The Individual in a Networked World: Two Scenarios: Collaborative Agent Bots? A Walled World under Constant Surveillance? Two Information Technology Experts Parse the Future of Human-Network Interaction

By Rainie, Lee; Wellman, Barry | The Futurist, July-August 2012 | Go to article overview

The Individual in a Networked World: Two Scenarios: Collaborative Agent Bots? A Walled World under Constant Surveillance? Two Information Technology Experts Parse the Future of Human-Network Interaction


Rainie, Lee, Wellman, Barry, The Futurist


One of the most useful and formal futurism exercises in recent years was the work in 2006-2007 of the Metaverse Roadmap project. It was driven by John Smart, Jamais Cascio, and Jerry Paffendorf, and originally conceived of as a brief for the future of the World Wide Web as it became three-dimensional.

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Once the leaders of the effort began to hear from several dozen thinkers, their own views branched in other directions. They had started their inquiries with the notion of a "Metaverse" that was first conceived by the influential science-fiction writer Neal Stephenson in his 1982 classic, Snow Crash. To Stephenson, the Metaverse was an immersive, virtual space with 3-D technologies.

Yet, the Metaverse Roadmap thinkers went beyond seeing the Metaverse as a virtual domain. They saw it as the "convergence of (1) virtually enhanced physical reality and (2) physically persistent virtual space. It is a fusion of both, while allowing users to experience it as either." In other words, it is the connection of the physical and virtual worlds. Although we do not foresee people living mostly in virtual space, the technological directions suggested by the Metaverse Roadmap provide guides for how networked individualism may proceed.

This is a future that has already come to pass in many respects. There is already a mad rush in Silicon Valley to create products to embed social interplay in most kinds of information and media encounters, and it will likely accelerate going forward. Moreover, in coming years a wider Metaverse will emerge as relatively ordinary objects--as well as computers and phones--will become ubiquitously networked with each other, and networked individuals will be able to augment their information through direct contact with data-bases and objects that have become smarter and more communicative.

Increased computing power may make people's involvements in virtual worlds more immersive and compelling, although experiences to date suggest that people are more apt to use computer networks that integrate with real life rather than becoming totally immersed in virtual worlds--with virtual game players the exception.

Ubiquitous computing, sometimes called "the Internet of things" (or "everyware"), describes human-computer interaction that goes beyond personal computing to an environment of objects processing information and networking with each other and humans. Objects would share information: appliances, utility grids, clothing and jewelry, cars, books, household and workplace furnishings, as well as buildings and landscapes. They would learn additional information and preferred methods of use by gathering data about people who are in their environment. For example, cars could tell each other not to be in the same lane at the same time, and bicycles could tell car doors not to open suddenly when the bikes pass by.

With all these trends rolling along into the future, there is still reason to be uncertain about how the environment of networked individuals will evolve. We offer two different scenarios that seem credible.

Scenario 1: Collaborative Agents In Augmented Reality

Waking up in a networked future, his digital agent's soft voice slowly grows into Harry Sanchez's hearing range. It's been monitoring his sleep rhythms and cross-referencing them with data from his ongoing brain scans to see when it's most appropriate to wake him. After stretching and rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Harry suddenly and happily recalls yesterday's purchase.

He found a collaborative coupon on the Web the other day for a deal on a new pair of augmented reality (AR) contact lenses and the haptic feedback implant that everyone's been raving about. The implantation was a simple and quick outpatient procedure that reminded him more of getting his ears pierced than of surgery. It was performed remotely by a doctor whose robot mimicked his every move. …

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