Your Internet Consultant - The FAQs of Life Online

1.29. What does the future hold?

Note: Obviously, no one can predict the future but we're trying to, nonetheless. Ask three people what is in store for the future of the Internet and you'll get three different answers. In the humble opinions of myself and two colleagues, the following are three possible answers to that question.

The future of the Internet is going to be a whole lot more exciting than its past. I don't know if people are becoming more creative, smarter, or have been holding back their wonderful ideas until now. Whatever the reasons, the Internet is more exciting today than it has ever been, and its usefulness and the excitement about it will continue to grow.

The past three or four years have seen the most thrilling advances, making the Internet worthwhile and usable to real people, not just computer science and research types. Gopher and WAIS, two applications that have changed the way we navigate the Internet, were released in 1991. The World Wide Web saw the light of day in 1992, Internet Talk Radio in 1993, as did Mosaic, the application that literally changed the face of the Internet. (All of this sure beats the history of dull old military and government networks forming and merging, doesn't it?)

The Internet is gaining speed and has no intention of slowing down. Gopher, World Wide Web, and Mosaic are just the first step to changing the way we communicate, work, and entertain ourselves. In the next two to three years, we will see great strides in what those tools can do. The Internet applications that we'll take for granted in five years haven't been born yet. Now is a great time to be on the Net, because you'll see firsthand how it will change and grow. If you're outspoken, you can even have a voice in its fate.

Although it is gaining speed, the Internet's own popularity will be its biggest obstacle. The network as it is today simply can't handle continued growth at its present rate. Right now, a major limiting factor to getting on the Net is that you need access to a computer. What will happen to the Net's when it comes to your TV set via your cable company? How will the network handle ten million new users converging at once? How will the Internet current society handle it?

All we can do is wait and see.

Answered by Dave Taylor (

The most obvious change that we'll see on the Internet in the next few years are more users, more sites, and more services. Simultaneously, as everything expands, the challenge of finding information when you want it will become a further burden, certainly exceeding the capabilities of the two most important search databases: Archie and Veronica.

More sophisticated information interfaces will expand (such as Mosaic, a multimedia interface to the Internet), and we will see simpler systems that allow deeper and broader searches of the data on the Net. Computer networks that are not on the Internet (such as CompuServe, Genie, and America Online) will either add themselves to the network or will begin to automatically clone the most valuable reference information from the Internet.

More business will be done through e-mail and the network, and more companies will offer technical support, sales support, and even product information and ordering through the Internet. This commercialization is just beginning and if the Internet ends up being the foundation of the so called National Information Infrastructure, you can expect considerably more commercial use of the network: probably an explosion of companies, each competing for valuable information space.

At the same time, intelligent multienvironment search programs, such as Netfind (a program for finding peoples' e-mail addresses) and Knowbots (intelligent programs that will search out information for users), will become more common, and commercial services that screen vast bodies of information for specific topics will also arise.

One thing that is inevitably going to show up is electronic junk mail. Here's how I envision it beginning: companies will join the Internet and offer product literature through e-mail-based databases. Without users realizing, their requests will be logged and their electronic mail addresses archived. A few weeks or months later, the company will send an informational mailing to potential customers, including all addresses culled from the e-mail-based data server. Take it one more step, and you have companies that will offer to track who uses commercial information delivery systems and also identify what demographic specialists love to call opinion leaders: people who are considered experts in a specific topic by the rest of the user community. These tracking companies will be the equivalent of mailing-list vendors, selling lists of thousands of e-mail addresses and other lists of dozens of the most important and influential members of a particular target community.

Once that happens, programs that intelligently sort incoming electronic mail will become that much more valuable, as users will learn how to program their e-mail-screening robot to politely (or rudely!) reject mail from services of this nature without the human even seeing that it happened. At least five different programs are available today that can perform just such a service, but so far few people need to use them.

The demographics of the Internet are changing, too, and with this change is a change in the culture and society of the network community. Until fairly recently, there have been two primary users of the Internet: researchers and other computer-savvy professionals and students, primarily at universities. As commercial services come online, and as large autonomous networks like America Online and eWorld join the Internet, the Internet will become a more heterogeneous, and I hope, more egalitarian community. Look for groups where it will be frowned on to have computer knowledge and where counter-cultures will promote a pre-networking era (while on the largest network in the world).

Unfortunately, also expect more obscenity, less reasoned discussion, more personal attacks, and more wandering from the topic, particularly in public forums like Usenet groups. There are currently almost no truly egalitarian communication environments (even the local newspaper has editors who carefully screen the letters they publish) and the Internet will prove a fascinating sociological experiment in this regard, though it will also doubtless be frustrating and annoying.

An example of this can be seen when adolescents connect to existing professional conferencing systems, violate the existing behavioral mores, and then turn nasty when their errors are pointed out to them. A case in point: the Indiana Department of Education runs a popular conferencing system called IDEANet, which is a central place for teachers in the state of Indiana to discuss school-related topics, interact with researchers at various Indiana universities, explore the Internet, and for select K-12 students, learn about computer systems. Recently a few young folk connected and immediately began to post crude and inappropriate messages about each other. When the system administrator chided them for their behavior, they immediately became quite abusive and had their accounts canceled. This is just the beginning, because when the Internet is really spread throughout the world, it will become impossible to enforce any sort of behavioral constraints through means other than peer pressure.

Instead (and perhaps this is the best solution), it will be up to the information consumer to filter intelligently information that is not of interest. This shift from Internet user as passive recipient of information to active participant: teaching sophisticated navigational systems the type of information that is of interest, how to prioritize information found, and which authors are of particular interest (or should be avoided). Primitive versions of these ideas are implemented in some Netnews readers with what are called kill files. Expect this to become quite a successful commercial business, too: people will willingly spend a few dollars a month to have a sophisticated software system help them find the information they want and skip the information they don't.

In sum, I think there's going to be a gradual shift on the Internet in the next decade: from a small homogeneous community composed primarily of passive information recipients to an enormous heterogeneous mass of people, producing more information (and misinformation) than any of us are prepared to deal with. It will become imperative to work with software-assisted intelligent, active, information and network navigation tools to find anything in the information flood.

Answered by Dave Van Buren (

As this technology matures over the next decade, we will begin to see new patterns of work evolve. Geographically dispersed groups of people will come together online to solve particular problems in the sciences, medicine, engineering, arts, education, business, and politics. Some things we might see in these fields are "critical mass" research groups suddenly able to tackle problems that were too hard or complex; online medical diagnostic services; methods for archiving, organizing, and navigating documents; software and experience for engineering projects; online classes on topics too narrow to support a course at a "physical" university; and emerging artforms based on distributed "hypertext" and other formats. Eventually the services available will move beyond access to archival information and on to providing new information through instruments and sensors hooked directly to computers on the network.

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