Naive Predictions 1
Some naive predictions of the future, given on 2000 October 21st.
In the fall of 1984, just about 16 years ago, I went to my high school during a leave term from college (Dartmouth, which has an odd year-round quarterly schedule) and worked as a volunteer doing computer programming primarily for the administrative department.
I got to talking with my music teacher one day about computers and the near future. I told him that within about 20 years, the speed and storage capacity of computers will increase to the point where it will become practical for everyone to make digital copies of all their recorded music, and distribute it essentially free of charge from one person to another. The music will sound just as good as the digital optical disks that are coming out soon (I was referring to audio CD's, which we didn't have yet). People will no longer have to use the radio or the music stores to get their music and there isn't anything that the music industry will be able to do about it.
He didn't believe me. He found it difficult to conceive such a massive change to something that comprised such a large part of his life. Nevertheless, he couldn't provide any reasons why it wouldn't happen, provided that my technical (megabytes and megahertz) predictions were true. I was only wrong in one respect I overestimated the time by about 4-5 years, because I didn't anticipate that data compression would play a role. The 10:1 compression capability of MP3 caused the prediction to come true some years sooner than I expected.
A few weeks ago I looked back at this and decided it was about time to predict again. What's going to happen next? I don't know for sure (who does?) but I feel about as certain as I did back in 1984, and my hunch is that it will look something like this:
- Computers have already begun to replace print media for content distribution, in the sense that a lot of people who used to get news and other current information from newspapers and/or magazines are now getting it from the Internet instead. The future trend here will be for information (such as the important facts in a newspaper article) to get distributed through decentralized, peer-to-peer type methods, similar to bulletin boards, mailing lists, chat rooms, news discussion systems like Slashdot, and so on. The reason that matters is because the peer-to-peer methods will not support advertising, both for efficiency reasons and because the users don't want to see a lot of advertising. Compare a major media web site (nytimes.com, cnn.com, etc.) to something like Slashdot in text-only mode one is encrusted with slow graphics, the other makes finding information quick and easy. This change is proceeding slowly because people want to get their news from sources they can trust. Also, the good sources (the ones without ads) are more difficult to use, and are adopted by younger (more computer-skilled) users. As people age, the skills will move up the population curve and the simple, slow news sources will become less popular.
- The distribution of music will continue to become less and less decentralized, and less and less predictable. Even peer-to-peer distribution systems like Gnutella and Freenet will be unpredictable, because it will be difficult to know whether you're going to be able to find what you're looking for. In other words, there will never be a good way for everyone to search everyone else's computers for files. Similarly, there will no longer be a good way for anyone to "broadcast" something to everyone at once.
- Record stores will not go out of business, but will diminish greatly in number. Physical objects like record albums still have a lot of appeal, and a lot of people will want to do it that way for a reason. Some people will like it because they relate to physical objects better than to digital objects, others because they need recordings in a format that works with old equipment (either for practical reasons or just for nostalgia). The end result will be that the physical music record industry (currently called "record industry") will cater only to those who really want it. Since everyone will have a choice, anyone who resents the high prices will simply go away, and the record industry will find that their customers are now a lot more friendly as a group than they were back when the record industry had their monopoly.
- One form of peer-to-peer networking that will evolve out of the Freenet idea is a nontraceable distributed cache system for HTTP data. If a web page link is dead, you'll be able to find it on a Freenet-like system. Information that is deliberately removed (e.g. some newspapers that only make the current day's articles available for free) will be available through the cache. As with Freenet, you1 won't be able to find out where the data is being cached and you won't be able to remove it.
- As computers become more capable, they will continue to replace other types of content distribution. The next to go will be the radio. Right now, you can listen to the radio on the Internet but only if you want to stay near a computer with a fairly high-speed Internet link. Also, if everyone who normally listens to the radio at work and at home started using Internet radio instead, the Internet wouldn't be able to handle the load and listening in your car or while walking outdoors is completely out of the question. That will change soon. Wireless internet connection services (currently available only through digital cellular phones) will become cheaper and will have higher bandwidth. Of particular importance to the radio medium will be portable computers (currently called "PDA's") that combine a more capable operating system and Internet ability with good sound output, linked through a wireless connection to a base station (your PC) with a cheap Internet connection. Such PDA's will then be useable as radios.
- The advertising industry will take notice of the situation with the declining radio market, but won't know what to do about it. Individual web-radio-casters will be offered money to carry advertising, and many will do it but the listeners will simply avoid the stations with advertising. It will be easy for millions of people to run their own radio stations because peer-to-peer relaying (forwarding the audio stream to another listener) will make it cheap and easy to broadcast to a lot of listeners without setting up a large server. Although some really dedicated advertising industry executives might consider trying to uphold the status quo through legal action or political lobbying, very little will actually happen because there isn't a viable course of action. The best they will be able to do is to outlaw certain types of content (sex or violence type stuff) within limited jurisdictions.
- The broadcast television medium will be next. At this point the advertising industry will be really clear what's going on, and will make a concerted effort to undermine the entire infrastructure of the Internet in order to prevent the decentralization of video entertainment and advertising. They will probably be successful in causing massive changes that diminish the Internet's stability and efficiency. These actions will be carried out by the big media companies, which own TV networks, big Internet service providers (ISPs) and large parts of the computer and digital communications industries as well. Nevertheless, other (uncontrolled) companies within the data-related industries will adapt and create alternatives to every system or protocol that gets disabled by the big guys. The result will be a much more diverse and fault-tolerant Internet, which will also be able to handle a much higher total aggregate load inasmuch as it will be evolving to support distributed TV net-casting.
- Around the same time, video "content" (TV shows, sports events and movies, etc.) will become freely distributed in the same way that music did. The same legal battles will be waged, with similar results. The battles will be the worst when the TV shows in question are actually sold rather than broadcast for free (American "pro wrestling" is a good example) and in cases where exhibition rights are already supported by special laws (local sports events). These will also be precisely the types of shows that will experience the greatest amount of uncontrolled digital copying.
- Despite all these changes, traditional distribution media and formats will continue to be used, and will never entirely die away. This will be similar to the "smaller but more friendly niche market" phenomenon that will have already been experienced by the record industry. All traditional media will lose their status as "standards", i.e. things that almost everybody has in their life.
- Deprogramming and political change will follow. The mass popular opinion, particularly on political and legal issues, is upheld by many-to-one communications forums such as the traditional mass media. There are many beliefs that are considered to be majority opinion, but which most individual people disagreed with before encountering the mass-message for the first time. The mass-message is perpetuated by everyone who has already been convinced by it. These mass-message beliefs contradict, or attempt to limit, virtually everything you believed when you were a child and before some older person told you otherwise. There are also lots of beliefs that you were "taught" before you became old enough to form an opinion on your own. The suppressed beliefs include almost everything that is preached against by people in the mass media (including religious leaders, government agencies, big companies). Surprisingly, most of the preached beliefs are upheld only by the preaching. They can also be said to be "wrong" inasmuch as must people originally believed the opposite before their elders intervened. It works the other way too: most of the "preached" beliefs contradict your original beliefs. If it didn't contradict an original belief, it wouldn't need to be preached. As the mass media becomes replaced by the chaotic peer media, the original suppressed beliefs will once again dominate what is actually expressed by people talking to one another. This is what I refer to as "deprogramming", because the mass-media beliefs are a weak form of brainwashing. After people return to their own beliefs, politicians and laws will follow. This part will not be easy to live through.
The ideas stated above are largely my own. Many cannot be found in books. However, the following books give many good predictions that follow the theme of what I have written here.
James Gleick, "Faster", 1999 (Pantheon) (how history, and daily life, keep getting faster)
William Mitchell, "e-topia", 1999 (MIT Press) (effects on daily life and society)
Bart Kosko, "The Fuzzy Future", 1999 (Harmony) (various trends involving the replacement of absolute black-or-white decisions with complex compromises)
Douglas Robertson, "The New Renaissance", 1998 (Oxford) (how computers are causing a revolution in the arts and sciences)
Levine, Locke, Searls and Weinberger, "The Cluetrain Manifesto", 2000 (Perseus) (how the changes in communication and readily available information are forcing companies to change how they do business)
Ray Kurzweil, "The Age of Spiritual Machines", 1999 (Viking) (society, technology, and artificial intelligence)
Hans Moravec, "Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind", 1999 (Oxford) (artificial intelligence)
1 : you : In 2010, I was asked who or what was meant by the pronoun "you". I believe I was speculating about any agent from a single individual person up to those with resources typically employed by a large corporation (including money, legal help, etc.). I did not know much about Freenet or any of its design details (and still do not today) but when I learned about Freenet I got the impression that their designers had intended it to successfully maintain availability of information even when that information is being actively suppressed by a group such as the Church of Scientology.
Note that the above predictions were made in October 2000, about a year before the events of 2001 Sep. 11th, and shortly after those events, attitudes towards the right to freely communicate information have changed. For example, suppressing information about hijacking and bombing techniques now garners far more support than suppressing the scriptures of the Church of Scientology.