Your computer is doomed


Ten years from now, surfing the web won’t require a computer. So says futurist Jamais Cascio, a researcher with Silicon Valley’s forecasting think tank Institute for the Future. He’s been following the development of the web for years, serving as a consultant to web industry groups such as Mozilla, makers of the popular Firefox browser, about directions they might want to take their research over the next decade. He believes the web itself might not change much, but the way we get information from it will.

The web, Cascio told me recently, will come to us on all kinds of devices. Already people can stream movies from the web to a mobile, or grab a radio show from the BBC website to listen to on an iPod. But in a few years, all these devices will be far more specialized. You might have a special pocket-size electronic map that’s just for grabbing maps off the web and displaying them in a simple format. At the same time, every device you own will become computer-network-ready. Instead of having a 50-inch plasma-screen TV and a computer monitor, you’ll just have a big flatscreen monitor that you can use to tune into Torchwood or read your favorite blogs. Why have two monitors when TV and the web are both streamed over the internet, anyway?

Cascio thinks that in the next couple of decades, web devices will become aware of human presence, turning on and off as people move from place to place. “It wouldn’t be difficult to have your movie stop on your cell phone when you came home, and then get picked up on your big TV,” he suggests.

I love this idea because it’s a corrective to the lazy futurist notion that computers will just keep evolving into bigger and better devices with more or less blinky lights depending on who is telling the story. Think of all the sci-fi you’ve seen where everybody basically has a Macintosh 50 years from now, but the screen is transparent and dangles in the air. Or the keyboard is made of light instead of plastic. Few people are willing to challenge the regime of the PC and boldly state this important technology will merge with others and basically cease to exist.

But if you look at the history of communications tech, Cascio’s vision makes more sense than a tomorrowland filled with stationary computers operated by that old-fashioned typing thing. After all, a more evolved society will at least have gotten rid of typing, since it’s crippled so many people with repetitive stress injuries.

In the future, people will expect ubiquitous internet access. We will be comfortable with the idea that we live in a haze of information, and we’d be shocked at the idea that we should need one particular kind of tech to get at it. Already the profusion of internet-enabled mobiles attests to this shift in perception. But I’m talking about a shift that goes deeper: One that comes at a moment when everyone, not just the kids and the techies, is completely at ease with the idea that their bodies will always be connected in some way to a data network.

Yeah, in some sense I’m talking about the death of privacy as we have known it. But I’m also talking about breaking down the information juggernaut into little pieces that are easier to control. Maybe your movie will follow you from room to room, but you’ll also have more control over the devices that make that happen. Shutting off the network’s access to you may become as simple as shutting your eyes.

Or maybe it won’t. Maybe your individuality will be stripped away with your privacy, and you’ll have no room to screw up or be subversive because everything you do will be uploaded immediately to Facebook.

My personal theory is that as the internet becomes a part of our bodies, we’ll gain a new kind of privacy. Call it temporal privacy. There will be so much information swarming around us that nobody will ever be the center of attention for very long. So you may be infamous as a dork today, but in five minutes the next dork will drift across everyone’s retina screens and they’ll forget about your Star Wars dance while they’re laughing at some kid’s Segway accident.

In the future, your infamy will not be remembered. Is that comforting? I’m not entirely sure.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who did something really bad about 20 minutes ago, but you’ve already forgotten about it.

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