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Information is the future!

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999

There is an ancient Chinese curse -- "May you live in interesting times". Basically, it means, "may you have instability, uncertainty, and rapid change". Technology certainly keeps things interesting.

When I put on my new digitally enhanced matter-to-energy time-traveling prognostication hat (which looks surprisingly like a beanie), I start thinking about technology and the ramifications of innovations. After a few minutes my head hurts (probably something to do with all the quantum tunneling going on) -- and the propeller starts going around (caused by the heat coming off my overtaxed brain). All the pain is worth it for glimses into potential futures.

Future Extremes!

There seems to be a two extreme choices as to which way computer technology will go. This will define everything about how we operate with information and it all comes down to the basic question, "what is more important, the physical data or the ethereal network access to data". So let's look at two extreme futures.  I know the world is not black and white, but extremes are a good way to look at potential choices so let's just pretend.

The storage is everything universe - in one future universe we have "storage rules". In this future, storage devices (like holographic memory) have completely taken over and become so cheap, and so infinitely dense, that we can just carry everything we ever want to know with us. You pop in your little info-card (credit card sized storage), pen or key shaped storage, and everything you want is at your fingertips. Computers are all over the pace -- but they are just temporary virtual devices that let you get to your storage.

If storage is cheap and performance is infinite (or close enough to it), then what is a computer? An entire operating system, all application, and all our data is always with us. All your favored music, images, movies, files, books (virtual) Internet sites, applications and even operating system(s) are going with you where-ever you go. You walk up to a machine, plug in your life, and press the button. The machine boots the environment you like, has all the tools (applications) you like. The information device becomes a VCR, CD-Player, Computer, Library and more.

In this univers, the computers will migrate to become completely configurable -- and the idea of an operating system may evolve further and become more an operating environment, customized to behave as you want it to be. Everyone will build their own ways of working and tools (starting from a bunch of generic starting points, like Mac OS XXIV or Windows 2045). Over your life you will add in enough custom tools and variants that your "environment" will be something unique to you. The computer (as we know it) won't matter any more -- even the most entry level machine will be faster than anything you ever need to do. Your virtual computer will just be the storage -- and the physical hardware will just be where you are running that virtual machine at any given time.

The network is everything universe - in another future universe we have the "networking rules". Here, we will have data available everywhere -- it will not be localized. Networks will be infinitely fast, and infinitely available -- the Internet will be everywhere! If networks are infinitely fast and cheap (as is the hardware) then again, the computer itself doesn't matter! You will be able to walk up to any computer (anywhere on the net), and login, and access your data (stored somewhere else). Your login will tell the computer how you like to behave, what your preferred interface is. You will have a machine somewhere that will be running all that you want -- but where it is (who owns it) and whether it has all your data, or just pointers to all your data (which is somewhere else) will be unimportant as well. Basically wherever you log in, it will just connect to your remote computer, and turn whatever hardware you are connected to (working on) into another instance of your virtual computer. All your data is right there with you -- or you are at least wired in to it. You want something, just access it.

Again, these devices will become completely configurable virtual machines that will grow more and more unique over time. And again, the physical hardware becomes less and less important over time -- just the data matters.

Wait a minute!

In case you didn't tell, things sound suspiciously similar in both futures.

Moore's law (which says that computer's integrated circuit technology will basically be doubling every 18 - 24 months) is making the hardware faster and faster, the storage larger and larger -- and is ironically making the computer less important as days go by. Computer performance and storage is approaching infinity. Some day the laws of physics are going to rear their ugly heads -- but for now, and probably for the next 50 years we are going to keep just doubling time over time.

Next years cheap little iMacs are going to have more power than a supercomputer did when I started on computers (20 years ago). At this rate there is no barrier that computer technology won't eventually be able to cross. The only thing holding us back right now is humanity itself -- we can't adapt as fast as computers have been.

Humans are fixated on the tangible assets that they can see, touch and show off to their friends. Laptops and desktop computers are what people understand as what is important -- most fail to realize that the significance and power of pure throbbing binary data! Generations of computer users still love their computers and that the physical thing more than the asset (data) itself. But how long will this go on?

People change slowly. Very slowly. Let's look at history -- the industrial age and cars. Cars took 20 years to get features that made them easier to drive (like automatic starters, chokes, better transmissions, and so on). This wasn't because it was technologically infeasable to do it, it was because it took a whole new generation to understand that cars shouldn't be hand-cranked monsters that only real men could handle. It took a whole generation (20 years) to make the migration from Microcomputers (desktops) being toys, to them being serious business tools -- not because they hadn't already made the leap technologically, but because humans are often stubborn, short sighted, rut-dwellers -- and technology was outpacing societies ability to adapt.

"So what?" you say, "What does this mean for the future?"

The Internet is just an infant -- we don't even know how to use this stuff yet. Moore's law and computers are just kicking into high gear -- everything until now has just been getting the snowball rolling down hill (and gaining size). In 20 years, the Internet is going to have a generation of people who lived their whole lives with the net -- and who don't see the limits of us shortsighted old farts. We are also creating broadband (higher speed networks) today, that will change the power curve in the future. That's when things will take off.

For now, the infinite storage model is slightly ahead of the infinite bandwidth model technologically -- but people (society) understands the infinite network model better. Whether we take the infinitely cheap data model, or the infinitely powerful network, we are getting to a completely different structure for society because of information and that we are able to increase it's distribution and eliminate it's cost. It doesn't matter which path we take to get there but we are converging information and changing humanity in the process.

Up till now, we've needed all the performance we could deliver (more or less), and most could actually use the storage they had access to. But a few years ago this shifted -- we now have more than we need. How are we going to spend that performance and space? This potential will bend the minds of users and force society to adapt to whole new business concepts, markets and ideas. Storage technology and performance is just getting interesting -- and all this technology has made the Chinese curse a reality -- we live in interesting times!

Created: 11/04/99
Updated: 11/09/02

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