how much more of a fundamental change in the human condition you can get than abolishing the ability to not know where you are.
Knowing why you are there in the first place?


(I think we're still working on that, and knowing where you are all teh time perhaps doesnt actually help matters)

13:

Charlie,


Now the compass is swinging freely and wildly as media segmentation (see David's comment about podcasts with 200K downloads per episode) nukes our consensus view of reality.

Well, yes, there isn't just one consensus view anymore, Ii DON'T Ebut there are one hell of a lot less than 6 billion (or even 10 million, for that matter). The web causes as much cohesion of interest groups (in the broad sense) as it does disintegration of existing groups. I don't know if you have an equivalent in the UK, but there is a large batch of people here in the States that call themselves "dittoheads". They glory in having a worldview that is totally received from a set of bloggers, podcasters, and even still some talk-radio broadcasters. God help you if you have a friend who becomes one; you'll be drowning in poisonous email (this has happened twice to my wife, once from an old friend, and once from a newly-discovered relative).


The point I'm trying to make is that I see, not the dissolution of all consensus views, but the formation of new ones; and those new ones are held much more firmly because the holders filter their input themselves.


The utopian idea that the web will destroy all group control dynamics by bringing information to anyone who wants it reminds me of a discussion I had some years back, around 1990, I think. I had been doing some research and experimentation with hypertext as an aid to developing and documenting programming (what we do these days in Java with javadocs and Integrated Development Environments). So when Andy Van Damm, one of the grand old men of the field, came to speak, I rushed right over to hear him. Andy started with hypertext working with Ted Nelson, who invented it, and who has always been rather political about the whole thing. In his talk, Andy was giving out what I think of as the party line: "Provide the truth, and all will see it."


I asked Andy how, if the truth always prevails, would we deal with graffiti and malicious vandalism, e.g., the equivalent of ripping out your neighbor's political signs. At the time I was having to deal with people flame-bombing some of the newsgroups I frequented and I was anticipating more such activities in the future. He said that would be self-correcting, because someone could always change it back by putting a link on it. I think it's clear from some of the more antisocial hijinks on Wikipedia that it's just not that simple.


Much as I dislike the thought, it seems that there is a very common desire to control the thoughts of other people, and a strong will to find ways to do it with any new technology.

14:

I think interfaces could be the limiting factor, or tech ceiling, that people run into 15 years from now. While our communications abilities, computing power, and other techs have increased at an almost unbelievable rate our ways of accessing data and using those devices have not changed much.

My PC is still basically a PC even if the monitor is better. Laptops are still laptops, even if they're more powerful. Cellphones have better displays and are smaller. But our ways of using them are the same.

In 15 years, the total sum of human knowledge could be available along with expert software agents to help me use it. But if I'm just using an improved PC, Laptop, or smart phone to access it then things won't change much.

It's actually gotten to the point where I feel less intelligent away from a computer, because I can't access information on the internet. In theory you could do that with a cellphone, but it's a much slower and less satisfying experience.

For society to really be changed there needs to be a completely new way for us to interact with our devices.

15:

I think ubiquity is really important in this conversation. Theres a difference between a few people having access to a technology and everyone having it. It's one thing for one tech-savvy guy to never get lost, but another for the word lost to disappear. I think the effects on society are just as important as the actual technology too. Like the way certain YouTube stars are getting drafted to do actual tv shows or movies. Or the way the hippest fans of a certain niche can be the ones with the most successful blog or website. I think a good example of this is that my dad is better with computers than me (building, programming, etc..), but I can trouble-shoot most things because I've always been around them and its like second nature. I'm a way better surfer and take better advantage of the net than him. So I'm not as good with the hardware but I am better with usage. For younger people technology is as much a form of sociality and not just a good tool. This social usage can tie in with all the splintering of news media and special intrests like the millions of genres of music. Its easier to get what youre looking for and now more people actually look because its so easy.
I hope there was something cohesive and/or relevant in all that. I'm 23 if that puts any perspective on my point of view.

16:

Voice, for a start. Voice interface to your machine means you could have it on your wrist or in your phone, and still do arbitrary interfaces. I'll often call my wife from the video store to have her look up IMDB references, for instance -- let the computer understand me verbally and I get that same advantage without my wife needing to be home.

So that's something easy (compared to a direct brain interface, for instance) but which will still make a huge difference.

I second Charlie's notion of never being lost, too -- Google maps is already making my life easy. In a new city and have laundry? Google Maps will tell you all the laundromats closest to your coordinates. If I had *that* in the car on tap, it would make a big difference.

Here's a couple of interesting tidbits. My daughter was born in 1994 (now 12) and my son in 1999 (now 7). My son's first writing attempt was when he was four years old; he took his Hot Wheels box and laboriously typed "Hot Wheels" into Google and was playing a video game three minutes later. My daughter is quite articulate nowadays -- and can't really honestly imagine a world without Google. Literally. For her, it has *always* been possible to get all the information on Greek gods you want, in seconds. Oh, and she's collaborating on a book report with a friend in Puerto Rico via IM (they both home school). The future is here. Hell, the future is already passé!

17:

Ten years ago I had a clunky cell phone, cable TV, used e-mail and commuted. Today, I've no cell phone, no television, work at home, and use e-mail. Projecting fifteen years, I'll be living off the grid and farming in a place like this. Sounds nice, actually. I guess I have become an old fart.

18:

There are a couple problems with voice, the main one being that it's not private. Unless you can train everyone to subvocalize, it's going to be as if everyone was on their cellphone all the time, talking away. Secondly, if you've got a voice command system, it limits multitasking. You can't talk to someone at the same time you're using your device.

The other problem is that it may be ok for giving instructions, but it's a poor way to receive information. Spoken word is limited to about 100-125 words per minute, compared to reading which can be 150-600 words per minute. And a GUI can give you information much faster than that.

An ideal solution would be an implanted or smartcontact that overlayed information ontop of whatever you were seeing, combined with a mentally controlled cursor and thought-to-text system. But I don't see that happening in 15 years, even if the processing power is available.

19:

I agree completely with Andrew about privacy, but along with that. But what he said about cellphones, Imagine all those people talking on their cellphones, loudly, everywhere. "Who cares about privacy, I just wish everyone else would shut up". If I wanna use skype while I play counter strike, I have to close 2 doors so that the rest of the people in my house don't get annoyed.
Subvocalizing would be nice, and I've heard it talked about as a solution here, but I think voice recognition would have to come a long way. Generally, when I have tried it, it can barely get things right under perfect conditions.
The keyboard's not bad, perhaps it could be replaced by some sort of gesture recognition system, a sort of invisible keyboard. That would definately take something more advanced than we have now, and I'm not sure it would even work, but, short of a brain-machine interface, or better speach recognition/subvocalizing, what else is there?

20:

OK - approaching this the other way. What am I missing?

Charlie is right we are not far from always on - the cost is a bit prohibitive in the UK at the moment but that will change. However nice as my phone is (and as decent as the browser is) - the telephone key pad is not a useful interface. So what I want is some sort of keyboard - perhaps a virtual one that detects the movement of my fingers or a chord interface. Something that is always with me and as fast as my laptop keyboard. Secondly why bother with the tiny screen - I want a full size image projected on to the nearest surface, or into my eye or via glasses or something.

There are lots of other implications for this kind of technology too - for example having a personal interface to all machines you interact with via your own devices but this is all boring and well explored.

What really interests me is how much what I know is outside of my mind. Increasingly I don't know things by memory but know how to get at them - URL's, google search terms, del.icio.us bookmarks and things stored in (disclaimer: my own companies product) hanzo:web.

What I really want is not "other people who looked at this also..." but "You also read/stored/bookmarked this..." as I surf, read and communicate. This would vastly increase the value of my external memory. Something that found connections and related material would also help in the research phase of thinking.

21:

Sir Patrick Moore was, at one time, notorious to the point of parody for his ability to speak rapidly.

But it did show up the problem. We see text in two spatial dimensions, and hear in, effectively, one. Both have a time element, but text is a form of space-time, and we can move in all three dimensions, seeing a word as a shape, while as speech we are stuck in time, getting the data as a chain of syllables.

When reading, as with listening, there maybe isn't an obvious difference, at word-level between "there" and "their", so we distinguish them by their context, but when listening we have to wait for that context: we can't time-hop to find it.

Now, think about how some new medium is controlled. Charlie, writing text, can build a structure in that space-time, and try to keep the reader following the right trail, but he can also take advantage of the time hopping, and encourage the reader to turn back a page and reinterpret the structure. Other media give the creator more control, although DVD shows the potential for assembling the story in a different way, and allows the viewer to look back.

It is a little like the stage magician, who on a stage, before a live audience, has to somehow persuade them to look in the wrong place. While, on film or TV, he could be sure that the camera looks exactly where he wants. In that case, it would be cheating the audience, just as it would be cheating the audience to have a real mystery stranger escaping the snow-bound train after the murder.

But which way would the new media go? Would a shift from a text-like information space to a speech-like information space affect how people think? Remember, we talk about seeing the big picture. Text on a page is much more like a picture than speech is.

22:

The other key thing about future interfaces is that they have to be easy to learn and easy to use.

For trained people, a command system like the one in UNIX is faster and easier to use than the one in something like Windows. But 90% of the population will never take the time to learn something like UNIX, because Windows feels more natural and you can develop a basic level of ability in it.

The majority of people won't adopt next generation user interfaces that are difficult to learn or seem strange. No special vocal commands, or gestures that have to be memorized.

Palm had a rather good system for writing information into a PDA rather than pecking it out on a keyboard. With practice, you can do it quite quickly. But few people were willing to take the time to learn it, prefering to buy a folding keyboard if they needed to enter a lot of text...

23:

What about the economic upheaval when the oil runs out? That's going to put paid to all these dreams of universal, always-on connectivity--you can't be connected if you can't afford the plastic in the Devices, or the electricity to charge them.

24:

What about the economic upheaval when the oil runs out? That's going to put paid to all these dreams of universal, always-on connectivity--you can't be connected if you can't afford the plastic in the Devices, or the electricity to charge them.

If the oil runs out before there are alternatives, which I doubt, transportation will be what's primarily affected. For plastics, you could use bioplastics or convert from coal. It would raise the price a bit but not too much. You might see more devices made out of metals, like the latest iPods.

Power generation can do fine without a cheap supply of oil. It will just switch to other methods.

What will be hurt is "just-in-time" inventory and manufacturing. Consumer prices will likely go up on a lot of goods, perhaps even doubling. That might actually improve the market for a powerful all-in-one communications & portable computing device.

If such a device costs $1000, but individual devices that do the same functions cost $2500 together...

25:

TexAnne: what upheaval when the oil runs out?

Oil is currently around $65-75 a barrel. It ain't coming down again ... but at that price, extracting the Alberta oil sands becomes cost-effective, which effectively caps long-term oil prices. And that's about four times the total capacity of the middle east.

Again: the USAs energy consumption is 50% coal-driven, even today. The coal is mined locally, and there's enough for about 200 years at current rates on consumption.

All Peak Oil is going to do is force y'all to buy European style fuel-efficient compact cars, and/or diesel hybrids.

Andrew G's comment about just-in-time inventory and manufacturing holds true, though. Why do you think WalMart is getting into organic foods? They tend to be grown much closer to the site of consumption, that's why, and in the long term, reducing unnecessary transportation is a trend to bet on. But these days we've got the communications infrastructure -- and we're shortly going to have the tracking and geolocation infrastructure -- to ensure that goods travel the shortest distance possible between site of production and site of consumption, rather than going in huge shipments between factory/farm and warehouse hubs, then out again to consumers.

26:

15 years ago I was 11 and had just got a 386.

The main changes have been in volume of information. I forsee weak-AI "agents" filtering data FOR you, within 5 years let along 15. And that same agent is going to work for you across all your devices.

I'm not a technophile, I'm tech-as-a-tool. Ubiquity of connection without a useful way to manipulate that data (which is pretty much what we have right now) is going to have to change to bring those services to mass-market.

Charlie, I disagree on the long-term consequences of Peak Oil. It's not only supply (politically), it's quality of oil, feasability of extraction and so on - and a LOT of processes use oil both for chemicals, shipping...

...plus I think, frankly, you're over-estimating the agility of politicians and companies to switch oil sources.

It takes decades, and we should be doing it NOW.

27:

15 years ago...

That was the year I had a Biology teacher who got her training in New York (we weren't), and put on her sylabus the words, "No pagers or cellphones in the class room." We thought she was completely whacked in the head.

That was the year I got my first Internet access. I think I discovered Usenet around 14.5 years ago. Back then there were no significant commercial interests. The 'freedom of the net' as it was envisioned the first time around.

That year, IIRC, 9600 baud came out. Darn zippy for a mostly text-only envionment.

What that tells me is that what things will exist in 15 years are glimmers right now in back alleys and sub-cultures. That doesn't, of course, cover culture.

One of the first things that comes to mind as a big difference is the availability of information. If I was curious about a certain item I'd hit the paper encyclopedia we had, and if that failed trek the three block to the Library. Now I hop online, check Wikipedia and a few other places and I have the info. I'm not sure how much further down the road that particular curve can get without brain implants and direct neural access, something I think we're still 30 years away from.

The world was a much smaller place back then. Dial up BBSes did some networking across regions, but conversing regularly with people in foreign countries was still the perview of the US Postal Service and Ma Bell's factured children. BBSes and Usenet were decidedly minority applications at the time. Now you can get true international presence online, and with only a little effort you can get a sense of foreign culture from your home. I don't see this trend moving nearly as much in the next 15 years.

15 years ago there were no boundaries on the Internet beyond certain legislation. The Great Firewall of China hadn't been created yet, even if China was on the Internet at all. The pre-spam Internet was a collegial place. Now it is much different. Now we do have the Great Firewall of China in place, and similar things in other nations. In 15 years I see a further balkanization of the Internet into national domains for improved taxation and regulation. Conversely, I see an increased build-up of pirate internet, such as Sat-based Internet connections serving 'repressive' areas. Think Voice of America from a Geo Sync sattelite, only with packet uplink and downlink.

15 years ago mobile phones were big puppies with poor reception, and were more commonly called 'car phones'. These days certain youthful segments of the marketplace have at minimum one cellphone that also doubles as a text-messaging device, and in most places a way to share pictures. 15 years from now, I see not having a cell phone to be a serious draw-back for life, the way that not having a TV marked you as strange in 1991; we're almost there now. 15 years from now I see the 'video over mobile networks' problem solved and ubiquitous.

15 years ago the CD was making great strides in replacing the cassette tape as the medium of choice for music listening. Cassette still had a following, especially for trading music. The media companies had some fear about that, but didn't go to great length to suppress it. Largely because the pervasiveness of the practice was peanuts compared to sales, and copies were always had less fidelity than the originals.

15 years from now I see that the RIAA has largely won that battle. A DVD-Audio-like format that requires specific hardware to play, including optical drives in computers. Operating Systems and media players that have to be built to manage rights for playback of said physical media. The same OS and MP software built and licensed for any digital copies of the media contained on the physical media, very probably with on-media tracking of how many devices have copied ditigal content. With new adoption of a format that requires a phone-home to get a playback license for ANY device seeking play, as internet access will be much more ubiquitous at that time; any device includes walkman-type devices, car audio, and planes. MP3 will still have a place in the market, but due to increasing difficulty in creating legal MP3 files, usage of MP3 will be almost entirely black market.

Interfacing with the computer is another area that'll be bound to change. 15 years ago only Macs had mice, and only certain PC programs required them. Since then we've had the touch-screen, track-point, and track-pad come out. 15 years from now Voice will be a viable option for home or enclosed-office use; I fear the thought and sound of a cube-farm full of people shouting at their computers.

Come to think of it, internet ubiquity will be a major driver of changes. Copyright management will almost definitely take advantage of it. By extension, it'll be a LOT harder to drop off-net untracably. These days you can do that by turning off your cellphone and taking a walk in the woods, in the future even that may not be enough.

28:

Hmmm.... in 15 years I expect quantum computing to be deployable in certain 'big iron' supercomputing environments, but still quite a ways away from consumer use. Therefore, the NSA, NWS, and Los Alamos will have them but we won't. That's a frightening idea in terms of the long term viability of crypto on non-quantum processors. On the other hand, the accuracy of the 11 day forecast will be noticibly improved.

29:

I see the future for Western society dominated by the following five issues. I believe that all of them will be looming large in fifteen years:

1. Increased demand for resources as "third world" countries attempt to bootstrap themselves to something approximating Western affluence

2. Increased environmental problems caused by (1). Of special concern is the likely move from natural gas and oil to coal, particularly in China.

3. Climatic change caused in large part by (2). Climatic change accelerates despite too little, too late moves by Western countries (esp. the US). This will be due to vastly increased command from countries like China, India and Indonesia swamping the affects of these programs.

4. Demographic changes in Western countries increase the burdens of supporting social programs (pensions and health care) and increase pressure for immigration. Breakdown of the social contract.

5. Continued growth of Indian and Chinese economies, as well as growth economies in former Soviet republics, continues downward pressure on real wages in Western countries, exacerbating (4).

Now for some specific predictions:

1. Travel will become markedly more costly (due to cost of resources - expect a 100% to 200% increase in cost), resulting the liquidation of 25% of current major carriers and the decimation of large portions of the tourism industry. Businesses will adapt through increased use of "virtual presence" technologies.

2. Immersive virtual reality skyrockets. Third-generation-from-now and later game consoles will offer high resolution visual and audio, and medium resolution tactile. Reduction in cost through economies in scale leads to rapid penetration in the business environment.

3. Companies will reduce costs by virtualizing the work place.

4. Demographic shifts in Western Europe result in demand for migrant and guest workers. Western democracies face increasing problems as a result, due to cultural collisions.

5. Climatic change increases faster than expected. World temperatures raise by .5 degree C. Amount of currently arable land, particularly in impoverished countries shrinks, leading to mass famine.

6. Cost of food in Western countries increases 20% - 40% due to increased cost of mechanized farming.

7. Countries continue to try to support small farmers, but increasingly this becomes financially unsupportable. Number of small, family-owned farms decreases in Western countries by 25% to 50% due to inability to compete and increased urbanization. Family farms are consolidated by agri-business, driving family farmers off the land

8. Resource wars masquerading as ethnic or religious conflicts (e.g., Darfur) broaden in scope. This will also prove to be a fertile breeding ground for terrorism. Expect to see this move south in Africa as the Sahara continues to expand, as well as starting in central Asia (the 'stans) and in Bangladesh.

9. A terrorist attack will claim more than 10,000 lives through use of suicide air-bombing of a packed stadium or other public venue, or through the use of chemical/biological attack

10. Further erosion of enlightenment principles in Western democracies, especially regarding habeus corpus and torture. Credible evidence for several Western democracies "disappearing" (murdering) significant (in the 100's) of "terrorists" or "terrorist sympathizers".

11. I think that there is a better than 50% chance that in fifteen years a city will be destroyed by nuclear terrorist attack. The most likely target is Tel Aviv, although I wouldn't be particularly surprised by an attack in the US or UK. If Israel is attacked, expect a limited nuclear exchange between Israel and Iran

12. World population grows to more than 10,000,000,000.

13. Tiered medical coverage becomes defacto, as private individuals and companies purchase on expanded health coverage on a graduated scale.

14. Top scale of medial coverage includes repair or replacement of organs through use of stem cell therapies, as well personalized medical treatments for previously untreatable diseases made possible by in-depth, personalized modeling of drug behaviors using "super computers".

15. Actuarial predictions for life expectancy start to drop in Western democracies following a peak in 2010
16. The US won't return to the Moon. China will go.

I am sorry that this is such a distopian view, but I really don't see anyone making real progress on any of the five issues mentioned above. Without real progress, I think that what I have described is inevitable.

On a personal note - I am fifty years old. I expect that I will be able to continue to support a "Western lifestyle" (within the above boundaries) for the remainder of my life. It will be increasingly difficult for my children.

I weep for the world that my grandchildren will inherit.

30:

I think one important possible advance is computers getting more situationally or context aware. It doesn't even take AI, for instance check the rememberance agent. Human memory works very differently from computer memory. For us it's generally easy to remember things, but hard to address them. If you have a context aware computer giving you hints and clues that associate to things you want to remember, that's an important intelligence amplification right there. If people would be using Emacs much of it could be happening today, but with things like the WinFS-inspired Gnome framework the fact that we're dealing with different apps, different file formats, etc, might not be insurmountable. As to interfaces, symbolic interfaces like command line ones are inherently more powerful. So far the metaphorical interfaces are winning out because everyone's learning and the cognitive advantage from abstract symbolic manipulation isn't obvious, but I don't expect this to last forever.

31:

"Cost of food in Western countries increases 20% - 40% due to increased cost of mechanized farming. ... Countries continue to try to support small farmers, but increasingly this becomes financially unsupportable."

These two predictions are contradictory. Mechanizing agriculture is the competitive advantage agri-business has over the smaller "family farm". If farming machinery gets more expensive to operate, agri-business gets more expensive than family farms, and smaller farms grow more common.

"Continued growth of Indian and Chinese economies, as well as growth economies in former Soviet republics, continues downward pressure on real wages in Western countries"

Only if Western countries manage to prevent goods made in China/India/ex-Soviet republics from entering their economies. It's not as though there were a fixed number of jobs in the world, and a job opening in India means a job vanishing from France.

"Demographic changes in Western countries increase the burdens of supporting social programs (pensions and health care) and increase pressure for immigration. Breakdown of the social contract."

Well, that's right enough. But did it ever make sense, really, to have governments paying for pensions and health care? Unless you think governments are omnicompetent and private persons are impotent, of course.

"The point I'm trying to make is that I see, not the dissolution of all consensus views, but the formation of new ones; and those new ones are held much more firmly because the holders filter their input themselves."

Ah, now, this is a serious problem: subcultures who refuse to see arguments, or even facts, that cast doubt on a cherished assumption. Though it isn't a new problem; the John Birch Society flourished at the height of the mass media's influence. I rather think ubiqitous connectivity will make it harder for such subcultures to thrive, as they are forced to encounter many more kinds of difficult arguments -- the Birchers could explain why the political consensus of their day rejected them, but not why other right-wing dissenters from it did so.

32:

Charlie, about coal: I live in an area where a half-dozen coal plants have been proposed. All are being protested because of the pollution. Even Dallas is complaining because the countryside's smog would keep the city from making its pollution-reduction quotas. Asthmatics are against coal for obvious reasons, and so are farmers who think acid rain is a bad idea.

What's more, there aren't any coal mines around here. How is the coal supposed to get here without burning oil?

33:

Moving coal without oil?

UP 3985

34:

If the 'One Laptop per Child' project ever gets off the ground (and I hope that it will, although it doesn't look like it right now) the potential will be huge as we tap into the immense talent pool of kids with little access to education.

There will be a lot of inventors, artists and scientists coming from that background.

35:

Denni: the "One Laptop Per Child" project looks more like a "let them eat cake" project the closer I look at it.

The cost of one of those laptops is enough to buy text books for an entire village school. And those textbooks will last about two to ten times longer than the laptop.

The cost of ten of those laptops is enough to build a village school in most of these places -- and pay for a teacher.

I will concede that the gizmo appeals to me as a gizmo (I'd love a laptop that cost $100 and ran off solar cells or a hand-crank and was entirely open source based and designed to withstand third world conditions and kids!), but as a solution to the development trap of those countries it just ain't viable: it's just one piece of a jigsaw that begins with clean drinking water and navigable roads.

36:

"The cost of one of those laptops is enough to buy text books for an entire village school."

Well, given free content textbooks, which atm aren't quite there but getting closer by the moment, buying textbooks seems like a rather silly thing to do to me. Also it's not entirely clear to me why the texbooks last so much longer than a rugged computer.

For areas like mathematics and the natural sciences, the information on the internet is already very good. I could learn about discrete mathematics by reading wikipedia and other sites quite easily, for instance.

37:

Dave: Yes, moving coal without oil. Charlie said that coal is good because it can be burned locally. I'm saying that there are areas without coal deposits--like Texas--where they want to build coal plants in order to cut down on the use of oil. I fail to see how this cuts down on the use of oil, because how do you get the coal where it needs to be without burning oil to get it there?

38:

Dave, sorry, I didn't see the link. If you can get one of those without the asthma-inducing smoke plume, I'm all for it.

And now it thinks I'm a spammer because I talk so much. Oh, well...

39:

Charlie: You are right on about the "One Laptop Per Child" bit. It makes me physically ill that these dingbats think that people need a laptop more than clean drinking water or medical care.

As an artist/illustrator guy, the last 15 years have changed the way I do business dramatically. Email and internet presence is a given, but the biggest day-to-day change for me is the ability to send artwork back and forth digitally instead of having to send actual artwork or slides via Fedex. I used to have a Fedex bill in the four figures every year, now I can hardly remember how to arrange a pickup.

As to where this leads in another 15 years, well, I sell original art so effectively via my blog and my merch site now that I've considered not even doing art shows in galleries anymore. (Galleries typically take a 50% commission on each sale, and clearly I would prefer to keep that for myself.) This might not seem like such a big deal on an individual level, but if the majority of artists were to leave the gallery system, the whole business would dry up overnight. something similar is already happening to the music business, as they lose their stranglehold on distribution.

40:

David: it's not entirely clear to me why the texbooks last so much longer than a rugged computer.

The electronics industry today is the ultimate in built-in obsolescence; I'd be astonished if anyone was reading this blog on a computer than was ten or more years old, for example, but my car is that age and works fine and replacement parts for it are readily available, and cars used to be the benchmark for built-in obsolescence.

Backlights don't last forever; LCDs are fragile: replacement components tend to stop being available, even from warehouse stock, after 5-10 years. Want to buy an Intel 80286 processor for an embedded application built in the late 1980s? You're SOL. (Hell, Intel shit-canned the 486 range more than a year ago, never mind the earlier stuff that's still built into machinery that would need totally tearing apart and redesigning from scratch to work with more recent components.)

Paper, in contrast, lasts for centuries or millenia, if looked after. And even if you don't require archival durability in a village text book, it can easily still be useful in several decades -- long after the "one laptop per child" gizmo is a chunk of faded plastic in a heap by the roadside.

It's all a question of priorities. By the time kids need computers, they can get by on second-hand machines imported from the west -- because computers are a long way down the list of essentials, after water, food, vaccination against plague, roads, rule of law, a money-based economy, electricity and gas, and so on.

Put it another way: China and India dragged themselves out of the third world -- they're not all the way out yet, but the trend is firmly established -- without any glitzy third world laptops: they did it by making sure everybody got food and water, then making sure kids got taught in schools with blackboards and (luxury!) pencils and paper. Same here, in the UK: I was 17 before I ever saw a computer in my school.

It seems to me that the whole OLPC plan is an example of magical thinking by developed world dot com boosters with a guilt complex: "we owe everything we are to our ability to make money with computers, so lets give cheap computers to the poor people and let them make lots of money! So we won't have to worry about them starving in Africa any more."

(Now, if they'd rename it the "one laptop per student" project, and aim at giving every 18 year old student in the third world the chance to plug into the net, then I'd concede that it sounds considerably less stupid ...)

41:

I think there's some reason to think that the art business won't go the way of music. There isn't a digital display technology that can replace a physical piece of art. Digital art is good for the commercial side: advertisng, magazine covers, all that stuff where a very large number of physical copies of the original are the intended result. Digital delivery of music fits the same sort of ecological niche.

Photography has struggled with the reproduction problem for, and seemed to have reached a workable understanding, and then everything goes digital. Where's the negative?

It's an old problem in SF, and the answer is usually that an identifiable original has value. The problem is proving that.

Has anyone heard of a DRM system that deals with that problem?

Anyway, galleries, unlike record companies, are in the business of selling uniqueness.

42:

Dave: True, though in my case I was referring more to the simple act of sending out images to art directors for reproduction in various places, and not so much selling digital downloads of a painting, say. There will always be a market for the unique, even moreso as scarity continues to become a non-issue. (at least in the Western world.) I've seen this effect already with my fine art. As so much becomes entirely digital, a truly handmade, one-of-a-kind object, whether it be a gourmet dinner, a tailored suit or an oil painting, has even more "snob appeal" than before.

My point was that the gallery business structure will self-destruct without affecting the ability of artists to sell art, just as the death of music labels will mean little to the livelihoods of the folks who actually make the music.

If you, as a potential collector, can deal with an artist directly online, and cut out the middleman (saving 50% in the process) well, the gallery is going to have a hard time competing with that. The only other part of the fine art world where galleries have a pronounced effect is the way in which they act as tastemakers, guiding collectors towards the work they consider worthy. Even this aspect is changing, as big time collectors, like Saatchi in London or Eli Broad here in the US, start flexing their muscles by moving from being collectors to full-on patrons. Museums are now buying work for their collections based on the tastes of these big fish. In many ways, it's a return to the system of patronage that began during the renaissance.

43:

Everybody is going to be shadowed by maybe a dozen agents in "cyberspace". Some of them will be looking for stuff you want, some of them will be trying to protect you or spin your activities in the best possible light for the records, some will be obsessively keeping track on your ex-girlfriend and some of them will be looking for people to sue.

There will be big money in corrupting people's cyber-shadows.

44:

In 15 years time we'll all be reading nothing but the Koran, and you don't need a computer for that. As for AIs, there are imams who would have you stoned to death for even mentioning such abominations. Internet? You don't need the internet to hear the call to prayer. Communication? The imam will tell you everything you need to know.

And if you think I'm anti Islamic, there's a Baptist minister somewhere nearer than you think who believes exactly the same, only different.

We're gonna burn in a lake of fire.

On the other hand, we may discover that Al Gore hit his head in the shower and none of this is real.

The thing about paradigm shifts is that very few can predict them. As for the Singularity, we'll look back and say 'So that's when it happened!' If the imam agrees it ever did happen, of course.

45:

Martyn, I certainly hope you are wrong, but on my bad days I would be tempted to agree with your prediction.

46:

I'm interested too see how recommendation systems like Amazon can be used to guide people towards a specific set of beliefs or away from them. For exampel, if Amazon's recommendations are good enough in that you like what's recommended, but on purpose omit books/music with a particular political or religious slant, how would you know?

At this time, big-city newpapers highlight local and famous sports teams successes and downplay failures (with well-known exceptions); apparently, a censorship society North Korea only announces wins and ignores losses. With filtering, how long until people's volunrarily configured filter resembls Noth Korea today?

I foresee a lot of fun for a future Evil Genius to mess with people's perceptions on a truly large scale. It'll be fun to see!

47:

There will be a lot of inventors, artists and scientists coming from that background.

Not really. Brilliance doesn't scale that well.

48:

Apart from Martyn (with whom I agree) most of these futures seem mildly utopian. Many of them ignore the n billion people living in abject poverty. That ain't gonna change in a hurry. Also, what about major plagues and epidemics? Airborne AIDS is scary, but we have something more deadly right now - XDR Tuberculosis. And remember that religious zealots climb to the top of the pile on the backs of the fearful, the sick, and the dead. (Sounds like a bad Normal Mailer novel, sorry).

Totalitarian government control will only increase, primarily in the western "democracies". It takes a revolution to stop that, which, by then, will be precisely what these governments will be trying to prevent. Along with that, anonymizer services will come under serious attack. Sexuality is taking one of its periodic swings back to the Victorian era, helped along by religious fundamentalism and deadly sexual diseases.

All that aside, my personal nightmare is experiencing advertisements for cosmetic products fifteen years from now - in full 3D with surround sound and smell synthesis(if not pure Mind Control).

49:

COOP, I can see the gallery as having a role similar to an editor. How much that can sustain a physical gallery, I'm not sure: it might be that we end up with artists selling through a virtual gellery, concentrating on creating art while some modern-day Goupil & Cie does the selling.

That, at least, is the conventional view, and I think that market will exist, But where the balance will be, I can't guess.

One factor is that the change is happening so fast, and the people are lagging the technology. If you're in a well-connected, modern, society, with somewhere over 90% of the population able to get broadband access if they want it (Such as England, though I'm not sure if either England or Scotland have that 90% coverage yet), you still have people around who watched TV when there were two channels and don't want a new TV because it means learning how to use a new remote control.

At one end are the dot-commmers, filled to the eyeballs with the wonders of technology, and not always sure of why they need it. And there are a lot of people who do have a valuable use for the technology--you and Charlie for instance. And at the other extreme are the people who would carry a mobile phone, but who wouldn't depend on it: it's just a step up from that thing with the wires.

The weakness in Halting State is that we don't seem to have the leavening of the unconnected. There's a scene that Charlie has imagined, apparently riffing off the naked woman with a sword cliche, which, if anybody thinks about it, could fail for that reason.

It's a lot like the Emperor's New Clothes.

We can, in a fictional entertainment, leap over that obstacle, just as the energy budget of interstellar travel can be ignored to allow the story to happen. But it also allows other stories--what would a revolution of the unconnected be like? What might those in power miss because they can't monitor physical letters as easily as email?

50:

Yesterday afternoon, Feorag and I went for a walk.

Just an ordinary walk through a park, along a cycle path with lots of greenery, all the way down to the port of Leith, then over to the Ocean Terminal shopping mall before catching a bus home.

Around the time we were nearing Leith I was thinking about some of these issues, so I began playing a game: "imagine you're a time traveller from 1956 and you've just landed in Edinburgh, 2006, on a quiet Sunday afternoon. What signs of change will you notice?"

Well. The cars are more colourful, and differently shaped, and there are vastly more of them (in 1956 there was about one car per 20 people: now it's more like one per two), but they're still recognizably cars. Ditto the busses and trucks. Houses ... there's a lot of new build stuff, but it's all recognizable as offices and shops and apartments, and I suspect a 1956 visitor would be startled by how many old buildings were still around, indeed, lovingly renovated. And they'd be startled by the old warehouses that have been refurbished and turned into flats. But the harbour's lack of business might not surprise them when they noticed the low bridges: they'd just assume it had moved along the coast.

You'd have to peer into shop windows to see anachronistic goods for sale. You might be a bit startled to see Russian beer on sale in a delicatessen, and at the number of restaurants serving foreign cuisine, and the lack of grime would be strange, but these might be written off as the artefacts of a prosperous post-austerity society.

The people are just people, too. 80%-90% of the women are wearing trousers, but you set your time machine for 50 years in the future: what did you expect? (Silver tunics with shoulder pads?) People wear brighter colours, and they mostly look clean and well-fed ... but there's a shortage of decent suits, obviously. In fact, now you think about it, you haven't seen even one man wearing a suit, even though it's Sunday. And everybody is bare-headed, even though it's nearly October. And why does that girl have purple hair ...? (If you were her father you wouldn't permit it.)

There are more foreign-looking people about than you'd have expected back in 1956, but Leith is a port -- you should expect that.

From time to time you see people fiddling with odd gadgets like misshapen pocket-watches or cigarette cases. And some of them are clearly not right in the head -- they're talking to their pocket-watches, or talking to thin air, as if they've got an invisible companion. So you give these people a wide berth.

In the shopping mall -- which is a modernist cathedral clearly descended from the great Victorian arcades -- the shops have no facades, but appear to have metal blinds. Everything is insanely colourful and busy and there are shops selling stuff you've never heard of or that simply doesn't make sense. (What's an "iPod"? Why would you want one?) And the prices look outrageous, too. Just going into the mall has you feeling concussed and deafened within a few minutes -- it must be like one of the giant department stores you've heard of in the United States.

You don't notice the discreet black spheres bolted to the sides of buildings or street lamp poles, following you with their unblinking gaze. You don't notice the invisible sea of modulated microwave radiation through which you walk. Nor do you realize that the obvious nutter talking to himself is actually booking a (non-stop!) airline flight to India (on a Sunday!) for a business meeting.

Because the skin of society is mostly the same shape, modulo some patching and a fresh coat of paint: but the skeleton and musculature underneath has been swapped out and replaced with something different. And on a Sunday walk in 1956 you probably wouldn't have noticed the 10% of the working population employed down the pits in coal mining, or the 30-40% working in factories. Or that India by air in 1956 is as far away and unattainable to most people as sub-orbital space.

The future looks not unlike the present ... but it has completely different reactions, and there are any number of ways for a naive visitor from 1956 to get into a world of trouble.

51:

Charlie, the sort of obsaervation and analysis is why the BCS are asking you. You're not just a retiored computer journalist.

52:

Darnit - it's taken me so long to read through this all Charlie's already used most of my smart ideas.

Well - most of the idea's I probably stole out of his works anyhow.

I think the big thing, like CS said is that you wouldn't really notice on the surface the big changes. Still no flying cars.

But the world will be weirder to live in, in 15 years. I actually have serious doubts about 'terrorsts destroy the world' scenarios. For sure, there are fruitcake Islamacists - but one has to wonder how much media hype the world can take before they move onto the next Easy Descriminatory Target.

Although there may be some folk in climate change denial - I think it's fairly obvious something is going on. I'm guessing that by 2021 I'll be able to grow olives and grape in my back garden. There'll be lizards on the wall and spiders the size of my head (though the last is just a deep ingrained fear).

Solar cells. Lots of solar cells. With every political party currently flying the self rightous banner of Ecological Saviour, there will be some weird grant/tax relief for alternative power - It'll be worth your while in the UK to install a couple.

I'm not what you'd call a geography expert - but I'm going for the East of England being a swampy mess and some of the lower Welsh valleys becoming rather large salt lakes. Turning Britain into even more of a nation of islands.

Some other worldwide lowlands may do quite badly too (Holland?).

Hugh famine and drought across the equatorial regions - esp the usual suspects (Central Africa, Pakistan, India, Kent).

'Net access will be so penetrating that it's no longer even considered. Barely referred to in conversation - things to see and do on the 'net will be referred to in the same way as visiting physical locals ("Hey - you been to CharlieStross, the layout is so old school but the content is sweet").

We will be old.

I will finally get something published and no-one will notice beneath the torrent of self published good stuff, and mass marketed crap.

53:

When you think about it a Western Nation from 15 years ago has experienced far less change than a Third World Nation in the same period.

Places like Indonesia have experienced far more actual and obvious changes. Just the changes in the size of buildings is significant.

54:

Barring some of the disasters people like to predict, I think a lot of the Third World will be like the West today, at least physically, while we'll be something more.

55:

JETPACKS!

No, I kid.

Kids today are indeed growing up taking a lot of things for granted that you and I do not. Hell, I grew up considering things like brushing my teeth wholly natural and obvious, when in fact that's only really been popular since the 50's. We're already almost at the stage where concepts like "getting lost" or "alone" lose their meaning. I suspect that in 15 years time, we'll already be there. "Always on" means no boundaries. No privacy. No work, and no play. People used to dress up when they were about to board a flight. People still dress up to go to work in some places. That's all going away. In the future, people will be having sex during their work hours, on live feed to their boss. Actually, workhours will be a thing of the past too. Even today we work on vacation with our laptops and cellphones. Tomorrow will have this distinction evaporate even further. Work and play's all the same if you're always on.
Plugging off, however, will be shunned. Plugging off means you're no longer a member of society, and you can't ever really do that, can you..?

56:

"The future is here. It's just unevenly distributed."
--William Gibson

The Science Fiction community and Techie communities alike ignored the first few Science Fiction authors active on the ARPANET (which became DARPANET became INTERNET). So far as I can reconstruct, these first few included Jerry Pournelle and Greg Benford, with me trailing a few months behind. We all spoke about it at conferences (scientific) and cons (sfnal) and were greeted with skepticism. Basically, nobody seemed to see that once this went from niche to universailty, everything would change.

You can go back to an earlier generation of prophets: John McCarthy, Dr. Douglas C. Engelbart and his team headeed by Bill English at SRI International who created many of the concepts and tools that set the global computer revolution in motion (mouse, computer network as communications tool), Ted Nelson.

Weird thing is, even though all these prophets were belatedly hailed for accurate prediction, their OTHER predictions are still widely ignored.

John McCarthy warned that the term "Artificial Intelligence" which he coined was so misleading that he's sorry he promulgated it in the 1950s.

I've talked to Engelbart about what he calls "the big WHOOSH!" when cyberspace is flooded by an exponentially increasing volume of data from more and more smaller and smaller distributed smart sensors. He's ignored on this, although it's also central to The Singularity (whose prophets have been described at length elsewhere).

Ted Nelso, when he accepted the top award at, I think, the 5th WWW Conference, said (I paraphrase from memory): "You all thought I was crazy when I explained Hypertext and Hypermedia. Now you all use it. But you still think I'm crazy, and don't listen to all the other things I say."

Charles Stross is an interstellar treasure because, besides his stylistic gifts and discipline to work hard and long through pain, he HAS listened carefully to The Prophets. he has though long and hard, and come to surprising and compelling conclusions.

I thus predict that many things he'll say in Halting State will turn out to be embedded in Words of Prophets Pournelle, Benford, Nelson, Englebart, McCarthy et al.

I've used computers for forty (40) years, and emailed since before the Net, and was on the Net before it had more than about 1,000 netizens. I've been consciously writing Hypertext since I me Ted Nelson in 1973 or 1974, and saying so, and several of my publications of the mid-to-late 1970s prove this. But now EVERYONE (well, a billion or so, 1/6 of the world) are amphibians, half in, half out of cyberspace. Should we first lungfish crawling up the shore be heeded? The fate of the world depends on this.

57:

Hmm - I have to say (nah offence, like) that most of the posts here display a considerable degree of naive techno-boosterism. Not enough skepticism with regard to the gadgets and gizmos that are coming our way - and the market that spreads them, and the consumerist overmind into which all our heads dip from time to time...or perhaps from which we escape from time to time. More attention on radical solutions to our politico/cultural problems, less on the commercial toy-swarm.

58:

I've been trying to think of this from the perspective of my kids. I'm on my second marriage, and the first one was relatively young (for these days), so my daughter is near graduating college and my son is about to enter kindergarten. I also have a foster daughter, a teenager who's been with us a couple of years now.

My daughter grew up with computers, and as a toddler around age 2 she used to sit in my lap and play on the computer. That then consisted of holding down the space bar or arrow key for the CP/M ASCII graphics 'Ladders' game, and watching the little ASCII character "jump" up and down. She also would type letters into Wordstar - mash down the key and watch little tiny amber 'A's fill up the screen. She also got to doodle occasionally on the Xerox Star workstation at my employer and see her scribbles printed out on the laser printer. At that age, to be playing with computers put her as perhaps 1 in 100 among her peers. Ever since then, she's been growing up with computers and technology getting ever faster and cheaper around her. A year or two later we got a PC clone (with color!) and one of her main motivators for learning to read became to figure out what was going on in the Ultima VI generation of graphic/text games we were playing; we also got the usual "edutainment" CD-ROMs, etc. She had her own PC during high school, and we got her an iBook when she headed off to college. She thinks of computers as a kind of natural part of her surroundings, a knowledge tool; she can program but doesn't have a lot of interest in doing so. Her academic focus - well, her whole life - is music; computers to her are among other things an instrument, editing, or composition tool.

The foster daughter, about 4 years younger, got exposed to computers much later - she came to us from a weird mix of under-privileged/over-privileged background. She's had her own computer for most of the time she's lived with us. But: she does not really think of computers as separate from the Internet, or remember a time when the Internet was not ubiquitous. 95% of what she uses it for is IM and Myspace. She was shocked when I mentioned to her that I had started one of the first Internet providers in Hawaii. Her response: "What could you do with computers without the Internet?" It looks like Sun's old slogan "The network is the computer" was right; it just took a bit longer than when they were pushing it. In other words, she's never experienced a time when it could take days of digging in libraries and books to find out a simple fact. But by the same token she's growing up in a world where information is easily faked. When confronted with a world-fact she doesn't like - e.g. that ephedrine diet pills are dangerous for your health - she tends to respond with "How do I know this is true information?" Every so many months she seems to start a new online identity on Myspace, AIM, etc. - sometimes discarding the old one and sometimes keeping several going.

(Both of these two live on their cell phones, BTW. The college student and her roommates haven't even bothered to get landline service for their apartment. The telcos should be worried about this.)

Where it gets really interesting for me is to compare the 4 year old's experience of computers. He's likewise grown up sitting in our laps and typing on the keyboard (or clicking the mouse) and watching us play games. But when he was first typing his A B Cs into Word, they come up in gorgeously rendered 72-point color. The games he watched me play were a "window" onto a world of little 3-dimensional men fighting realistic-looking dragons and monsters; even many of the simple games he's played have been gorgeously rendered and textured in 3-D. He saw a photo of the Golden Gate bridge somewhere, and wanted me to find him more the other day, so we ended up going through page after page in Google Images to find one he wanted to print out and keep. He had to take a picture of an animal into school, so he had me take snapshots of our cats, put them on the computer, and print them out - he knew exactly what he wanted done even though he could not do it himself. (Actually, his expectation was that Google would have pictures of our cats already in it.) These are qualititative differences from the computers my daughter grew up with. What are the computers he uses at 20 going to be like?

Extrapolation: the computers that he's using as a young adult, that we're living with in 15 years or so will again be qualitatively changed to where they're nearly unrecognizable as "the same thing." Just extrapolating along the trend lines so far we can reasonably expect:

  • * Truly 3D (stereoscopic) content and interfaces, finally; I know it's been predicted often before, but it will take hold eventually, driven by games.
  • * Complete ubiquity - that 3D interface will be part of something you carry around unnoticed, perhaps the grandchild of your cellphone, perhaps of your laptop, perhaps of your PDA or iPod.
  • * 3D "printers" will be in nearly every home and in routine use, the way laser printers are now. See something cool, "print" it out to a fully colored and usable physical object, up to about the size of a shoe or coffee cup. There may be neighborhood "copy shops" which have the more complex machinery needed to print it into a metal object for harder use or to print things which require multiple materials (e.g. soft + hard plastic.) The basic printers are already moving into specialty business offices very much as laser printers were 15 or 20 years ago.
  • * Online identities will keep getting easier to create and toss away. Everyone will have lots of them: some long-term and many ephemeral; some in one context, some used across many contexts.
  • * Instant information everywhere, coupled with a vast mistrust of any and all network-provided information. "How do I know this is true information?"
  • * A consequent and corresponding complete misplacement of trust in spurious authorities. The same teenager who says, "How can I trust this? You could have faked it", will believe anything endorsed by a TV celebrity or heard from another 16-year-old. This trend or problem is bad enough now, and it will only get worse because it profits those who can manipulate media. See also: global warming "controversy", evolution "controversy", etc.
  • * Nobody will have much confidence in their privacy, except from the standpoint of "I'm too unimportant to spy on." However, the "spies" will also feel very insecure in their own ability to tell who is using a given identity, or which all identities an individual is using, or to distinguish fantasy from reality in the lives of the people who they're trying to spy on.
  • * Growing confusion between network reality and physical reality, because the lines really are getting blurrier. See above about the 3D printers - if you make something in your network reality and print it out right here and can hold it in your hand, how does that make the network reality not "real"? The teenagers of 15 or 20 years from now are going to have a hard time with that philosophy, just as it's hard to convince one today that there is a difference between friends you have only ever communicated with via IM or Myspace and real in-person friends.

To me, all of the above are pretty obvious - "gimmes", and I expect you've got them too.

Here is a really wild-ass and controversial guess about unexpected consequences: Consequent to all of this, I think it possible a noticeable fraction of the first-world population will start growing up with a distinct sense of multiple online/real-world personal identities, approximating what we would now consider some level of "dissociative disorder" - and will consider it perfectly normal.

The medical speculation I've read are that there is some distinct fraction of the population - perhaps 5-10%, perhaps due to some genetic traits - who have a potential to develop a fragmented sense of identity in response to physical abuse or weird family stuff. It's also been rarely reported as a consequence of people living a highly compartmentalized life with a lot of role-playing. If a compartmentalized life with lots of role-playing becomes the norm, my wild speculation is that serious self-identity confusions (probably not quite to the level of DID/"multiple personalities") may become more common among those with dissociative tendencies, and may be very hard to deal with for those who don't also get it. E.g. personal interactions like: "But I don't understand why you're so mad at me! I didn't sleep with that girl, my half-elf Nightvixen slept with her, because she's a lesbian. I wasn't there at all; and even though my technomage Jacob agrees with you that's because he hates Nightvixen, and the rest of me say you're just being a bitch about this."

What with the general reality confusion, there may be a tendency to more schizo-affective type personality problems too. For the kids who are less social and less grounded (especially with the drugz) and see choices of alternative exciting worlds of elves, magic, or space travel, will they have a hard time seeing the point of this world? Will they start seeing the more appealing world as more real?

Especially if the real world is looking increasingly unattractive with weather and climate disasters, political turmoil, and who knows what.

59:

in 15 years we'll have an answer to the question...
Is it polite to look things up online during physical social events?

I'm in Silicon Valley. Of course multitasking during business-related events is done. (At conferences, blogging about a panel while on the panel.)

Yet at parties I've seen a room full of blackberry-carrying techies have extended arguments on topics where a short online search would answer half the questions. 10 years ago I saw the same arguments, but stopping to go into the host's server room would've disconnected the crowd. Now one only has to pull out a device. But this rarely happens, here. 15 years from now the device will be invisible.

Is it the device and looking away from the conversation that's considered rude, or is it that people want a good argument and not a showdown on who can search fastest? In 15 years etiquette may change.

(Or is this observation just local to Silicon Valley. How is it in the EU or Japan, where the air is thick with 4G?)

60:

(Both of these two live on their cell phones, BTW. The college student and her roommates haven't even bothered to get landline service for their apartment. The telcos should be worried about this.)

This brings up something that I was thinking about as I was ordering a VOIP handset for my wife's computer. In 15 years we could easily see the death of the teleco. I no longer have a landline phone in my home, and I suspect that trend will only increase with time. My sister doesn't either, and my parents only do out of habit. In 15 years I suspect only the elderly will still have them if they are available at all -- rather like the few hundred thousand people in the US who still rent rotary handsets today.

However, in 15 years we could also see the demise of cellphones. If some sort of wireless LAN successor is freely or cheaply available everywhere, then it would make sense to use wireless networked phones that use free VOIP rather than a cell network. Once it becomes pratical and reliable, expect to see the technology adopted by the young. Older people may be more resistent to giving up a phone number, so there may be hybrid services to work with the remaining legacy systems.

The trend of the 2010s could be declining per capita telephones in the West, as more people give them up all together in favor of new communication methods.

Another thing that might be thought of rather differently, if not gone all together is email. Ars Technica had an interesting article today called "Teens: E-mail is for old people" (http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20061002-7877.html)

In 15 years we could see email as a stuffy tool of businesses, government, and the elderly.

61:

For an idea of the sort of device that might be common in 15 years take a look at the new Sony Mylo. It probably won't take off or sell many units, it's at least five years ahead of it's time and the technology just isn't mature yet -- sort of like the early WinCE PDAs that tried to cram as many features as possible into a device that ended up being a $700 brick...

But add an extra 0 on some of it's stats, cut the thickness and weight by 2/3rds, and throw in a free wireless network in most public spaces for it to leech, and I think something like that could be as common as cellphones one day.

62:

"From time to time you see people fiddling with odd gadgets like misshapen pocket-watches or cigarette cases. And some of them are clearly not right in the head -- they're talking to their pocket-watches, or talking to thin air, as if they've got an invisible companion. So you give these people a wide berth."

Wasn't Dick Tracy talking to his wristwatch back in 1956? Sure, if you saw only one person talking to a pocket-watch, you'd assume they were crazy ... but after seeing ten different people, or fifty, doing the same thing, the true explanation would cross your mind. Especially if you were a time-traveller from 1956, for whom the idea of "radio" is familiar. Now if you were a traveller from 1906, you'd have a much more difficult time figuring out what was happening around you; but 1906 is before ubiquitous automobiles, as well as before ubiquitous telephones.

63:

A belated footnote to Charlie's comments on the OLPC project (Yom Kippur having prevented a more timely response):

Lee Felsenstein, who has actual experience working in the third world, explained about a year ago why Charlie's right here. (Note that some of this material is out of date --- they've abandoned the 100:1 hand-cranked power claims --- but the critique of the top-down structure of the program still looks good to me).

Which is a shame --- independent of the social context or anything else, they've engineered a neat piece of hardware, which might in fact have a whole lot of uses in the third world. But, as with cell phones (and cf. William Easterly's recent book, "The White Man's Burden"), it's the people who live in the third world who are by far the best qualified to figure out what those uses are --- not Nick Negroponte.

64:

Charles, I'd kill for something like the OLPC on sale here in the west. (Hell, sell it for $250 and donate the profits to a third world education charity buying textbooks.)

It's cheap enough even for poor folks in the west, it's rugged, it'll get you through a Katrina-level natural disaster, it's based on open software, there are no rotating delicate bits, and if it breaks, you can throw it away and buy another.

I'd happily settle for a laptop with a two-hour battery life in preference to a LiPoly nightmare that spontaneously combusts ... if the cheap'n'cheerful one had a hand-crank that would give it another hour for ten minutes' winding, and doesn't cost a fortune and spontaneously combust.

The OLPC is pure poison for the commercial software and hardware biz (which is why Bill Gates and the likes of Intel have been trying to kill it) because it does "just enough" to be extremely useful, while demonstrating how useless the overpriced rubbish the industry keeps churning out.

65:

If they really want to improve things with the OLPC give it VOIP capabilities to go with it's mesh network. It could also benefit from larger storage space and a bunch of pre-loaded books (As PDFs or a similar format rather than plaintext).

That said, I think the real market for these isn't the Third World as most people seem to assume. It's places like India, Brazil, South Africa, and China. Countries that do have some well off and technically advanced sections of society, but a large underclass as well. It's pretty useless for somewhere like Sudan or Congo though...

And don't worry about them not being available in the West. Assuming these do actually make it into the hands of people, I expect we'll see them on Ebay a few months after release. :)

66:

The OLPC is pure poison for the commercial software and hardware biz (which is why Bill Gates and the likes of Intel have been trying to kill it) because it does "just enough" to be extremely useful, while demonstrating how useless the overpriced rubbish the industry keeps churning out.

From a hardware-aspect, I don't think it's a real threat. People are driven to a large degree by factors other than price and capabilities that they need -- look at the iPod, or any number of cellphones. There's a coolness factor that will allow hardware manufacturers to make a handy profit.

However, if the OLPC does prove popular then I expect someone will come out with a knockoff. If not a big name like Sony or Microsoft, then perhaps one of the little Korean or Taiwanese manufacturers that supply a lot of OEM hardware. I'd love an upgradeable DIY version...

67:

The OLPC is a rich person's fantasy of what a poor person wants, not what the poor person knows they need. As for Bill Gates, he's pumping billions into Third World medical research. If investment in OLPCs would do anything to lift the Third World out of its current cesspit then he'd be ready and willing to fund the production and distribution of OLPCs. Right now trying to make malaria extinct is a better and more achievable aim.

Low-power technotoys like the OLPC might be attractive in the First World of course, just look at the success of the Amstrad Email appliance, how it swept other high-powered gizmos to one side as it marched to email market dominance. (That's a snerk, in case you didn't notice...)

90% of the time I'm in front of a computer these days I'm running a browser; it's how I get my mail and do most stuff these days. The other 10% of what I want to do takes CPU muscle and gobs of memory and a 1600x1200 screen (or two 1600x1200 screens). The OLPC won't do the muscle stuff so why bother with it? I'd only end up with an OLPC and a muscle machine and I'd be in front of the muscle machine 99% of the time, the OLPC gathering dust.

Basically the OLPC is a condescending pat on the head for the pickaninnies from the Great White Father. The Kalahari Desert !Kung and the Hashri tribesmen of Borneo read Wired and they want the latest Alienware fire-breathing laptop, not a wind-up toy.

68:

I'll grant you that if the Gates Foundation succeeds in eliminating diseases of childhood poverty in south-east Asia and then the rest of the third world, it'll have done far more good than the OLPC project would, even if it delivered 100% of its (IMO, over-hyped) promises.

The Amstrad email appliance, however, failed for entirely different reasons that had nothing to do with its choice of CPU and operating system and everything to do with the idiotic business model behind it.

69:

Speaking of business models, I think the OLPC project is making a mistake with theirs. They should be offering it in smaller batches, for individual schools or city/state level education departments to purchase.

I know the US education market isn't their target, but there's no way they could sell it here if it was. There are aren't any school districts that have 1 million students...

They'd be better off making a million or so available through retail, and using the profit to subsidize the production of others for their target market.

Of course, if they did that then they'd probably loose a lot of backing from companies that are happy to see a low cost computer for education purposes in countries where people couldn't afford their products, but who would be very nervous if that same product was available in the US and Europe. The backers want a huge socialist distrubution model so there's no competition with their products.

70:

The Gates foundation is not likely to be a major factor in the elimination of any disease, based on what I've heard from people in the field. It may be a little better targeted than the OLPC, but the program is still about what the rich think the poor need. Rather than spend all their effort pushing a vaccine which will take years to get into the field, they ought to spend at least part of their money on the anti-mosquito techniques that cost ~ $2 per person and can be put in place without major industrial production and large number of skilled workers to deliver it.


Agreed, the OLPC is only a part of the solution, but it could still be a part, just as Neil Gershenfeld's Fablab can be a part. These are both high-tech solutions to part of the problem(s). Many other parts require either brute-force economic solutions (i.e., either throw money at them, or stop sucking money from them) or very clever finessing with low-tech resources. Unfortunately, one of the real obstacles to the first world helping the third and fourth world is a pervasive belief in the West in silver bullets; one solution that solves all of the problem forever. There ain't no such animal.

71:

Halfway there, Andrew: they should be offering it in smaller batches, for anyone with a legal use for the thing to purchase, whether it has to do with education per se, or not. Third World farmers and merchants are both more motivated to find new and unexpected uses for these gizmos, and better informed by far than any first worlder could possibly be. Some of these may be educational, though even there, one per child might be extravagant, depending on the purpose. (If professionals do pair programming, why not in the classroom?) But there's no good reason to limit the scope...

72:

Coming in fifteen years? That's about the time India hits [STATE=CHINA2006] and China hits [STATE=USA1942] where states refer to general levels of geopolitical and economic influence. I see relative deflation of old industrial core currencies (USA, EU) and commodity and tradeable goods price increases. In the USA, a public goods infrastructure problem as we're less able to reinvest in post-gasoline motor transport and anything else - so we become less productive.

I'm 47, staring at a constitutional convention in NYS that's getting ready to abrogate my pension.

More later.

73:

Back to interfaces for a bit (remember, being on the west coast of the U.S. I'm 8 hours behind most of you :-). I don't think anyone's talked about multi-modal interfaces. There's been a lot of research done with combining speech input and finger-pointing (e.g. "Put That There") and abstract only) or gaze-direction (e.g. "Eyes at the Inteface"). Both those were developed by Richard Bolt at the Media Labs. The output has typically been graphic-only, but there's no reason you couldn't mix voice output, and generated sound with graphics.


The main advantage of multiple modes is that they allow some parallelism of sensory input and motor output, so the interface bandwidth is higher. With some redundancy between the signals in the different modes, it also can give higher reliability communication.

Wouldn't it be fun to have a projected strategy game map on a table in front of you that allows you to put your finger on an enemy unit and say "Bang!" to tell the software you're attacking it?


I apologize if anyone tried to use the link in my previous post to Neil Gershenfeld; there was a typo in the html. Here's the corrected link: Neil Gershenfeld's Fablab.

74:

Recalling Charlie's visitor from the 1950's, if "Put That There" interfaces become common with mobile communications, our visitor would see a lot of people not only talking to themselves, but also gesticulating wildly and staring in all directions. That I don't think was predictable from mid-20th technology.

So instead of thinking the future was a society of schizophrenics, our visitor might think we all had Tourette's Syndrome :-)

75:

I think after a brief period of surprise, our hypothetical time traveler wouldn't find cellphones all that unusual or unexpected. He'd be impressed at how small they are, and how affordable, but the idea wouldn't be that foreign to him.

What he would think is that our society is very rude -- people taking calls anywhere at any time. As a whole it would be the social changes that would be the most shocking, I think, not the technological ones. Technology may be responsible for some of the changes, but it's easier to predict inventions than social changes.

Going back futher, a visitor from 1906 (to the US at least) whould probably be more surprised by things like the lack of labor-managment strife, the role of women, and race relations than he would by cars, computers, and cellphones. He'd probably think we were a very decadent society, and technology was just a sign of our decadence an wealth.

76:

Here is a really wild-ass and controversial guess about unexpected consequences: Consequent to all of this, I think it possible a noticeable fraction of the first-world population will start growing up with a distinct sense of multiple online/real-world personal identities, approximating what we would now consider some level of "dissociative disorder" - and will consider it perfectly normal.

Interesting, I just posted something along those lines..

77:

Charlie, I just read Toast, and your introductionary essay there reminds me of this question you posted here. One point there was a ever growing rate of technological change. I disagree.

Maybe it's lame, but I'm very sceptic regarding further technological development (social changes are quite another field). I guess some technologies really create changes in the way life works. The car did, the telephone did, the airplane did, the industrial organization of work (conveyer-belt etc.) did, and of course microchip, computer, internet and mobile phone do. On the other side, there are many technological changes and enhancements that are not so important, that do not fundamentally change the way the world works.

The fundamental changes did happen in shorter and shorter time in the last two hundred years, but I'm not convincend that this acceleration will continue.

One could look at three different scenarios for 2021:

1. More of the same: mobile phones -- or some other kind of personal information access and communication technology -- become even smaller and cheaper, ubiquitous bandwidth is there for everybody. Mobile phones and the internet converge, maybe becoming your key to your virtual data storage space. But the real changes aren't technological refinements, but social changes: "Terminal society", one could say. How we use information. How information is produced, sold, bought, copied, ... How privacy is valued. And so on.

2. Peak-oil breakdown: the war on climate change is the on thing everybody really is interested in, even governments. One side-effect of peak oil, a growing industrialized population and a rather slow growth of renewable energy is a energy prize soaring high, ten times as much as now or the like. Electronical gadgets like mobile phones, laptops and so on only survive as mass market products if they reduce their energy intensity accordingly. The rate of innovation is the same as in the scenario 1, but the direction is different: you don't get funding or a market if you don't research against climate change.

3. Point of no return: one of pet technologies of science fiction (or something completly else) becomes real, a technological change that implies (a) no return to the status quo ante, and (b) massive changes in everyday life. That's the bread and butter scenario of much of Stross' and other SF, so it isn't necessary to enumerate possible technologies, but a cheap working nano-assembler, a conscious artificial intelligence or an understanding of genetics on the level of easy reprogramming are three possible (but in my view quite improbable) technological changes.

78:

Is it the device and looking away from the conversation that's considered rude, or is it that people want a good argument and not a showdown on who can search fastest? In 15 years etiquette may change.

I recall seeing a story on using computers-in-clothing (at MIT, natch)which mentioned that people quickly evolved the habit of googling answers while in discussion or debate with others.

79:

I think one of the keys to a time traveller's response is whether they know about the transistor radio.

They weren't small things when they came out, but they were a lot smaller than the vacuum tube tech, and had an easier battery problem.

There's a lot of hidden tech in a cellphone system, but the transistor radio is the poster-child technology for the modern world.

And the next stap is maybe the pocket calculator in the mid-Seventies.

It's not that these things are the direct ancestors of what we use, but they represent a change in the tech we can use. By 1976 you could choose to buy a pocket calculator instead of a book of log tables and a slide rule.

The transistor radio shrank communications. The pocket calculator shrank thinking (think "brains in your pocket" and no more mental arithmetic). What's next?

80:

RFID tags in currency.

81:

RFID tags in currency.

That'd be kinda expensive, innit? :D

---------------

When I think of the future, I think of 2-D fighting games.




Bear with me: I'm thinking of a little thing called M.U.G.E.N. - basically, software that lets you roll your own. Fights between Guile from Street Fighter and Shao Kahn from Mortal Kombat. Modify the Guile sprite so he has metal arms and a Terminator face, call him Cyber-Guile. Hell, put in characters that have never been in such a videogame before, ranging from Batman and Superman to Tom Hanks and Samara.

All of which brings me back to the future. Youtube, M.U.G.E.N, Linux - these days, it's all about DIY mashups of existing software. I posit then, a future where the kids have dozens of browsers (for cellphones, PDAs and stunglasses), a few written anew from the ground up but most kludged together from today's stuff. It'd perhaps serve various "tribes", dislocated from geographical restraints.

82:

The world is becoming more homogenous. Sure, media is becoming less controlled by the establishment so that liberal (in America) and libertarian (in the rest of the world) views are becoming more popular over the last thirty years, but internationally we are starting to approach consensus reality. It didn't used to be that way. Thirty years ago Russia and China lived in very, very, different worlds. This is also true of the rest of the world.

83:

RFID tags in currency.

That'd be kinda expensive, innit? :D

They're down to about 5 cents each right now. In 15 years they'll probably be a fraction of that. Even at 5 cents, it would be economical to place them in larger bills.

Each bill already has a seriel number, store that on a tag and you could keep a record of transactions made with it. Provided people had equipment that registered the bill, of course. :)

Once computing costs come down enough, you could make every bill slightly smart, and networked. Perhaps it could check the identity of everyone who handled it, and destroy itself if it's being used by someone the government considers unsavory. It would make drug deals, paying illegal immigrants, back market sales, etc more difficult.

84:

RFID Tags

Exactly. RFID polling units installed in POS terminals, at ATMs, and, oh, I don't know, major chokepoints for transport? Subway tunnels, bridges, auto tunnels, major road intersections. Lamp posts. Traffic signals. You could track the velocity of money. You could also begin to delineate the contours of the cash black-market.

It would make money laundering much harder.

85:

You know how easy it is to disable/burn out RFID chips, right?

I see the majority of transactions being done with "credit chips" or etransactions anyway...

86:

RFIDs in cash? What else, maglev rickshaws?

Not that it would be impossible to do, but RFIDs in cash money (and a ubiquitious system of reader/scanners) would pretty much be the stake in the heart of that particular medium of exchange, at least for those using cash to escape official scrutiny. Cash is already disappearing for the law-abiding-types.

I have a friend who owns several bars (certainly a good friend to have!) and he's already upset that what used to be an almost-completely cash till is now about 60-70% debit/credit card sales. He figures it will be 100% or darn near in another few years. A boon for the tax collector, needless to say. I'm sure that ATMs will seem hysterically quaint in 15 years. Why would you need to take cash out of a machine when you already have a little card (or keyfob, or whatever) that allows you to pay for stuff?

So what will the medium of exchange be for criminals and the black market in a cashless future? Good question. Beanie Babies or Kindereggs, perhaps. More likely, some of those third-world kids that grew up with OLPCs will be employed by crooks to launder their ill-got gains by other, electronic means.

87:

It would make money laundering much harder.

Which is why the powers-that-be would never go for it. *wg*

88:

RFID tags in currency

Take a look at Where's George? to see the beginnings of this.

89:

I think I would be wrapping my money in kitchen foil...

-- Andrew

90:

Money Laundering Amendment Act (2012)

Add 26.C.(2) which reads:

"Sticking notes in the microwave counts as laundering too".

91:

Cash (or its near equivalent, hard drugs) will always have a place in the real economy (legal market + black market). Trackable cash would be a truly horrible invasion of privacy. A wife could, for example, find out how much her husband spent on her birthday present. Or on porn magazines (porn is also eternal). Parents could check up on what their kids are buying. No more rites-of-passage involving underage drinking. I doubt the spender's identity would be preserved for more than two or three transactions, though. You could always say you gave the money to someone else. (They're not my bills, dad, I was holding them for a friend...)

92:

I recall talk, in the early days of usable microcomputers (Commodare PET and the likee), talk of how all this would allow an economy to be better managed, because there would be more and better information as to what was actually happening.

I can imagine some people going for RFIDed money for similar reasons.

It's not just b;ack or grey economies. And it all sounds rather anticapitalist: no envelopes full of cash to grease the wheels.

93:

I could see RFID cashing being developed as a resonse to the War on Drugs, the War on Terror, and as an anti-counterfeiting measure.

North Korea has supposedly counterfieted millions of dollars, and there are billions of counterfeit dollars floating around the thrid world, some of which probably finance terrorists and drug traffickers, etc.

It would be very difficult for most people to cheaply counterfeit large ammounts of dollars or euros if they had some sort of identification tag built in. Even if it's only a copy of the seriel number printed on the bill.

After something like that is put into place, then you could see the development of a tracking system. Few people are going to support having their money tracked, but they might support something that's supposed to fight Terror and Drugs. :)

At least, that's how I could see them being introduced in the US. I'm not sure what would spur the adoption in Europe.

The database would be government controlled, at least at first. However, you could see private tracking systems developed too, either by companies to track spending habits, or by people just for fun. Check out the "Where's George?" website where people put in seriel numbers of dollar bills before they spend them, to see if anyone else gets them later...

94:

Here's a question :

How ridiculous, on a scale of 1 to 10, is any catchphrase beginning with the words "War On..."?

And what are likely "Wars On..." we will see in the next fifteen years? "War On DRM?" - that'll never catch on, it has an acronym in it.

95:

Sorry, my mistake, that would be "War On Piracy". DRM is anti-piracy, obviously.

96:

One other thought, sorry for the multiple posts...
It might be *easier* to counterfeit money with RFID tags in it. If money is recognizable automatically (i.e. without the convolutions necessary to detect currency mechanically at the moment) it might drive a rise in the number of currency-enabled machines (e.g. think milk and bread machines). At which point all you need is the tag, and not the paper (or a sheet of appropriate size). OK, now you can all tell me how dumb I am.

97:

RFID tags in currency

Take a look at Where's George? to see the beginnings of this.

98:

One relatively simple way to combat counterfeit RFID on money is print the serial number on the bill, and code the RFID with the serial number, suitably encrypted with the Treasury (=Inland Revenue) private key. Then the bill validator just has to decrypt the RFID code with the public key and see that it matches the printed serial. To take advantage of long keys, you'd want long serials, and custom RFIDS with more bits. No warranties express or implied in the face of counterfeiters with quantum computers.

99:

RFIDs in cash money

Having worked in Offshore Banking (that's a technical term for Tax Evasion) I know that there are far too many Very Important People taking a nice little tax free earner from the black ecomony (which is cash or cash equivalent) for real tracking systems ever to be enforced. Think mothers and brothers and cousins and sisters and aunts.

Its a nice idea for us law abiding working schmucks who fill out our tax returns without reference to a tax lawyer, and pay up on time. But its a class thing. The ruling class don't. So forget RFIDs in cash. Whatever the noises, it ain't gonna happen.

By the way, every bank note I have in my wallet (not very many, admittedly, and they're all sterling) has a unique serial number printed on it.

100:

Er, sorry, I cat'n slepp economy.

Sorry again, I missed the point about serial numbers. Too busy tracking down fraud rather than doing something useful.

101:

15 years ago I'm sure we didn't have Heat Rays.

But apparently now we do because Raytheon has developed Silent Guardian, a 94Ghz, directed microwave projection weapon, effective out to 250m.

According to the Air Force Research Laboratories "This technology is capable of rapidly heating a person's skin to achieve a pain threshold that has been demonstrated by AFRL human subject testing to be very effective at repelling people, without burning the skin or causing other secondary effects."

God only knows what another 15 years of this kind of research will produce. Giant mobile robotic tripods to mount these heat rays on perhaps?

More here...

http://technology.guardian.co.uk/weekly/story/0,,1887256,00.html

102:

Does it matter that there are counterfeit dollar bills out there?

Look at how many virtual dollars are floating around the world's money markets. It's not like Nazi Germany forging the British five-pound notes in WW2. But if the fake dollar bills are as good as the Nazi forgeries, it's rather unlikely that a bank would notice.

103:

The problem isn't really that they undermine the economy or anything -- its that it gives terrorists or other criminals the ability to buy things they normally wouldn't. Like a crate of AK-47s on the Russian black market or something.

104:

If legally-endorsed currencies are made trackable, then people who don't want to be tracked can, and will, use something else as money. See the reference above to hard drugs.

A banking expert, whose book on the subject I have, but not to hand this instant, described money as "An agreement within a community to use something as a means of payment." That something can be anything that can be kept until you want to spend it, and then you can find someone who will accept it, often for the sole reason that they can spend it in turn. It can even be something quite intangible.

And the community does not have to be an entire country, it can be a very select group.

J Homes.

105:

Andrew G: Doesn't sound like terrorists need much help; apparently a gaggle of schoolgirls can do just fine at buying crates worth of AK-47s or similar on the not-even-black market, at least with a British comedian to help. Seen on Boing-Boing:
http://www.defensetech.org/archives/002824.html
makes for an interesting read.

106:

Thing is, I'm sure the average 3World resident would rather have a free village primary school than a laptop, but schools are hard. You need: a trained teacher; enough money to pay the teacher so she doesn't go off to the city to work as an interpreter; a local government to keep the school painted and buy materials, and isn't going to skim off the top, or pocket the whole lot and shut down the school, or have the teacher arrested for teaching the wrong thing, or put their drunk brother in law in place as the teacher; then you need to convince all the parents that they should send the kids to school rather than keep them out in the padi field; then you need to convince the local priest that the teacher isn't a rival...
Give a man or woman a laptop, with solar power or a cranked generator, and that's all you need. You now have weather forecasting from NOAA - stops the village men drowning when an unexpected cyclone comes along while they're out fishing. You have access to prices for the fish they bring back - cut out the middleman and get the fish to the town that pays most. You have email to your cousin in the big city. Or, if you're lucky, your MP or the national paper. See what I mean?

107:

I like the OLPC concept, but I should point out that cellphones can do many of the things that it can, apart from displaying books well. That's possibly it's most valuable contribution -- as an ebook reader.

With a cellphone you can send emails, track prices, and even trade minutes as currency -- all things that are done in parts of africa right now. A cellphone is also cheap since they have about a 1 or 2 year life cycle in the first world and are usually in perfectly good working condition.

If you could find a way to hook them up to a cheap display and keyboard they could provide 99% of the computing needs of the third world. Within a couple years they'll probably be more powerful than the OLPC, and probably with more storage capacity and lower power consumption.

108:

With the expected increases in universally available bandwidth coming in the near future, we're approaching a major change in mobile computing. The only reason for laptops is the frequent lack of sufficient connectivity to centralized storage of personal data and preferences. A single small device able to provide phone services (camera, email, calendar, text messaging, video conferencing, etc) and browsing, could be interfaced with public kiosks that would enhance connectivity with a bigger keyboard and display, perhaps a printer. At all times, your connection would present data stored and updated centrally. Can't wait.

109:

Wired has an interesting article right now about how the bandwith costs have decreased much faster that processor costs, and storage costs as well. The upshot is that it's currently more cost effective to host applications and data centrally than it is to distribute computing.

That could change in the future though, when we get the next breakthrough in processing. It seems to be a pattern that every couple decades communications overtakes processing. From the mid 70s to the turn of the century processing seems to have been cheaper, before that communications was (i.e. dumb terminals and mainframes). Probably for the next decade at least it will be cheaper to do a lot of processing serverside.

110:

I think the OLPC and the school work together. You need to be able to read and write to use the OLPC. And what it allows gives a reason for sending the kids to the school. At the same time, you want more than one OLPC in the community, so it doesn't just give extra power to whoever has control of it.

111:

Dear Charlie Stross,

I just finished your book most recent book, "Glasshouse" and thought it was the best Sci-Fi novel I'd read since Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash".

On that note, I wanted to know if you'd be up for an interview. I write a column for a UK-based website, Mookychick.co.uk that likes to run interviews with interesting, remarkable authors. It'd be a Q&A style piece.

The publication is a web only platform for the hyper-info girl goth Internet scene, but the content isn't exclusively for the female sex by any means. All are welcome. The focus is on current events and the kinds of boundary blurring sub-culture that stodgy, straight-laced dyed-in-wool oldsters find distasteful, weird, or depraved.

As to the gender thing, you deftly illustrated in Glasshouse that the distinction is mostly an arbitrary biological conceit that gets in the way of understanding a self-aware organism as a self-aware organism anyway.

I apologize for the open letter style of this, but I tried sending it through your web contact form and kept getting rejected by the spam/overflow buffer. Tried all sorts of combinations and text modifications to break through.

If your up for the interview despite what sounds like a ball breaking schedule and an explosion in popularity, feel free to contact me at the e-mail below the closing of this message.

Thanks for the excellent read.

Regards,
TN Meeks
Torreynmeeks-at-gmail-dot-com

112:

Speaking of OLPC, it seems they've closed a deal to supply every child in Libya with a laptop. And they're working on deals with Brazil, Thailand, Argentina, and Nigeria.

Okay, that sounds a little bit less stupid: with the exception of Nigeria, those are all countries that are well above the bottom end of the development ladder; big poverty problems, but not totally lacking in the basics.

But I'm still skeptical about the usefulness of the project in general.

113:

Even Nigeria is one of the wealthiest nations in sub-Saharan Africa. Their problem is infrastructure. The also have a tiered society, I doubt these are going to be going out to little rural villages or the slums of Lagos. Most likely to what passes for a middle and upper class.

114:

also have a tiered society

Oh, and who doesn't?

115:

Life was a lot different fifteen years ago. I was eleven. I lived in a backwoods house that was more like an overgrown cabin. We got power from our windmill, so it was DC only - that means no toaster, no blowdryer, and no Commodore 64 unless it was plugged into an inverter. We had a solar water heater my dad made, and a big water tank right behind the wood-burning kitchen stove (which looked a bit like this and this) for backup. Even the lumber my parents used to build the house came from a sawmill my dad made. A year later the phone company planted a cell phone tower at the top of our hill (~2km away), which brought the power lines close enough that Dad could afford to pay them to put in the last few poles we needed. We got AC power, and three years later we got the internet.

How was society subtly different? It's hard to compare. I'm not sure it's a fair comparison, since I was eleven and living in the woods, but now I'm 26 and I live in a town that's practically infested with universities. Maybe the best thing is to compare what partying was like then and now.

Fifteen years ago, a big party meant my parents and all their hippie artist friends converged on one house with lots of food and musical instruments. We'd eat and play and sing late into the night, and it was wonderful.

I haven't been able to party a lot lately because I'm trying to finish my degree, but the last really big party I went to was Eclipse, in the summer of 2005. It looked like this and this. Some of the people who went there looked like this and this - and here's someone that might even look familiar.

As for where we're going, well, I buy your books because you're a lot better at imagining that than I am!

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on September 29, 2006 7:01 PM.

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