[extropy-chat] "My Final Prediction" by Bruce Sterling (Wired 14.12)

pjmanney pj at pj-manney.com
Thu Dec 7 17:26:16 UTC 2006

[Jef, could you please forward this to the WTA and let's see if their site is working yet?  Has anyone gotten anything from their server lately?  Thanks!  PJ]


"My Final Prediction" by Bruce Sterling (Wired, 14.12)

The Internet has a habit of defying expectations. You subscribe to The New York Times and find yourself reading it in a browser window instead. You sign up for Netflix and along comes BitTorrent. You pay for long distance only to discover Skype. What could possibly be next? To gauge the Net's trajectory, the Pew Internet & American Life Project polled 742 experts for its Future of the Internet II study. In some ways, the results reflect standard-issue Net punditry. But between the lines, the poll reveals that the Net is changing in ways that defy and transcend the usual predictions.

I'm not personally acquainted with all of the futurists who submitted opinions, but as a sometime tech commentator myself, I know plenty of them. So I'm well aware that, like a lot of hardworking techies, they tend to be wacky geeks with unfettered imaginations. Throw 'em together in one survey, though, and they bell-curve right out. For instance, Pew daintily inquires: In coming decades, are people going to vanish into the Net, permanently absorbed by addictive VR-style experiences? The reaction stretches predictably from "You must be nuts" to "Of course, it's happening already." And what's the centrist opinion? If an innovation works, some people will thrive on it, while others who are screwed up to begin with will face severe new problems.

I know this is true because I've lived it. I'm a pre-Internet novelist who became moderately famous online, only to have my paperback writing slow down as I began to spend uncontrollable amounts of time surfing and blogging. This experience is both grand and problematic. It reflects not two extremes but the slider-bar that is my everyday life.

And that's what surveys are good at: revealing the spirit of the times rather than delivering keen individual insights. Reading the Pew study, it becomes clear that we're entering a new era, the post-Internet age, a world in which the Net will be everywhere, like the air we breathe, and we'll take it for granted. It will be neither the glossy nirvana of technophilic dreams nor the dystopia of traditionalist nightmares. It will look a lot like today – but with higher contrast, sharper focus, and a wide-angle lens.

The bubble-era vision of a utopian Internet is dented and dirty. The Pew respondents seem to agree that personal privacy is a thing of the past, and they're split nearly 50-50 on whether the costs will outweigh the benefits. Technophobic refuseniks are likely to carry out violent resistance, and they may have good reason: Out-of-control technology is a distinct risk. The Lexus has collided with the olive tree, and its crumpled hulk spins in a ditch as the orchard smolders.

The future of the Internet lies not with institutions but with individuals. Low-cost connections will proliferate, encouraging creativity, collaboration, and telecommuting. The Net itself will recede into the background. If you're under 21, you likely don't care much about any supposed difference between virtual and actual, online and off. That's because the two realms are penetrating each other; Google Earth mingles with Google Maps, and daily life shows up on Flickr. Like the real world, the Net will be increasingly international and decreasingly reliant on English. It will be wrapped in a Chinese kung fu outfit, intoned in an Indian accent, oozing Brazilian sex appeal.

One upshot is that futurism itself has no future. Once confined to an elite group, the tools and techniques of prognostication are all widely available. As for pundits: The world used to be full of workaday journalists, with just a thin sprinkling of opinion mongers. Now a TypePad account is a license to deliver nose-to-the-pavement perspective with an attitude. The very word futurism is old-fashioned, way too 1960s. Today's Internet-savvy futurist is more likely to describe himself as a strategy consultant or venture capital researcher. That development doesn't surprise me. Frankly, I saw it coming.

Another prediction of mine has come true: I've always known that one day I'd write my last column for Wired. You're reading it now. I'll continue to report my peregrinations via my blog at www.wired.com, where I'll continue to focus on harbingers of things to come.

As a futurist, I've often licked my chops over rather grim possibilities. But my lasting fondness for the dark side is a personal taste, not an analysis. I'm frequently surprised, and when I consider the biggest surprises, I'm heartened that they were mostly positive. The Internet, for instance, crawled out of a dank atomic fallout shelter to become the Mardi Gras parade of my generation. It was not a bolt of destructive lightning; it was the sun breaking through the clouds.

Everything we do has unpredicted consequences. It's good to keep in mind that some outcomes are just fabulous, dumb luck. So mark my last little act of prediction in this space: I don't have a poll or a single shred of evidence to back it up, but I believe more good things are in store, and some are bound to come from the tangled, ubiquitous, personal, and possibly unpredictable Net.

Email bruces at well.com.

- Bruce Sterling

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