For all the ways the Internet has changed how we live and work over the last 20 years, there are still plenty of areas it hasn’t touched, and plenty more where it hasn’t been as revolutionary as predicted. (Futurists in the ’90s said we’d all be making virtual commutes by now. Most of us are still waiting.)
One limiting factor has been connectivity speeds, which haven’t grown to allow for more sophisticated services and, in the U.S., have even fallen behind other nations. The current U.S. average connection speed is 10.5 megabits per second (Mbps) compared to speeds of up to 23.6 Mbps in South Korea, the nation with the best speeds.
But what happens when we do finally get fiber into every home? That’s the subject of a new report from the Pew Research Center, which asked 1,464 experts to make predictions for what might become possible with speeds 50 to 100 times faster than what we have now. Below are a few ideas we picked out.
Many respondents said telepresencing will be a reality by 2025, especially for business. “I believe ‘telepresence’ will be a driving application in the workforce, and thus the ability to have multi-person meetings without travel will be enhanced significantly,” says Jim Hendler, a professor of computer science at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. People won’t need to travel so much, and we’ll enjoy “truly immersive entertainment and communications,” according to Kathryn Campbell, partner with interactive agency Primitive Spark. She predicts something like the Holodeck, the simulated reality room seen on Star Trek.
Dipping into faraway worlds will be easier, due to virtual and augmented reality. System programmer and author David Collier-Brown, expects to take a bus tour of Istanbul from his living room. Alison Alexander, at the University of Georgia, says the “global nature of connectivity could foster an integrated world economy, breaking down the importance of nations and governments.” Bryan Alexander, senior fellow at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, says life and games will become increasingly intertwined: “We should expect new forms of gaming to emerge, such as ones integrating daily life with games.”
Today’s intermittent life-logging will become “cradle-to-grave” and “always-on.” Nothing will escape the cameras, such that there’s be more pressure to live a full life, says educator Laurel Papworth. David Orban, CEO of translation startup Dotsub, expects “emotional computing” will process our facial expressions as well as our keystrokes. “Remote group collaboration will gain a fundamental new dimension in being able to record, transmit, analyze, and understand the full gamut of human emotions,” he says. Hal Varian, chief economist for Google, expects more continuous health tracking: “It will be much cheaper and more convenient to have that monitoring take place outside the hospital. You will be able to purchase health-monitoring systems just like you purchase home-security systems.”
Health and education could be (and, to some extent, are already) the next sectors disrupted by the Internet. “Just-in-time learning will continue to expand, permitting people of all ages to find the information they need when needed,” says Internet policy consultant Ed Lyell. “Time in school will need to radically change since the talking-head, expert teacher is less and less valuable.” Judith Donath, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, expects more telemedicine and individualized health care. “The next big food fad, after hipster locavores, will be individualized scientific diets, based on the theory that each person’s unique genetics, locations, and activities mean that she requires a specific diet, specially formulated each day,” she says.
The survey also picked up on a lot of pessimism about the future. Respondents expect digital divides to widen if fiber-grade Internet is limited to those who can afford steep charges. Speedier connectivity also may not be the elixir it’s cracked up to be. “I note that there haven’t been any ‘killer apps’ for quite a while. All the recent candidates (social media) are minor permutations of Internet messaging,” says Robert McGrath, an early World Wide Web developer.
Leah Lievrouw, a professor at the University of California-Los Angeles, expects efforts to “stabilize” or “lock down” the Internet to continue: “We might well increase digital bandwidth, but use it to deliver and meter familiar, trusted (and ‘safe’) products and services, or variations on them: media content, college lectures, voice telephony, security services, public utilities, financial information and services, health care advice, and so on,” she says.
Online, there’s a lot to look forward to, but plenty to guard against at the same time.