The Future? It Ain’t Here Yet!

I 'm going through one of my periodic moments of future-angst, and wondering whether and how I'll adapt to the New Infosphere. As my favorite 1970s comedy group, the Firesign Theatre, reminds us, "The future . . . you may already be there." Back when they recorded "I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus" in 1971, the future involved a computerized president and errant PDP-10 microcomputers. The thought of an unhappy computer seemed amusing, but not something that would have any impact on my life.

Then I mentally fast-forward to the early 1990s, when Freenets were making Internet accessible to the masses (well, at least for limited amounts of time per day). We could finally tap into bulletin boards, Usenet newsgroups, and even some rather primitive Web sites. I remember feeling very butch that I could configure my Trumpet Winsock and figure out how to establish a dial-up PPP connection. Everything was plain ASCII, and downloading text-only email took ten minutes, but it felt pretty exciting. Still not earth-shattering, though. Yes, it was nice to be able to connect to a remote BBS without paying long-distance toll charges, but the Internet was still mostly populated by us geeks.

What a difference a decade makes. Now, the only people who aren't on the Web are those who choose to remain unwired. And it's not just any old Net connection. When I realized that my sweetie didn't have high-speed Internet access at home, I promptly brought over a Wi-Fi network adapter so we could, er, borrow the signal from next door. The thought of being offline for an entire weekend? Quelle horreur!

What surprises me the most these days is the number of times that I'm walking down the street or sitting in a restaurant with a friend, when we suddenly wonder about something obscure like "what is the peritoneum, anyway?" or "whatever happened to that guy we read about in the paper last week?" I know I could find the answer online, but—cyber-Luddite that I am—I have not yet succumbed to the lure (and expense) of a Web-enabled Treo.

OK, I'll admit it right here: I'm not sure I'm ready for ubiquitous computing yet. I don't know if I want my refrigerator to scan its shelves, notice that I'm going through more mayonnaise than usual, and change my electronic shopping list to low-fat mayo on my next order. (Worse yet, of course, would be to have a weight sensor in front of the refrigerator door; the next time I reach for the cheese drawer, the evil fridge will lock it shut.)

Yes, there are times when the mobile Web is really nice. When I'm driving down a country road, late at night, hopelessly lost, it would be nice to fire up my car's (nonexistent) satellite navigation system and have a calm, soothing woman's voice direct me back to where I intended to go. And when I'm in a strange town and taking an evening walk before dinner, it would be convenient to be able to turn on my Treo, conduct a search for nearby pizza joints (oops—my refrigerator is monitoring my Web activity . . . make that a search for health food restaurants), and get directions to what's within brisk walking distance.

More intriguing are the GPS systems available for rent at Legoland in Denmark that you can attach to your child's wrist and know where she is at all times. And on the slightly more Orwellian side, there's VeriChip—a company that manufacturers implantable RFID chips. You can chip your "wander-prone" nursing home resident, who would find that doors lock when he approaches them. Even a firearms company is considering using VeriChip technology to make a gun unusable unless it's in the hand of someone implanted with a VeriChip microchip.

OK, but what about the "real" world of econtent? If I lived in Tornado Alley, it would be useful to receive text messages on my cell phone to warn me of an impending opportunity to travel to Oz. If I were a PR flack, I'd like to know about a late-breaking event at my company, even if I were sweating at the gym. What gives me pause is the ability (and soon, I suspect, the perceived need) to be online all the time. Do I really need to monitor the news every ten minutes? Will my life change if I'm not responding to email every quarter hour? There's always the perceived need of one more Web site to check out, one more blog to review, one more email list to monitor. We're reminded to live in the present; the down-side of that admonition is that we can get so sucked into the present that we fail to take the long view. Some issues require more than just information; they require contemplation and time to simply let the matter percolate for a while.

I wonder whether this is the future of always-on Web access: instant access to quick information but less time to ruminate, ponder, and reflect. The future is coming faster than it used to, and I wonder if we're ready for it.