Jane Wakefield: The real tech revolution

The Web might be able to get into our heads in the future, but not all of us will eagerly await the day...

It's that time of the millennium again. While I'm still worrying about how I'm going to spend the most important New Year's Eve in a thousand years, some are turning their attention to where technology will be in twenty years' time.

The Internet is only just recovering from the hangover after its thirtieth birthday celebrations last week, and people are already trying to predict what it will look like when it is fifty. Apparently the Net is going to bring us out of our 20th century angst and isolation and provide us with the sense of community and intimacy we currently lack.

One jolly futurist, Richard Pollack, cheerfully predicted at The Next 20 Years (TNTY) conference on Wednesday evening that in twenty years time Web sites will know us better than we know ourselves. He obviously thinks this is a positive thing, giving us the chance to have personalised, one-to-one Web sites that know exactly what we want to buy. While the marketing men will be rubbing their hands in glee, I'm afraid I am less enthusiastic.

The idea of Web sites as our virtual psychiatrists conjures up images of a Woody Allen film in 2020 (for undoubtedly he will still be making films then), with a man lying on the psychiatrist's couch hooked up to a computer and whining: "My Web site doesn't understand me. I keep feeling the need to turn to other portals for help."

OK, so that's taking it a bit far. But no one seems to doubt that Web sites will have a vast amount of data on individuals as they seek to provide the most convenient and targeted shopping experience ever. Personally I can't think of anything worse than a Web site that knows all my habits.

Based on the rather poor work done by search engines I find it hard to believe that a machine will ever be able to intelligently work out my preferences. One of the best advantages of being human is the prerogative to change your mind -- like going into a supermarket to buy radishes for no apparent reason, as I did the other day. Will the intelligent, all-seeing online stores of the future be able to take into account the ability of human beings to be totally irrational and unpredictable?

An online bookshop keeping tabs on my preferences and lifestyle may never consider recommending Mein Kampf, but one day I might just fancy it. What is really worrying about the databases of the future is that if we come to rely on online services and shops which prefer us to have a certain pattern of behaviour, we may find it easier and more convenient to give up being unpredictable and irrational altogether. No more radishes for me then.

Apparently by 2020 the Internet will also have the power to bring back the social cohesion lost in the current world, as virtual communities do the job our friends, families and neighbours used to do. The power of the chat room is already being felt as the man with a burning passion for ring-tailed lemurs realises he no longer has to indulge his passion alone as he chats gaily to ring-tailed lemur lovers around the globe.

The "chief fool" of online investment site The Motley Fool believes it will be not only obscure passions that will be catered for in 2020, as online communities gain the power to change governments and influence decision-making. Although I should point out that he was wearing a jester's hat as he delivered his predictions, which included a network of small and large online communities bringing back social cohesion and making technology human again.

Now I don't want to sound like a cynic, but none of the great inventions of the twentieth century -- the telephone, the TV, etc. -- have been able to change human nature, and I very much doubt if the Internet will succeed where they've failed.

The main problem with the predictions expounded at TNTY was the assumption that knowledge is power. Which is true if you do not have access to knowledge, but in the western world there seems to me to be an information overload. The futurists at TNTY were happy to skate over this problem, admitting that people would have to be educated to use information in a new way, as if this were a minor point in the great technology revolution. It is not, and I really doubt if something as fundamental as changing how we gain and use information can be taught in twenty years. And with schools pretty much following the same curriculum they did twenty years ago, who on earth is going to teach us anyway?

According to one of the speakers, our children will handle data much more cleverly than us, "deleting 80 unnecessary e-mails without a second thought". Which seems to me to be totally missing the point. Surely a real technology development would be not to have the excess of information in the first place.

The only prediction at the conference I really found appealing was the idea of a Web-based future with women in control and men as "exotic house pets". Now I could live with that. In fact, gals' glossy Cosmopolitan has already begun the process of humiliating men, offering its online readers the chance to virtually undress a cowboy, businessman, college boy or a fireman.

Now that's progress.