Net.Dreams: Hopes for the Next Fifty Years

Larry Press
The Communications of the ACM

The editors of the fiftieth anniversary editon of The Communications of the ACM requested the following article on my hopes for IT for the next fifty years.

It has been a busy 50 years. Information technology (IT) has rushed from relays to tubes to transistors to ICs. We began processing numbers, and now process data types ranging from text to video to declarative rules. We went from personal computing at the console to batch processing, time-sharing, and back to personal computing. Computers shrunk from rack-filled rooms, to cabinets in rooms, to desktops, to briefcases and shirt pockets, and we have increasingly come to view them as communication devices. But, what of the implications -- has IT mattered and will it in the future?

IT has facilitated activities like the building of atomic weapons and large bureaucracies, the exploration of outer space and DNA, and the Internet. Still, Herbert Simon has argued that since we have floating aspiration levels, IT may not make fundamental changes in happiness [8]. Given my 1996 aspiration levels, I have some hopes for the next 50 years regardless of whether my great grandchildren will take them for granted. These are not my hopes for technology, but for the implications of technology.

Let me offer two caveats. First, hopes are not predictions. I will only suggest things I hope will occur, and state reasons why they might. Second, the contribution of IT will be partial, and often marginal. I may hope for increased food production through improved weather information and biological research, but social factors like the collectivization of farms in China or Vietnam, shifts from subsistence farming to cash crops, or the accumulation of capital and the political will to create mega- farms in the U. S. are much more important than IT. IT can facilitate change or be a gating factor, but will seldom be the primary force. Without further caveat, here are some of my hopes for IT, in no particular order. (Bear in mind that they are generally interrelated).

Ripen old Age

Old age is a time of reduced mobility and physical possibility, so one might hope it will be enriched by IT. Practical matters like access to health information, security, part-time jobs and professional work, and home shopping could be handy for old people. Retired people with leisure time might find recreation - - computer or network-based games are not restricted simulating alley fights and space wars. Communication with others of common interest is also obviously possible as an antidote to the loneliness and alienation that may accompany old age.

We might also see increased communication between generations. While our physical powers may decline, we can still work with information -- symbols representing art, spirituality, wisdom, and knowledge of human nature. The old have much to contribute. George Bernard Shaw wrote "My life belongs to the whole community, and, as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it what I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die." In return, the young have interests and vitality which may entice the old, may help them maintain flagging passions and find new ones. Perhaps old curmudgeons and brash whippersnappers can learn from each other.

Esperanto or Babel?

According to Genesis, the world started out with one language, "one set of words." But, when God saw what people were accomplishing with a new construction technology -- brick rather than stone -- He worried that "nothing they wish will be beyond their reach," and scattered them about the Earth, speaking different languages. Will another new technology, IT, undo His work?

It seems that IT is eroding Babel. Stephen Pinker warns that many of the world's languages are endangered [3]. In the past, media were intranational, but today some TV crosses language borders, for example, English-language CNN in Europe and Spanish language ECO in North America. Periodicals, music, films, and products and commercials cross borders, and the English-heavy Internet was international from the start. English is becoming the language of international business, science, and rock and roll in spite of the French limiting foreign content in their media, Quebec limiting the size of English signs, and a lot of complaining on the Internet.

However, the Internet cuts both ways. Twenty five years ago, Yiddish was common on the streets of Venice Beach and other parts of Los Angeles, but today the signs and people are gone. Los Angeles can no longer support Yiddish, but a Yahoo search for "Yiddish" turns up 25 hits, and an Altavista search 8,673. How about Quechua, the language of the Incan rulers? You will find a course in Quechua at Expatriates the world over find each other and stay in touch with their homelands on the Internet.

So, one can argue that while broadcast media were anti-Babel, the Internet may tend to preserve language and cultural diversity. I cannot predict what will happen, and furthermore, I am not sure what I hope will happen. A one-language world would be more peaceful and productive. We would not be as quick to fear or fight with people we understood and could identify with; our common humanity would be more readily apparent. We would also be more productive economically. However, a one language world would be conceptually poorer and some ideas would be lost and discoveries delayed. It might also be too stable politically.

Could we achieve the best of both worlds with a common global language supplemented by living local languages? If so, which language might that be? Today, English has the lead on the Internet, and it is a common second language. Paradoxically, if, say, English turned out to be a universal second language, native English speakers would find themselves cognitive second-class citizens with less language diversity than those with other native languages.

Elevate the Arts

Poetry, music, painting, fiction, film-making, and other arts are symbol manipulation, information processing. Their products are also information, which can be distributed digitally with varying degrees of fidelity. It would seem that IT has a role to play here. New tools will surely change art and art forms, but we may also see more and more varied art.

Years ago, I lived in Lund, a small Swedish town, and I loved the local Art Museum. It attracted a few touring big-name exhibits, but much of the work was from little-known artists. One month each year the museum even showed the work of amateurs in the town. The Lund Art Museum was accessible -- cheap, near home, and I could exhibit there. I like minor league baseball, and prefer easy access to good art over difficult access to great art, and hope IT will help.

While I hope IT broadens participation in the arts, to date mass/broadcast technology has been destructive of participation [5]. The CD competes with the local orchestra or musician, movies with community theater, television with conversation and reading, and so forth. I hope networks will reverse this trend, leading to greater variety in art and in communities and markets based on its appreciation. (What sort of group art might we create?)


We use many terms for our occupations, like "job", "profession", "career", "vocation", or "calling." Each connotes different views of work. For some, work is an unpleasant means of providing income, for others a source of status and luxury, and for a fortunate few, a transcendental creative outlet. I hope IT skews the distribution of our work away from the "job" end toward the "calling" end.

This century has seen occupational shifts in industrialized nations, as people moved from agriculture and domestic service to the factory. Today, we see shifts from manufacturing to service and information processing. In moving to the factory, we may have lost some of the fun and creativity in our work and increased alienation as people worked on things they did not fully understand and no longer completed tasks and products themselves. We may regain some of those losses as we move toward service and information processing work. Those who end up in data entry will not have gained, but the knowledge workers -- programmers, managers, designers, engineers, accountants, writers, and so forth will. I hope the latter predominate.

There is also variation among activities within our work. Brainstorming this article was fun, drafting it somewhat tedious and anxious, with moments of creative pleasure, and revising it dull, but relaxed. As a teacher, giving a good lecture is fun, but writing and grading exams is unpleasant. Personal computers have reduced some of the drudgery of work and I hope more of this will occur.

The location of our work will also change. Industrialization tended to separate our work and living places, but IT is allowing some of us to work at home again. I am writing this at home. I was able to have lunch with my family and did not have to commute to an office. On the other hand, I may still be working at midnight and had to provide a good deal of capital -- space and equipment -- to be able to work at home. One can imagine the trend to work at home leading to some abuse and exploitation, but one can also imagine improved familial relationships, efficiency, and satisfaction. I surely hope for the latter.

A related issue is worker autonomy. IT will allow some of us to work at our own office, at our own pace, using tools we own. We can become contractors rather than employees. This will suit some people and threaten others. As with working at home, the human success or failure is not a technical question, but one of social customs and institutions.

The timing of work may also change. The industrial work week has shortened dramatically in this century, and I hope IT-related productivity increases will make further reduction possible. (The short term effect of productivity increases is often job shifting and loss). This has not been the case for those in the industry. Technical change makes our skills obsolete, and we run to retrain. We compare accelerated "net years" to "dog-life years," but it is ultimately unsatisfying and destructive of craft to constantly change our tools and skills. I hope standards or other mechanism will eventually lengthen net years.

Training for Work

Some expect IT to be a "silver bullet" that will save the education system by increasing the efficiency and reach of our schools.{footnote 1} I am not convinced educational IT is a labor saving technology over all, nor am I sure it would be a good thing if it were. In addition to improving today's institutions, I would like to see IT provide competition to sharpen them.

Some of the power of the university I teach in derives from its right to certify people as having passed through a program, allowing them to get certain jobs. This is a socially conservative system (children of the affluent and educated get further on the average than others), and is often inefficient. Perhaps the future will provide alternative sources of certification, and employers will be more directly concerned with competence.

If you wished to learn Java programming or study Joyce's Ulysses, how would you do it? Would enrolling in a college course be best? I hope IT affords us alternatives like home study, groups of students interested in a topic finding each other and perhaps a teacher on the Internet, distance apprenticeship or internship, focused-topic courses, micro- payments for help with a homework or training problem, or access to a tutorial on a specific topic. These would tend to empower students and shift responsibility from the School System to them.

Of course, schools deal with more than skills. To varying degrees, they teach us to think critically, socialize, work with discipline, assume personal responsibility, introduce us to role models and mentors, foster curiosity, and so forth. One can imagine networks playing some role in these areas as well.

Energy Crisis

When one thinks of IT applications and the "energy crisis," conservation and efficiency come to mind. We can use sophisticated control systems to achieve more efficient power plants, fuel extraction, factories and automobiles, load leveling through flexible billing, efficient temperature regulation systems, and so forth.

These are good ideas, and I hope they occur, but let's also follow the lead of Ivan Illich, who turned the term "energy crisis" on its head [1]. Illich would argue that, after a certain level of per-capita energy is available, more is detrimental, and that for many of us the "crisis" is a glut, not a shortage. An example is found in our use of automobiles.

The purchase price of a car is only part of the story. We also spend time and resources on maintenance, fuel extraction, refinement, and distribution, construction, maintenance and land for roads, parking lots, gas stations, and dealerships, collisions, anxiety and alienation (dependence upon inscrutable tools is uncomfortable), driving time, parking time, time maintaining, evaluating and purchasing cars (including watching TV commercials), producing ads, police, regulation and licensing, litigation, insurance, pollution, and on and on. I do not know the proportion of the economy or the hours spent on cars, but it would be interesting to estimate their full cost and the average speed a city dweller achieves when all their time is accounted for.

My hope is that people who are below an optimal level of per- capita energy consumption get more, and that those of us who are far above the optimum get (by with) less.

The substitution of communication for travel may play a major role in this area. Those of us who are over the optimum, may see major savings from telecommuting, electronic shopping, or flexibly scheduled mass transit. One can imagine regulations and taxes giving major incentives to move in these directions, and my ultimate hope would be that IT will enable us to begin moving away from cities.

The last 40 years have seen global movement to cities (Table 1), continuing a trend which began earlier in industrialized nations. People move to cities for improved jobs, education, worldly contact, housing, sanitation, health care, and so forth. The resulting crowding is bad for the urban environment and socially destructive. Many attractions of the city are based on information, and I hope that IT will be give people a choice of remaining in rural areas and small cities without sacrificing urban amenities. This will require the planning of communication infrastructure and an attempt to predict its effect on the society, particularly in developing nations [7].

In all of this, the impact of IT will be subordinated to political decisions. I live in Los Angeles, which became a high- energy city after World War II. Other cities saw our energy- based pollution and crowding, yet followed in our footsteps. For example, 15 years ago, Santiago, Chile, had clean air and adequate transportation. Then economic reform resulted in rapid growth, enabling increased energy consumption, and, with open eyes, Santiago chose traffic jams and filthy air.{footnote 2}

Health Care

Can IT improve health care? The first things that come to mind are in support of health care professionals, for example, streamlining billing, insurance and medical records systems and remote diagnosis and consultation. However, by shoring up our current practice, these would also preserve the undesirable aspects of current medicine.

Research and development may be a better bet, for increasing the length and quality of our lives. IT can improve diagnostic and therapeutic tools -- orthrascopic surgery is surely preferable to a 4-inch incision, and within 50 years we may see IT in prosthetic devices. More fundamentally, if IT helps us model and understand biology, including biological information processing, we can expect dramatic therapeutic breakthroughs. That is surely something to hope for.

A lower tech hope is that IT can help de-professionalize health care. (George Bernard Shaw quipped that we had not lost our faith, but had transferred it from God to the medical profession). My wife recently had abdominal pain, and our physician told her to take Mylanta. After talking with friends, we became suspicious of gallstones, and demanded tests which confirmed our diagnosis. Having lost faith in the professionals, I found a server on the Internet with NIH's protocol documents on the accepted diagnosis and treatment of diseases. I downloaded the gallstone document, and, within a day, saw that my wife had classic symptoms, and exchanged email with researchers working on several non-surgical therapies -- I learned that we needed a new physician and became an informed therapy consumer.

My wife had successful surgery, so the story ends happily, but how do we select a new physician? To be active in our own health care, we need information on illness and therapy and on the qualification and performance of professionals and institutions. Politicians speak of the free market improving health care professions, but how can there be a market without feedback, without information for consumers? I hope IT will help.


In nations where there are already free elections, I hope IT leads to a better informed, more motivated electorate {footnote 3}. I can also it helping to lower the cost of running for office and broadening the contributor base, which would be improvements. In local matters, direct discussion might be facilitated, and even some voting.

Another hope to facilitate democracy where there is none. Dictators face a dilemma. They want the economic benefits of IT, but would like to control its political impact. Chris Kedzie [2] used multivariate data analysis to build the case for a causal relationship between IT and democracy, and we have seen cases like the fax machines at Tiananmen Square, Usenet News during the Soviet coup [4], and the Zapatista web site. We see information flowing into and out of dictatorial nations. More important, we see it circulating within those nations, between individuals, political organizations, human-rights organizations, and so forth.

Popular decision making and legislation may also cross international boundaries, as capital does today. Cross-border equity trading and currency exchanges total trillions of dollars daily, and multinational companies are increasingly free to build and invest where they can maximize return. This shifts bargaining power from local labor and residents to capitalists. IT may help redress this shift somewhat by supporting organizations working for international law on labor, the environment, and so forth.

Economic Productivity and Distribution

Our ancestors spent a lot of time creating clothing, textiles, shelter, and food. Technology has cut the time we spend on these activities, paying mixed dividends like improved sanitation and nutrition, population growth, a vast economy in luxury goods, modern arsenals, leisure time, occupational shifts, and the concept of unemployment. Through improved science, design and engineering, production, distribution and more efficient markets, IT can increase our productivity, and I hope it does.

I also hope we use the new surplus wisely. If increased production leads to increased population and income disparity between rich and poor, more weapons, greater urban density, and worker alienation, it will not have been a blessing.

IT may have a more important role to play in the distribution of goods and allocation of work than in production. If we could separate the luxury and necessity economies, producing just the necessities would be a piece of cake. Could we imagine an economy that sought to produce and distribute necessities as efficiently as possible, before allocating resources to a freer luxury economy? When I see an ad for a $1 million bra in a Victoria's Secret catalog, I am discouraged by the values and encouraged by the amount of economic slack such products imply. Distributing necessities to and providing jobs for all, requires political invention and will.{footnote 4} If that will is found, IT could play a role in the implementation.

Will it Matter?

Some might feel my hopes are too conservative. For thousands of years people have been components of physical "machines," like the machines that built the Egyptian and American pyramids. Perhaps we are now becoming components of information machines in which we are "neurons" for a wise, emerging Gaian consciousness. Less mystical optimists like Bill Gates foresee much good and happiness resulting from efficiency and productivity within 50 years.

I have gone a bit slowly because profound change from IT will require ubiquitous, reliable technology which in turn requires collective decisions on standards, massive investment, and a generation of education and assimilation. It will be many years before digital IT is available on the scale of television (Table 2), clocks, electric light, and other mind, value, and society-altering technologies.

However, once the technology is ubiquitous, the changes will be profound. Imagine that even some of my hopes are realized -- personal autonomy and self-sufficiency, productive and fulfilling work, less loneliness, democracy, improved health and education, environmental improvement, expanded dialog, and so forth. These are surely worth striving for.

Even if Simon's floating aspiration levels diminishes the hedonic impact these developments, there will be a more important effect, which Simon calls "iconic" change -- change in "man's picture of his world, in the system of concepts and ideas through which he interprets his experiences." As Marshall Mcluhan, Doug Englebart, Lewis Mumford, and others have pointed out, we shape our tools, and they shape our minds, values, and society [6].

People in cultures in which books, clocks, electric lights and so forth are not taken for granted, are fundamentally different from us. In fifty years, our descendants may say the same. Finally, I was asked to write an article on my hopes, and have therefor stressed the up-side. An alternative would have been to write on my fears, and end by saying "I hope none of this happens."


1. One never hears educational administrators speaking of using hoped-for productivity increases to reduce faculty workloads or increases in their professional development time.

2. Energy consumption in Havana was lowered exogenously, when the Soviet Union stopped subsidizing Cuban oil and trade with Eastern Europe was curtailed. Since the city had grown based on the assumption of available energy, this caused hardship, but even this unplanned drop has yielded clean air, light traffic, and widespread substitution of bicycles for autos.

3. An Election Day telephone poll of 1,030 voters contacted by Worthlin Worldwide, a political consulting group, found that about 9% of voters in the recent elections said the Internet influenced their choice of candidates. (Atlanta Journal- Constitution, November, 22, 1996, pp F2).

4. That political invention has not yet been made -- I am not suggesting that socialism as we have seen it has solved this problem.


1. Illich, Ivan, "Toward a History of Needs," Pantheon Books, New York, 1977.

2. Kedzie, Christopher R., "Coincident Revolutions," OnTheInternet, pp 20-29, 53-54, Jan/Feb, 1996.

3. Pinker, Stephen, "The Language Instinct," MIT Press, 1995.

4. Press, L., "Relcom, An Appropriate Technology Network," Proceedings of INET '92, International Networking Conference, Kobe, Japan, June, 1992, Internet Society, Reston, VA. Reprinted in "The Proceedings of the Telecommunications Conference," Moscow, Russia, June, 1992.

5. Press, L., "Two-Cultures, The Internet and Interactive TV," in E. Mackaay, et al, eds., "The Electronic Superhighway," pp 21-35, Kluwer Law International, The Netherlands, 1995;

6. Press, L., "McLuhan Meets the Net," Communications of the ACM, Vol 38, No 7, July, 1995, pp 15-20;

7. Press, L., "The Role of Computer Networks in Development," Communications of the ACM, Vol. 39, No. 2, pp 23-30, February, 1996;

8. Simon, Herbert A., "A Computer for Everyman," American Scholar, pp 258-264, Vol. 35, No. 2, Spring, 1966.


Table 1: Percent of Population in Urban Areas

                                       Est. annual
Region/                                    growth
Group                    1960     1992  1992-2000

High development          45%     69%      0.2%
Medium development        22%     35%      0.6%
Low development           15%     26%      0.5%
Least developed            9%     21%      0.7%
All developing            22%     36%      0.5%
Industrial                61%     73%      0.1%
World                     34%     44%      0.3%

Source: UNDP Report on Human Development, Oxford University 
Press, 1995,  Development categories are 
based on the UNDP Human Development Index which is a function of 
productivity, health and education.

Table 2:  Numbers of PCs, TV Sets, and Phone Lines per 100 
Inhabitants in Nations of Varying Income Level, 1994.  

Income                       TV      Phone
Level               PCs     Sets     Lines

Low                 .14     11.8      1.48
Lower Middle        .72     19.8      8.4
Upper Middle       2.68     24.1     14.14
High              18.26     59.7     51.92

World              4.14     21.7     11.57

Source:  1995 World Telecommunication Development Report, 
International Telecommunication Union, Geneva, 1995,

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