For the Internet, life begins at 40 - TechCentral

For the Internet, life begins at 40

Duncan McLeod

[By Duncan McLeod] The Internet is 40 years old next month. There can be little doubt that the worldwide network has changed the way we communicate as a species. And the change it’s going to bring has only just begun. Hold on to your seat. It’s going to be a wild ride.

This past weekend, popular documentary programme Carte Blanche featured an insert on Linden Labs’ Second Life, a kind of alternative online reality.

Second Life (secondlife.com) is one of a number of virtual reality environments that have become popular in recent years. The Carte Blanche show got me thinking about how the Internet could change our lives in the next decades.

The Internet, by some people’s estimates — and there’s by no means agreement on this point — is 40 years old next month.

What a long way we’ve come since the first connections were established to create Arpanet, the predecessor to the Internet. It took a long time for the Internet to gain popularity. It wasn’t until the hypertext transfer protocol heralded the World Wide Web in the early 1990s that the Internet moved out of its origins in the military and in education.

It’s been less than 20 years since Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web. But in that time it has turned entire industries — telecommunications, movies, music and pub- lishing — on their heads. And it’s changed fundamentally the way we communicate. Children today talk more to each other on MXit — the Internet-based chat service for cellphones — than they do in person.

Imagine a world without e-mail, instant messaging, even Twitter. I can’t.

Of course, predicting what the Internet will look like 40 years hence is impossible, but we can make educated guesses as to what the next decade will bring.

The future Internet is a high-bandwidth place, where high-definition video is streamed on demand. The concept of broadcast television, for example, will seem alien to the next generation. You’ll have all the creative content mankind has ever produced available to you at the flick of a button (or the press of a touch screen or the command of your voice).

People are going to communicate with each other in entirely new ways. Networking giant Cisco has already developed advanced telepresence systems that facilitate business meetings over the Internet, using HD video. Like an advanced form of video conferencing, the system makes it feel as if you’re in the same room, even if you are conversing with someone on the other side of the planet.

It’s the death of distance. In future, our need to get on planet-heating aeroplanes will be reduced. We’ll fly more for pleasure than for business because we will no longer need to travel for meetings. As Carte Blanche pointed out, IBM has already used Second Life to hold a global conference. By not flying its executives in from around the world, it saved hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The real pioneering work may happen in entertainment, though. Video games are lead- ing the way in many respects, especially in interactivity. And services like Second Life give us an idea of what’s to come in human social interaction. In 40 years, I’d be surprised if we aren’t able to interact with one another as if we’re in the same room, even if we’re not. In other words, the person you interact with will be a highly accurate holographic representation, so good that it will be hard to tell the difference from the real thing.

This sounds fantastical, but it’s theoretically possible. All we need are higher-speed connections, faster processors and the people to build the software to do it all. And we’ll get there. Moore’s Law, which states that computing power effectively doubles every 18 months for the same price, still holds true.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for the future to get here. 

  • McLeod is editor of TechCentral

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