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Immortality, Unreality, and the Social Impact of the Internet in 20 Years

From ON Magazine, Issue No. 4, 2009

Rob Enderle
In 20 years, it will be increasingly difficult to separate what is real from what is imaged, says technology expert Rob Enderle. Photograph by Jen Siska
From ON Magazine: The Web at 20


By Rob Enderle

Predicting social change is a crap shoot. There are so many variables to consider. And, as powerful as the Internet may be, the real world that exists outside the virtual one is so far beyond our control that its impact is virtually unpredictable.

Nonetheless, there are some clear trends that will affect society greatly, and by focusing on them, we can glimpse where we are going—and hopefully control the technology rather than allowing it to control us.

It’s time for your close-up

We are still at the early stages of digitizing, imaging, and monitoring the real world. But by 2030, video scrutiny will be far more pervasive than today, and more heavily populated areas will be under constant video surveillance. Being on camera virtually all the time, and being able to access images of most locations and activities, will not only change how we feel about personal security and privacy, but will also cause us to censor how we behave in public places.

It isn’t yet clear if we will feel less or more secure, but the reaction to Google Earth in Europe reminds us that technology is a two-edged sword: Many people see the application as a tool that helps burglars case a location before striking. Others point out that live feeds could, in theory, make it easier to catch thieves and other criminals.

In the future, more people will be able to monitor what you do, and there will be a more detailed and permanent record of it, creating profound privacy concerns. One can imagine creating a video diary of a specific time interval in one’s life or perusing a video database to see where a prospective employee, a suspected criminal, or a rebellious teenager goes and what they do during the day.

A “virtual you” that could live forever

The concept of creating a virtual representation of oneself has already begun at sites, like Lifenaut, that let users create a realistic, 3D avatar: a “virtual you” that you can teach to talk and behave like you, using online tools. In 20 years, this technology may make it possible to “be in two places (or more) at once.” For example, an avatar might handle routine e-mail, monitor news and social networking feeds, and even chat with people when you’re unavailable. And, of course, a virtual person could outlive the real one, perhaps offering some comfort, or affliction, to those still alive.

Advancements in data mining are creating tools like MIT’s Persona, which can quickly compile how you are viewed and spoken about on the Web. Down the road, one can imagine a job interview that is conducted with your virtual self—not one that you create, but one that is based on the information, accurate or not, that is available about you. The Web could become a highly accurate lie detector or a totalitarian nightmare. It’s easy to imagine your avatar testifying against you based on what past behavior suggests you would likely do.

You ain’t seen nothin’ yet

In 20 years, the ability to separate what is real from what is imagined will be increasingly difficult, but the difference may become irrelevant as the real and virtual worlds blend—most likely to our benefit and our detriment. And that’s only the beginning of the impact of the Internet. The next hundred years? Now that’s where the really big changes will occur!

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