- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Everybody and the family dog has noticed that the Internet is speeding along and changing all sorts of things at a high rate.

But here’s a larger question:

If the Internet has come so far in a short time, what is it going to be like in 50 years? It’s easy to say, “Oh wow, I can download music or read newspapers in Johannesburg.” But the technology is only beginning to affect our curious species. Where is it going in the longer term?

I can answer the question in two words: “Beats me.” I know, however, that it is probably the most epochal thing that has happened to the race. By comparison the invention of the airplane is like the toy in a box of Crackerjacks. I don’t know where we’re going. But it’s going to be a doozy of a trip.

(In this sense “the Internet” means not just the Net itself but the burgeoning population of electronic equipment and services that it connects.)

Three observations:

• With the various physical means of transmitting information available today — optical fiber and satellites, for example — the potential capacity is infinite. Anywhere can be connected, relatively cheaply, to anywhere, with any desired bandwidth. Today you find cyber-cafes in provincial towns in Cambodia. (Siem Reap, for example, where I recently was.) We haven’t yet put infinite-capacity broadband into the backwaters of the world. But it will come.

• Storage capacity is for practical purposes infinite. Today hard drives on commodity computers go up in size ceaselessly and rapidly. Storage technologies improve fast. Storage is cheap. Even today if you added up the capacity of all the drives and CDs in the world it would be one of those numbers too big to mean anything. Thirty-five years ago there almost wasn’t any.

• Computing power is now for practical purposes infinite. A Palm Pilot has more power than entire computers that people in their fifties remember. Chips are cheap and getting better. They can certainly be made in limitless numbers.

We have just begun to put into full use what we have. And more is coming.

Even with the technology we have astonishing things, not necessarily desirable, that are going to be done. One that seems inevitable is the almost complete elimination of privacy. Another is going to be a degree of linking everything with everything. Do you not assume that almost anything you want to know is just a Google away?

What does it mean that you can take pictures with a hand-held computer and e-mail them to Japan? That people anywhere on the globe can telecommute?

This is beginning, with profound economic effects. Will nation-states continue to exist when electronic connectedness is as great with the other side of the world as with the neighbor next door?

Because of various technologies covered before in this column, knowing where everybody is, and keeping them instantly available for communication, will be easy. Will it lead to totalitarianism?

Cars will use satellites for communication and navigation, making them trackable. International calling by cell phone is not much harder than calling next door. It’s just that governments haven’t allowed it or made the investment.

What will be the effects on politics, on wars, of a world in which combatants and populations are intimately connected?

I don’t know. But the world will be unlike the one most of us were born into. Not even close.


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