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Predicting the future is always a risky business, but the uncertainties seem to be magnified when it comes to information technologies. Blame it on “tipping points,” unstable equilibriums, systems analysis, whatever, but planning ahead has never been a more hazardous exercise.

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Undaunted, the U.S. National Intelligence Council has convened a series of conferences on the information revolution to get the lay of the land. Under the auspices of the NIC, the RAND Corporation’s National Defense Research Institute brought together some high-watt minds to ruminate on what IT will look like in 20 years or so.

The prominent features of the new landscape don’t seem too fantastic: no flying cars, no time travel, no particularly interesting television shows. They do include photonics (all-optical networks), universal connectivity (anytime/anywhere), ubiquitous computing, pervasive sensors and global information utilities (infoplugs, a lot like electrical sockets that provide information, not energy). The most intriguing element is all-optical networks. Photonics depends on fiber everywhere, as well as optical switches. Experts think the latter will be on the market in the next four to five years, which means that we should have end-to-end pure optical systems within two decades.

Leave the specs to the techies, but the important point is this: Optical systems offer bandwidth beyond imagination. One fiber-optic cable is said to equal the capacity of the entire U.S. national backbone.

The experts who participated in the RAND study agreed that switching to optical systems isn’t like switching carburetors. David Farber, chief technologist at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and one of the fathers of the Internet, thinks that optical networks will require a complete reworking of computer architectures, operating systems and network protocols.

This is interesting stuff, but I’m a bit disappointed. Look around, and a lot of the “future” doesn’t seem so far away. Many of these innovations are already here.

I-mode and WAP phones are the first incarnation of universal connectivity, and bluetooth promises to take the concept still further.

You want flexibility along with your anytime/anywhere access? Imagine a device that integrates all sorts of functions — a personal digital assistant, a phone, a camera, an MP3 player. Wait, there’s already one nestled in my pocket.

Apart from the photonics breakthrough, it seems as if the important differences between today and tomorrow are the product of integrating fat pipes, infinite storage capacities, ubiquitous sensors and a wireless world. The shrinking cost curve is making all the parts of the system virtually free; put ’em together and the possibilities are endless.

The big question is not science, but sociology. Consider a few issues. First, how will we reconcile a world that is increasingly “gray” (the average age is getting older) with the fact that an increasing proportion of IT decisions are being made by youth? Not only are there traditional generational strains, but there is the risk of an outright break when it comes to vocabulary, expectations and experience.

Second, how will we reconcile the increasing convergence of virtual and real worlds? It’s easy to pick reality over a digital representation today, because the latter is so poor in comparison. But that will change. I can’t see the cool analytical types that RAND assembled buying into a “Matrix” version of the future, but they concluded that “it is anticipated that the virtual world may dominate, except in emergencies where physical constraints will still be central.”

What does that mean? Will artificial communities undermine national sovereignty? (Er, it already has: Just try to tax some of those e-transactions.) Will they ease ethnic tensions? After all, telecommuting will release some of the pressure to migrate. Will it help people maintain ethnic identities by allowing them to stay in touch with their homelands if they leave? That sounds great, right? Not if it discourages assimilation and prevents societies from coalescing around shared images and ideals.

Third, how will the extreme atomization of work change who we are as individuals and the existence of companies? I am not talking about the social elements of work. Rather, the issue here is the identity individuals derive from labor. Digital technologies stretch our links with corporate structures, yet tie us more closely to the work we do. What happens to “loyalty” and “service” in work environments that are mediated by networks? Will we care about organizations that we are only tied to in the most tenuous ways? How will management change when the essence of the company is so fundamentally reconfigured?

Finally, how will consumption change in a world of dynamic pricing? Of course, virtual reality changes consumption in its own right, since virtual use means we don’t have to consume the real thing. But everyone concedes that dynamic pricing — shifting prices to match demand as it ebbs and flows in real time — is going to be the rule, not the exception. (Amazon.com has been embroiled in an ugly little PR mess over its use of dynamic pricing; it seems the company was trying to charge some repeat customers more for DVDs. Basically, it wanted to find out what loyalty was worth . . . ) If we know that demand creates higher prices — you’ll pay more for a cold drink when it’s hot outside — how will consumer behavior compensate?

The questions are endless, and they touch on every realm of human endeavor. The speculation is fun when it isn’t scary.

Brad Glosserman (brad@japantimes.co.jp
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