Ten Futures

by Stephen Downes

Drawing on Richard MacManus’s 10 Future Web Trends
This is a bit linear, but has the virtue of identifying future trends, not things that are around today.

1. The Pragmatic Web
Forget about the Semantic Web. Whether or not it ever gets built, you can be sure that we will be complaining about it. Because while the Semantic Web gives us meaning, it doesn’t give us context. It will give us what we can get from an encyclopedia, but not what we can get from phoning up our best buddy.
The pragmatic web, by contrast, is all about context. Your tools know who you are, what you’re doing, who you’ve been talking to, what you know, where you want to go, where you are now, and what the weather is like outside. You don’t query them; they carry on an ongoing conversation with you. The pragmatic web is chock-full of information, but none of it is off-topic and none of it is beyond your understanding (and if you need to know more, it will teach you). The pragmatic web isn’t just a web you access, read to and write to, it’s a web that you use every day.

2. Global Intelligence
While from time to time our computers are going to appear pretty smart, some of them even smarter than we are, they will be dwarfed by the emerging global intelligence or world mind. This won’t merely be the invisible ’hand‘ of the marketplace, this will be the whole body. And it won’t be based on the mere one-dimensional system of valuations of things in terms of capital, it will be composed of multi-dimensional interactions of wide varieties of media, including all of what we call ’media‘ along with money, votes, population movements (aka traffic), utilities (power,water, gas, oil) and resources (minerals, food) and more.
The global mind will to a large degree be inscrutable. We won’t know what it is trying to do, what it wants, what it thinks are ’good‘ and ’bad‘, or whether it is even sane and balanced. That won’t stop a slew of populists from claiming to ’know‘ where the global mind is headed (a la evangelists or Marxists) – though of course, except at a very macro level, the destiny of an individual is independent of the destiny of the global mind. The global mind is the sort of thing that raises questions about the meaning of live, the value of ethics, and the nature of knowledge. Our answers to these questions over the next few decades – even as global climate change and wars and natural disasters ravage our populations – will shape the course of society through the next centuries.

3. Extended Reality
We think of ’reality‘ as being constituted of the physical world and then of ’virtual reality‘ as being the digital world, or as we sometimes say, ’virtual worlds‘. The two worlds are very different in that, well, one world is real and the other is not.
’Extended reality‘ is a digital version of the real world such that the digital version is as real as the real version. What that means, pragmatically speaking, is that if it hurts in the extended world, it hurts. We will have full sensory coupling with the virtual world, making the virtual world every bit as ‘real’ to us as the real world.
This reality will not just be a simulation of ’reality‘. Rather, what will emerge as the combination of the two is a kind of ’hyper-reality‘, where objects exist both in the physical world and the digital world (think Spinoza rather than Descartes). The physical world and the virtual world will act as one; eat in the ’virtual‘ world and your body (such as it is) in the ’real‘ world will be nourished.
How could this ever happen? Well, take something like, say, ’money‘. Is it real, or is it virtual? If you spend money, do you give the other person something real or something virtual? Money is a perfect example of something that can exist in both realms. That’s what makes it such a powerful force in today’s society! But if money – which, when you think about it, was tangible, solid gold and therefore the last thing you would think couple become virtual – then what else? Food, say?
We will live in an age of biochemical manipulation. Yesterday, we could create synthetic virtual worlds biochemically with drugs – ’take a trip and never leave the farm‘. With sufficient computational power, we can create the worlds directly through interaction with computer systems. But we can also – by manipulation of matter electronically – create the ’fuel‘ that makes continued presence of the body possible. Doing something in the ’virtual world‘ has real-time direct biochemical consequences, some of which are constitutes of energy inputs, which are converted to ’food‘ – or at least, the biochemical consequences of food.

4. Mobility
We will again in the future become a species of nomads, moving in tribes and herds through society, grazing on energy and information inputs as they become available.
This will happen as a result of a convergence of two factors. First, we will no longer be in want. At a certain point in time, sooner than we thing, the technologies we have put in place to ensure the continued uneven distribution of resources (which we then use to extort labour out of deprived populations) will become moot. It will not be possible to maintain wealth technologically; there will be no ’means of production‘ unique to a certain privileged class of people. Hence, we will not need to hoard food and other possessions; we can simply take what we need from the ambient environment.
Secondly, we will by then be in the habit of needing much less. Consumer goods – ubiquitous today – will become expensive and impractical in the future. Owing a library of books, for example, will be a ”wealthy man’s folly“ – a lot like keeping a Spanish Galleon in the back yard to support your own personal trade link to China. We will have few possessions, and those mostly as keepsakes or mementos. ’Rooted‘ people will be thought of in the future the way we think of ’nomadic‘ people today – unable, for some social-cultural reason to mesh with the rest of society.

5. The Human Grid
Human minds will continue to be efficient and effective processing systems, able to assimilate megabytes of information in seconds, intuitively recognize patterns, make decisions, and communicate ideas. Consequently, human contributions to the ’economy‘ (the system of production of material goods for the sustainment of life) will consist primary of providing mental ’inputs‘ to the production engines that actually do the work (much the way we ’drive‘ tractors today, but at a much more complex level).
Consequently, organizations will be able to derive value by enabling human minds to cooperate in the coordination or operation of elements of production. By contributing our thoughts and opinions on everything from celebrities to the weather to tomorrow’s sports scores, computational systems will be able to derive the algorithms that will process iron ore, grow grain crops, and harvest energy from the wind and the sun. It will be understood by these programmers that pop culture is a metaphor for the instruments of production, and that therefore human cognitive capacity can be mined directly by tracking thoughts and opinions about popular phenomena.
The collection of these thoughts and opinions from a network of people, all interacting with each other in an environment that includes entertainment, sports and other pastimes that engage the mind will be called the ’human grid‘.

6. Smart Objects
This is discussed in Bruce Sterling’s Distraction a bit, where he describes a hotel that instructs its owners on how it should be built. Objects – even everyday objects – will have a built in capacity for at least a primitive level of intelligence.
More importantly, these objects will be connected with other objects. We don’t expect a lot of intelligence from strawberry jam, for example, but we expect it to at least know about what types of bread and peanut butter there are in the house (your current mobile dwelling), to be able to monitor its compliance with your physical systems, to be able to suggest itself as a solution to current needs, to be able to offer relevant instruction, or to at least provide some input to the overall ambient room’s conversation with you.
Your use of a product – whether it be strawberry jam, a fishing rod, or an auto-gyro, will have an impact on a whole net work of other human and non-human systems. Taking the vehicle out for a spin, for example, will prompt a host of services to prepare themselves for your eventual arrival (and, indeed, you might not be going back). When you land – wherever that happens to be – your personal needs will already be in place (including any artifacts that you may have left behind). Consume a bit of strawberry jam and the global production system will conspire to manufacture that much more (assuming, of course, that it believes you will live to consume it and will have the inclination to do so).

7. Holoselves
No person can be in two places at once, of course, but one’s avatar can travel one place while you travel to another, so when it comes time for that meeting in Colorado, you just shift your sensory input matrix to the holoself sitting down at the desk in Denver. Time for a lunch-time walk, so you transfer to the next holoself, which has been waiting patiently (like a book on the shelf) for you to pick it up in the Amazon eco-reserve. In the evening (after a holoself meeting in Zurich) you settle in with your ’real‘ self in Cairo for a nice evening meal and a show at the Pyramids.
Holoselves are, for all intents and purposes, artificial humans – you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference, and when they’re legally occupied by a human, have all the rights and responsibilities of a human. People will naturally prefer to own their own dedicated holoselves, but it will be possible to share holoselves (the physical structure adapts to suit the host intelligence). Actual cognition (sensation, reflection, and the like) takes place partially in the ’real‘ brain, partially in the ’holo‘ brain (after a certain point the distinction between ’real‘ and ’holo‘ brains becomes more philosophical than practical – asking ”Am I the same person in Cairo as I am in Denver“ is pretty much the same as asking ”Am I the same person tomorrow as I am today?“
The neat thing about holoselves is that they need not be human; the need just enough resident intelligence to input and process (coherently) perceptions and to communicate with other (holo and non-holo) instances of the controlling intelligences. This will lead to numerous holo-fads, like holo-birds, holo-fish, and more.

8. Living Art
When sentential utterances (words and sentences) are abandoned as a means of communication, it will become more natural to convey thoughts and information in multi-modal multi-sensory artifacts. We are beginning to see these even today with things like lolcats and YouTube videos. As our powers of expression (and the tools that helps us) become more sophisticated, we will create complex multi-faced forms of expression, the most advanced of which will (almost?) qualify as ’life‘ and will most certainly quality as ’art‘.
Consider, just to gain an idea of this, how one wizard might express a thought to another in Harry Potter. Certainly the wizard would not write a note. Rather, the wizard would conjure an object of some sort – like a message owl, say. But the artifact will not ’carry‘ the message; the artifact will embody the message. On receipt of the of the ’message owl‘ the person would not merely read or be told, but rather, would interact with the owl – have a conversation with it – such that the subtleties and nuances of the message are expressed in a way that the recipient can understand them.
We think of communications today as means of carrying ’information‘. This function will not cease in the future – we’ll still need to say ”My name is Johnny“ or ”I have an apple“ to people in the future. But we’ll say it in such a way that everything the recipient could want to know – the type of apple, the genetic history of the apple, the provenance of this particular apple, my preferences and opinions, stated and implied about apples, the current market value of apples – will also be contained in the message, not necessary (and not typically) in sentences, but through a range of conventional multimedia iconology (kind of like giving somebody a white rose to say ”let’s be friends“ and a red rose to say ”let’s be more“).
We will, of course, also have ’living graffiti‘ – buts of badly created living art that clutter city streets and cling to walls – they’ll have to be flushed with high-powered steam hoses into the organic recycling facility. And we’ll still have spam – but at least when the message is delivered, you’ll be able to eat it.

9. Global (Non-)Government
This is kind of an obvious one, but it should be clear that we will not have ’nations‘ in any geography-based sense of the term in the future.
This will become necessary due to the clamour of refugees trying to get to the highly developed regions of central Asia and Africa from their economically backward homes in North America and Europe. Many of these will be brought over by formally American and European corporations, which will relocate to the centre of their major markets in India, the Congo and China.
In any case, the concept of government will have been radically redefined by that time in any case. Government will be no longer of geographical region but rather of sectors. We see a good example of this in its infancy in standards development. Standards are not managed by national governments; they are rather managed by councils with (interested) representatives from around the world.
More and more, sector councils will govern affairs. Fisheries, for example, having recovered from the panic of the early 2000s, will have been removed forever from national control. Energy production on the global grid will have followed. Many other industries – aviation, telecommunication, food production, finance – are already being governed in this way.
The big change will happen during the mass-democratization events that (I expect) will take place in the middle of the 21st century. The sector councils will be badly managed by the corporate oligarchy that created them – they will act against the best interests of people (though it will take a disaster greater than Bhopal to demonstrate that to people) and will serve to preserve the privilege and wealth of a few. This, combined with the world wide ’free movement‘ – arguing that people, as well as capital and trade goods, should be able to move freely – will cause a crisis and an economic collapse. Governments will move militarily against corporations, which will agree to a power-sharing structure.
For the most part, after that, government will disappear from the lives of people. There won’t be elections or anything like that; rather, people will participate directly in the management of sectors in which they are involved. Because people will have (what we today call) guaranteed incomes (but which amounts to free necessities of life) it will not be possible to coerce people in managerial hierarchies, and so corporate governance will be by networked decisions – each person will create creatively and ’pseudo-entities‘ composed of temporary collections of simultaneous inputs will achieve corporate outputs. That’s how the first mission to Mars will be managed.

10. Cyborgs
This is a pretty easy one. The only thing preventing us from merging humans and machines today is that we cannot yet build machines at the scale and complexity required for human-machine interaction. Human inputs operate at the microscopic level, and require complex interactions. Even something so clumsy as replacing an organ requires that we grow – rather than make (though there are some few exceptions, like the artificial heart) – the organ, and then deal with interactions we couldn’t design for with anti-rejection drugs.
But it should be evident that with biocomputing and nanotechnology we will be able to build, say, neural nets that can be installed alongside our existing cerebellum and can take over functionality as the original equipment wears out.
Most likely, the initial successes of cyborg technology will be in artificial perception. Replacing eyes, ears and other sense organs will succeed because base mechanical devices will be able to interface (much like a computer peripherals) with sensory input layers. Parts of these will also be created; we already have an artificial hippocampus.

There will, of course, be a large-scale industry in the psychology of cyborgs. Can a person be a ship and not become insane? How do we keep such a person occupied? Several of the technologies outlined above – like holoselves, for example, will be crucial. Metaphor will become reality – and it will become a major ethical issue – and a human right – to know one’s actual situation.


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Paul Stadler
Aug 26, 2008 19:16

The human grid is live! It’s at intelligence-tools.com.

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Aug 26, 2008 20:09

ave – This is a bit linear, but has the virtue of identifying future trends, not things that are around today.

Aug 26, 2008 22:27

I really enjoyed the article, but if you do not proof read your own work, many people that need to understand these concepts are not going to receive your message. Great article! Please, please watch the typos. Keep up the great work

Aug 27, 2008 4:11

The future described here sounds like a technologically advanced version of the one that Marx proposed in the late 1800s. Communism did not work then and will not work in the future because of a simple reality: PEOPLE FUNDAMENTALLY ARE MOTIVATED BY SELF INTEREST. There will never be enough of anything so that everyone can get all they want, thus economic inequality is inevitable. Furthermore, the past two hundred years have shown us that people tend to accumulate more possessions as technology progresses, not less, and there is no evidence that this trend will be reversed. The theory behind this article is fundamentally flawed. Like Marx’s dream in the 19th century it stands no chance of coming to fruition, I only hope that it causes less damage on its way out.

Dark Applepolisher
Aug 27, 2008 5:35

The Singularity is Near. Great article, and I too share your optimism that scarcity will soon become a thing of the past.

Smacky The Frog
Aug 27, 2008 14:23

Read: Our Molecular Future. I thrive to live to see these developments and how far our race can grow. Also, Read: The Final Question (by Asimov) Hats off to the singularity!

Duncan Carroll
Aug 27, 2008 22:18

Some interesting ideas here, although clearly the author is not concerned with backing up his statements with much more than speculation and wishful thinking.

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