The Next Decade of Digital Technology

This Friday I am running a workshop entitled “Looking Ahead to the next Decade: Responding to a Range of Future Scenarios in Digital Communication and Coordination”. In preparation I have been trying to do some looking ahead myself, seeking inspiration for some meaningful insights into what I can contribute. In desperation I have turn to my recollection of the past to see if there are any lessons there.
My first encounter with digital technology was a brief mention of transistors at the end of an electronics course in my physics undergraduate program in the early 1960s. In contrast to the analogue valve technologies that could moderate and amplify electrical signals, transistor-based logical circuits were just switches that were either on or off (o or 1). I was not very impressed!
Since that time solid state devices have revolutionised our lives with spectacular breakthroughs each decade. In the 1960s financial institutions began to process customer accounts faster and more reliably on computers. By the 1970’s most large organisations had mainframes that could be programmed in 3rd generation languages through dumb but human-readable terminals. In the 1980s we had the first local networks of computers and other devices supporting corporate emails, printers and client server systems. More significantly, this was the decade of personal computers with end-user applications such as word processors and spreadsheets. The 90s heralded the birth of the Internet, a network of networks that hosted the pervasive but static World-Wide Web. Thanks to Tim Berners-Lee the basic components of the Internet were not patented or copyrighted but a free gift to all. In the 2000’s the web became dynamic with direct access by end users to everyone else on the planet: micro businesses had access to global markets; social media emerged; Internet devices went mobile; functionality expanded and converged.
Looking back there were many past predictions that were way off the mark. At a conference in the 1980s IBM confidently predicted that voice and language recognition software was sufficiently developed that it was ready to support audio as the dominant way people would interact with computers. Nokia was so sure that text would not be used on its mobile phones in favour of the richer media of audio and video that they made SMS a very cheap option that was rapidly taken up.
What has been obvious with respect to the technology have been ongoing trends to greater processing power on smaller, lower cost, more reliable devices with greater capability. I do notice however that screens on mobile phones are now increasing in size with the convergence of more functionality onto these devices. I suspect that these trends will continue but are not the most exciting ones to predict with more of the same.
One of the challenges of mobile devices are their need for energy and reliance batteries that must be charged regularly. So one of my bolder future prediction concern innovations in energy sources for mobile devices. I remember in the days before digital watches we used to have to wind them up. Then we had ones where our arm movement would provide the energy for winderless watches. Maybe some form of biological energy source such as body heat or movement could power small mobile devices.
Another challenge for digital devices that also requires innovative solutions are their need for traces of rare metals that are difficult to recycle and becoming scarce. This may require their radical redesign. There are also conflicting requirements for access and openness balanced against protection of identity and security that require socio-technical innovation.
Moving further into the social sphere I suspect that the greatest changes over the next decade will come in the social end of the social-technical spectrum as societies and nations grapple with the dialectic contrasts of openness and freedom against security and control; work against play; wealth versus wellbeing; corporate versus community. The Web has become a global platform for mobilising change, resistance to traditional authority in the hands of the few, democratisation of knowledge and action; and advocacy for great equality through sustainably development. I imagine a future where these issues are contested through debate on the Web and promoted through collective activity of global movements organised via social media.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s