January 28, 1996 in Features

A Brave New Cyber World? Group Sees Huge Computer-Generated Cultural Changes In The Next 30 Years

Lini S. Kadaba Philadelphia Inquirer
 

Thirty years from now, chips will be implanted in our bodies, encoded with credit card, passport, driver’s license, and other personal information. We’d no longer have to worry about leaving home without it.

English will become ubiquitous, squashing thousands of languages and cultures along the way.

Children will play electronic games on computers mounted cribside, learning to read, perhaps, before age 3.

Cash - real dollars and cents - will be shunned at businesses in favor of electronic transactions.

Virtual courtroom trials will allow judge, jury and lawyers to try a case from separate locations, making sequestration a thing of the past.

Such are the ways the cyberrevolution will change our lives in the next 30 years, according to a new report by the World Future Society, an international association of academics, consultants, entrepreneurs and others who track developments that could affect the future.

Edward Cornish, president of the society, headquartered in Bethesda, Md., has compiled a list of 92 ways that information technology - what he calls “infotech” - will alter our lives by the year 2025. (The number “92” is not loaded with significance. It’s simply the point, Cornish says, at which he ran out of ideas.) In his report, “The Cyber Future,” Cornish postulates about global universities linked by video and computer networks, smart houses that will water our houseplants and videotape our visitors, and cars that will drive themselves.

Skyscrapers may be abandoned as businesses move to low-rise campuses in the suburbs and more people work from offices in their homes - and in their cars.

Thanks to the globalized media, the famous will become ever more so, adulated by an increasing number of the masses - creating what Cornish calls “a world of gods and clods.”

Relationships will be increasingly unstable.

And someone will manufacture attractive, lifelike robots able to function as lovers.

Not everyone agrees with Cornish’s predictions.

Clifford Stoll, skeptic of all things cyber and author of “Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway,” insists, “Darn little will change because of technology.”

And Rudy Oswald, director of economic research for the AFL-CIO, said in a faxed statement, “The promise of better technology and rising productivity didn’t come true in 1996. Is there more reason to think it will come true in 2025?”

But Cornish says that infotech - technologies, such as the Internet, that allow us to manipulate information - is going to change so much so fast that adults will have to constantly re-educate themselves as their skills rapidly become obsolete.

“This is a new techno-economic revolution. … The impact is very clearly going to be enormous,” Cornish said.

“On the one hand, we have an enormous opportunity to do things better than ever before. But on the other hand, a lot of problems will arise,” he said in an interview.

One problem that Cornish mentions in his report is “a growing division between the cybersavvy and the cyberklutzes - the nerds versus the clueless.”

Other problems include permanent mass unemployment as a fact of life.

“When we can do a job in half the time or with half the people required in the past, we suddenly have a problem of what to do with … those workers whose services are no longer needed,” he said.

Eventually, Cornish predicts, the unemployed will move into such growing fields as security (both home and network) and environmental protection.

In Cornish’s future, robots could perform most necessary services under the guidance of computer networks.

A leisure class could emerge, of people who “might live like wealthy aristocrats, pleasuring themselves with fine foods, wine, art, sports and entertainment, while letting robots perform the tasks that past generations assigned to slaves and servants,” Cornish writes in “The Cyber Future.”

The AFL-CIO’s Oswald doesn’t buy it.

“Will there be more time to pursue leisure as automated systems churn out goods and services? That’s not the trend today. The trend today is for a minority of the population to have enormous wealth, with the rest working long hours to make ends meet - and more family members working just to make it,” he said.

Cornish predicts that over the next quarter of a century countless people will come to depend on the Internet to establish personal relationships.

“The problem comes,” he said, “in the fact that once you develop contacts with very distant people, you don’t have so much time for ordinary socializing that builds community.”

Anthropologist Gary McDonogh, chairman of the urban studies program at Bryn Mawr College, points out that this threat of technology-induced alienation is nothing new.

When movies became the rage, said McDonogh, critics worried about a nation choosing to relate to big-screen idols rather than one another. Ditto for television. Now, it’s the virtual world.

“We know already that people belong to multiple communities at the same time,” said McDonogh, likening the virtual community to high-tech pen pals. “I think what we need to pay attention to is the way people enjoy interacting with other people.”

We will, McDonogh said, always want contact with real people from our neighborhoods and our workplaces.

Cornish is not so confident.

Infotech, he said, makes solitary entertainment ever more possible and could lead to a society of electronic Bubble Boys and Girls, isolated from the world.

“If electronic entertainment continues to gain, we may become a non-society - a poorly integrated mass of electronic hermits, unable to work well together because we no longer play together,” Cornish writes.

Many people may largely abandon the real world for electronic fantasies, full of cybersex or electronic gambling.

The result of technology used for entertainment may be a growing chasm between haves and have-nots - not over who has access to computers and who doesn’t, but over how each group chooses to use this technology.

“Cost is falling very rapidly,” said Cornish, envisioning a day when businesses might give away computers much like they give away toasters.

“That’s not the problem. The problem is that they (the have-nots) won’t be training themselves. They’ll be using the computer for entertainment, not education.”

On this last point, cyberskeptic Stoll agrees:

“Instead of couch potatoes, we’ll become mouse potatoes, sitting at a computer screen clicking away at icons.”

But on just about everything else Cornish predicts, Stoll disagrees - loudly.

The information highway, said Stoll, is overhyped.

“When most people hear about it, they have this wide-eyed naivete which borders on the gullible,” he said. “I feel it’s important for us in the technology profession to be skeptical of the bright, wonderful claim for the future.”

The leisure class?

“Hah! I’ve heard promises of leisure class ever since the ‘40s,” when gadgets such as washing machines and automobiles looked like sure time-savers, he said. “Do people have more spare time today? How bogus.”

Cashless society? No way, said Stoll.

“I want money to go to the coffee shop to pay for a cup of coffee. I want money to pay my child an allowance. I want money in my pocket, real money - not credit-card money.”

Toddlers who read?

“Children will read more slowly because of computers,” said Stoll, comparing computers to TV, which, he noted, hasn’t revolutionized education as once expected.

Virtual courtrooms? He called that notion “inadequate justice. You are neither facing one’s accusers nor do you have a sense of the atmosphere, of solemnity.”

Virtual communities? “The virtual community is a non-community,” he said.

About all that Stoll would concede is that in the future a lot of people will spend a lot of time staring at computer screens. In his opinion, for naught.

“I feel the year 2025 won’t be much different from the way it is today,” Stoll said, “just the way 1965 isn’t much different from today.”


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