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The future started 40 years ago

03 November 2009
The future started 40 years ago

By Molly Webb, Head of Smart Technologies, The Climate Group.

Last week seemed like most other weeks, but it was the 40th anniversary of something that changed all of our lives. October 29th marked the day when 40 years ago, the first ARPANET message was sent, and voila!, the birth of the internet. Programmers talked by phone, coordinating their house-size machines, to send the letters l...o.... and failed to write the word 'login' before they crashed.

40 years later, we're each logging in hundreds of times a day. A great NPR story interviews these founding fathers as they wonder why they didn't think of something a little more historic to say.

Login - the most prosaic word to describe the last 40 years of the internet. You and me, logging in to read (web 1.0) or create (web 2.0) content.

What will the next 40 years bring?

On November 16th, you'll be able to create domains in Chinese characters, or German or anything you want. This is a huge step forward for accessibility and creativity. But that is an expansion of where we are today, and I think we have something more surprising to look forward to.

The internet is already the past (static brochure-like homepages), the present (twitter) and future all at once. The future is here today, only in pockets. It looks different not only because of the nature of the data being created, but because of who (or what) is communicating. There are currently 4 billion people connected to each other through the internet and mobile phones. There will be 8 billion in 2020. But there will be 50 billion machine connections, if predictions are correct, and we will be living in an internet of 'things'. Will they constantly tweet their presence? Will they predict what we should eat for breakfast? Will they learn from our behaviour and their own?

As with any set of technologies, it can be used for just about anything we can imagine. But what it clearly will do is create transparency not only about what our best friends and distant bloggers are thinking, but about the long term impact of today's actions. We will create data about our actions, not just words and information. Imagine a house that learns from your energy use and then begins to help you save energy based on that knowledge, automatically turning off your boiler, or showing you today what your actions will mean tomorrow (ie: how much money you'll be spending on energy over 10 years). Imagine what we could do with this kind of feedback. (Taste the future from AlertMe and Google).

We'll have come a long way from 'login' to the world of instant feedback. How will we use this in the next 20 years, in 40 years? Climate change in particular is one problem that results from this lack of feedback.

Our next 'login' message just might be our actions -- speaking louder than words.

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