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The Internet of the 21st century

1999 is just the beginning. Futurists believe the Net and the PC will become practically invisible - and will fundamentally change our lives
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor on

Picture the scene: Dad in the living room video-conferencing with his boss in the States. In the study, Mum is teleworking while little Johnny is upstairs online gaming and big sister is shopping via a giant screen in the living room.

In this vision of the not-so-distant future the thing that unites all these different activities is the Internet -- and these are only the beginning of the ways the global computer network will change our lives.

As technologists reflect on the great inventions of the millennium and turn once again to predictions for a Star Trek future, the Net will undoubtedly figure as one of the biggest leaps forward of the last century. Dot com and .co.uk addresses adorn advertisement hoardings across the country, and the Internet and its effects are discussed by heads of state. Both US president Bill Clinton and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair are keen to be seen as techno-friendly, and use the Internet to promote both themselves and their countries.

Communication has come a long way since cavemen painted their dinner on the wall -- and nothing has evolved faster than the Internet. In just thirty years the Internet has grown from a broken memo between two professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology into the biggest medium for global communication the world has ever seen. First there was radio, then TV and as we fade out of the second millennium the Internet looks to be a third communications revolution.

Experts argue that the Internet is not merely evolving but revolutionising our lives. And that revolution is only just beginning, according Paul Saffo, a leading futurist and director of California's Institute for the Future. Saffo says we are all revolutionaries on the Net, voting with our mouses.

What we see of the Internet now is not the future, he believes. "Will we recognise the Net in five years? Absolutely not," he said in a recent interview. And the revolution will not be led from PCs, he predicts. "We will look back 30 years from now and we're going to say the personal computer was very interesting, but it was the horseless carriage of this whole thing. The real revolution's going to be working in devices that people hardly notice."

Online communities are offering people the first glimpses of true democracy according to Daniel Berger, "Chief Fool" of online investment site The Motley Fool. He believes communities dedicated to political issues will gain the power to influence government and decision-making in twenty years' time, "redefining society and enhancing human experience".

But there is a down-side to the new democracy the Internet brings. For those without access there is a risk of disenfranchisement and the new generation of have-nots will be lacking knowledge rather than money. A recent MORI survey found that inequality between the online and offline communities is a major concern to Brits. The feeling was echoed by President Clinton, who claimed at an economics forum in Florence last month that the Internet was creating a new era of knowledge inequality.

And it is not just access that worries users. Content is also a hot potato and no discussion of the Internet would be complete without a mention of porn. Sex is the biggest traffic driver on the Net and snatches more of the headlines than almost any other aspect of Net culture. And it is not about to go away. With ADSL bringing greater bandwidth to the Internet ADSL, Ovum analyst Tim Johnson predicts porn will be a major driver as enthusiasts queue to see video-quality pictures from the privacy of their computer screen.

But the porn debate is mainly a smokescreen, with the benefits far outweighing the disadvantages, according to BT Futurist Ian Pearson. He believes the Internet will take over many of the menial tasks that currently take up brainpower and time in the manual world, like shopping. With the smart fridges of the future, a Net application will monitor our food supplies and automatically order more when it runs out.

With the Net taking control of such jobs, Pearson believes we will have more time to devote to ourselves. "The Internet will enable us to move from the information age to the caring age," he said. "Once we automate most of the physical and administrative demands of daily life, we will have the chance to explore our own humanity."

With so much riding on the Internet, the big question is how it will cope. Doom-mongers have been predicting a huge Internet crash for years now and certainly the bandwidth feeding our Net obsession will have to increase dramatically to cope with the demand expected in the next few years. Research firm Forrester predicts that 60 million Europeans and 77.6 million Americans will be online by 2003 and they will all be bandwidth-hungry. Basically the Net is going to have to cope with a whole lot more data traffic than it currently does. New routing technologies will have to introduced as backbone providers scramble to make ever fatter pipes to cope with demand. Satellite and wireless will also play a part as the Internet moves off the PC and onto handheld devices; wireless Internet technology is now seeing growing interest from investors and venture capitalists.

The ubiquitous nature of the Net will allow people access to more information than ever before. While no-one predicts the death of print in the near future, the Internet has one major advantage over print -- its ability to personalise information. Everyone will have their own personal news, events and shopping page in twenty years time according to Richard Pollack, head of behavioural analysis at Ronin Research. He predicts the Internet will turn psychiatrist, knowing more about us than we know ourselves and becoming the "ultimate observer of human behaviour".

With knowledge at our fingertips whenever we require it, the Net could revolutionise the way we learn according to educationalists. Chris Thatcher, president of the National Association of Head Teachers, believes children in twenty years time will spend less time in the classroom and more time remote-learning via the Web. The Internet will take the place of blackboards and books will be replaced by online devices.

"Teachers will adopt mentor roles and much of the curriculum will be received via the Internet," he predicted. "Knowledge will take a second place to developing the skills to use, manipulate and analyse the information the Web will provide."

President of research firm Internet marketing solutions Odin Wortman predicts 230 million people worldwide will be on the Net by 2001. But he sounds a note of caution about ever-growing Net fever, forecasting fatigue as consumers get bored of the online world. "After all, a walk in the park can still be more fun than the world's coolest Web site," he said.

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