Through a wifi-enabled crystal ball

In the last days of 2005, leading thinkers and scholars from around the world share their fears, hopes and expectations of 2006. Forty-nine of openDemocracy’s distinguished contributors, from Mariano Aguirre to Slavoj Zizek, Neal Ascherson to Jonathan Zittrain – offer their predictions for the coming year. Since this is openDemocracy, we did not expect them to agree. We were not disappointed. (Part Two)
Bill Thompson
22 December 2005


There will be more blogs. Software patenting will rear its ugly head again in Europe but won’t really damage the open source movement. The Wikipedia backlash will gather force. The developing world will see a massive percentage increase in net use, but actual numbers online will remain low. Wimax standards will be agreed but rollout will be slow and we won’t see the technology deliver for another three or four years. Bluetooth will be heavily marketed and fail to deliver.

The really hard thing is to see which cool things from four or five years ago are finally going to hit the mainstream. The disruptive technologies are already invented and coming out of the labs – we just have to spot them.

Two complementary principles apply: first, William Gibson’s realisation that “the future has already arrived, it’s just not evenly distributed yet”; and second, Amara’s Law, named for futurologist Roy Amara, that “we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”

If we take these together, what movements can we observe in the tectonic plates of technological determinism? Where’s the earthquake going to happen? What much-loved way of life is about to disappear into a subduction zone? And which new islands will emerge in the network landscape?

Three trends will shape the technology world next year. The network will become pervasive, at least in the developed world. Almost everything that can have a chip in it will get one. And these chips will be able to talk to each other through relatively low-power short-range network connections, creating a “mesh” infrastructure that will pervade our lives.

At the same time, we’ll stop noticing both the network and the computers that are attached to it, as the internet finally joins the other utilities – gas, electricity, running water – as just part of the given in the industrialised world.

We’ll see the impact most in two areas.

For business users, being connected and available will become the default, and being able to “turn it off”, to disconnect, will be the position of privilege. If being given a Blackberry was a sign of status at the tail end of 2005, being able to return it will be the aspiration of every senior executive by next Christmas.

But the real impact will be in the toy market. Manufacturers have been talking about “intelligent” toys for years, but it’s now reached the stage that toys with chips and communications capabilities are reaching the market.

You can buy a Dr Who doll that will ‘talk’ to its enemy Slitheen, you can buy educational toys that will interact with a TV, and soon they will be everywhere.

Such toys have been around for some time – I remember an interactive Barney from four or five years ago – but the technology was neither mature nor cheap enough for the mass market. Now it is both, and our children’s worlds are about to be transformed.


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