Will the Need for Sustainability Create a More-Virtual Future?


Watching how one of my children has come to sometimes live almost as much in a virtual world as in the real one, I have to contemplate where our communications infrastructure and systems might be in twenty years or more.  My other two children concern me more because they are not staying in touch with the world of the internet, and it is something I find increasingly useful in both my job and personal life.  As I hunt for a new job on-line, I worry that they will be less well-equipped for life in the future.

My son is the total internet kid (or was – he’s 21 now).  I have watched this young man spend hours absorbed in the internet, headphones on, eyes glued to his computer screen, talking or shouting periodically into his microphone, hands on mouse and keyboard and clicking – sometimes frantically.  For him, his world on-line consists mostly of gaming, and I am proud that he has lead his team to a top ten ranking nationally in several seasons of play.  His teammates are spread across several Midwestern states, and only see each other in person when they compete at a local tournament.  Such tournaments are important because the network that is set up is usually contained within one building, keeping network delays to an absolute minimum.  Tournaments played across the country or world cause players to cope with much longer delays, and sometimes network outages, which make play more difficult and problematic.  On occasion a player has suddenly frozen on the screen, oscillating in mid-air, as his connection has suddenly “lagged”, and usually he is immediately picked off by the opposing players.  My son recruits new players for his team on-line, organizes his team, and develops strategies and tactics on-line in collaboration with his teammates.  He also buys computer equipment and other things, sells things he doesn’t need, and listens to downloaded music.  His television is the only entertainment he doesn’t get through his computer.  (Needless to say, I frequently urge him to get out of his apartment and get face-to-face with people.)

I wonder, though … will people decades from now spend much more time in the virtual world?  Certainly a lot of what I do in the project management game at a major corporation could be done on-line, though I wouldn’t want to try.  I still get much better results, better and more current information, and lots of nuances and subtleties that I would not get over a virtual connection.  Will technology overcome those problems?  Cutting down on travel and all the energy use and resource consumption that goes with it, would be a definite move towards sustainability.

I can foresee, possibly within a decade,  having laptops with wireless earphones, microphones, and possibly glasses for 3D viewing.  Will the computing hardware be smaller than the wireless internet antenna?  Will an ipod-sized device in one’s pocket plus the human interface hardware do it all, run for a week on a recharge, and fit in a small belt pack?  Will it be powered by a tiny fuel cell, so you just need to feed it a bit of your food, a thimble full of beer, for example, once a week to keep it going?  It sounds good to me right now, as I am far past tired of driving 35 miles to work and back each day on ever-more crowded freeways.

Will keyboards go away as increasingly sophisticated voice recognition hardware becomes available?  I don’t want to have to talk all the time, though.  Perhaps the neural interface will come soon, and a tiny patch somewhere on my body, plus some training (easier for those who get this appliance in early childhood), will allow silent data entry. 

Similarly, will the sensory input come to us through a neural connection, another patch on our necks or heads?  That idea certainly brings up a lot of issues.  Will ever-more sophisticated malware be able to read one’s mind or log one’s data going out and coming in?  It will certainly become harder to self-sensor what one says under such circumstances, that is, a slip of the mind might occur even more easily than a slip of the tongue.  And what about privacy issues? 

Given that some people won’t want to take on such potentially troublesome connections to the internet, will that necessitate that they become part of the lowest class, those who don’t or won’t have personal communications tools common to everyone else?  Will the haves and have-nots become ever more divided? 

Perhaps, as transportation becomes ever more expensive, companies will be forced to move to virtual workspaces.  This alone could drive the kind of scenario I just described.  Will highway traffic in twenty years be cut in half by a burgeoning virtual economy?  The reduction in transportation cost would be a benefit to the workers, who now pay quite a bit for cars, fuel, maintenance, and air travel.  The reduction in pollution, energy consumption, and resource depletion could actually buy time for the planetary ecology to re-stabilize in a sustainable form.  The potential is there, and the direction already seems set as far as a small percentage of productive work already being done from home in the developed countries.

Perhaps a more “virtual” economy is a more virtuous economy.

I welcome your comments.  There is much more to be thought of, planned, and done.

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