The Future of the Web Is as Much About Psychology as Technology
The technology of 2050 will be at least partly defined by our own evolution.
Image: Flickr/Nick Webb
Even the most forward-thinking futurist would find it near-impossible to imagine with any great confidence what the World Wide Web will look like in 2050. Thirty-five years into the future seems like an unfathomably long view when technology is advancing at various exponential rates. Only 25 years ago, the web didn't exist at all.
That's the task a group of delegates from various tech companies (plus a token futurist in the form of Book of the Future's Tom Cheesewright) set themselves to at a roundtable discussion in London this morning. The event was a precursor to the IP Expo Europe next month, at which web creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee will share some of his own thoughts on the matter.
Dan Simmons from BBC Click, who chaired the discussion, attempted to set the scene for a potential vision of technology in 2050. "Imagine not having a pass to get into a building, or a phone, or a watch, but feel your way into that building." he said. Needless to say I found that hard to envisage. As I said: near-impossible.
But when we consider where we want the web to go in the next few decades, perhaps it's less about the technology itself, and more about how we relate to it; and that doesn't seem to change quite as quickly. Essentially, the future of the web is as much about psychology as technology. After all, the web has always been about communication—a fundamentally human activity, however it's conducted.
Human beings are not very good at open-endedness; we like to compartmentalise things into small chunks.
Cheesewright brushed aside advances like Moore's Law in favour of something less quantifiable: our relationship to our devices. "For me, the biggest shift is in how human technology has become," he said. "Today I'm kind of functionally bionic; I've outsourced my sense of direction to my phone and the cloud."
Marcus Jewell from US tech company Brocade admitted he had a background in psychology. He envisioned a future web that is no longer a single sprawling mass, but rather a segmented space. "Human beings are not very good at open-endedness; we like to compartmentalise things into small chunks," Jewell said.
He painted a picture of a web environment split into digital social classes that self-segregated around their shared interests, where getting from one community to another would require a conscious effort comparable to taking a flight to another geographical community. For him, the dark net—a part of the web that for all intents and purposes is "separate" from the rest—represents the first real segmentation of the internet.
Dark net aside, Raj Samani, CTO for McAfee and a cybercrime adviser to Europol, noted that crime in general is shifting from the physical to the cyber. Hacker activity is one thing, but, he said, "More of a challenge to me is the willingness of the consumer to hand over their data for next to nothing."
That was all very well, suggested David Chalmers, Chief Technologist for HP's enterprise group, but was the genie out of the bottle as far as oversharing personal data is concerned?
WE ARE LESS MATURE THAN THE TECHNOLOGY NOW.
Like it or not, trading data for services is already the status quo for many web companies, and as users it seems we've already lost control: A recent study found that most apps fail to tell users exactly what information they're collecting.
In any case, we're easily convinced to part with our digital particulars, and probably don't realise the extent of the data our favourite web and app services gather. Perhaps Brian Gammage of software company VMWare hit it on the head when he suggested that, "We are less mature than the technology now."
Of course, that's already a problem here in 2014. I asked the panel if the same issues would even be relevant in 2050; after all, we're talking about a time when many of the services we currently use probably won't exist; a time five years after Ray Kurzweil reckons the singularity will occur.
In terms of what the web will actually look like, Cheesewright was pretty confident that the "post-screen age" will start long before then (though Chalmers jumped in to add that HP devices won't be losing screens in the short-term) and several of the panelists suggested haptics, biometrics, and machine-to-machine technologies are probably in the cards, and all probably much before 2050.
But Cheesewright pointed out that, fundamentally, we haven't changed that much. So while the technology might be pretty unfathomable, how we relate to it is perhaps more in our sights and the technological landscape of 2050 will be shaped partly by our own evolution.
And at the moment, our decisions around the web seem pretty slow. From the controversial "right to be forgotten" policy in Europe to the net neutrality debate in the US, we're still pretty flummoxed by how we want to use the web-enabled tech we've got today, quite apart from that we might have in a couple generations' time.
Looking to what we want in the future is perhaps more about trying to deal with what we don't want in the present. The only risk with that is we might be in too deep already.