Blurring the boundary between bits and atoms

Culture is disappearing into the web, warns author

Author and futurist Mark Pesce gave Wellington’s Webstock conference a personal vision of the future of the internet and its relationship with the world’s real objects and people.

He started with an account of his experiences of the early days of the web. Its rapid growth in use from 1994 on owed more to the web’s “seductive human face” than the technology behind it, he says. “The web exploded [in the 90s] because it appeared to every single person as the object of their desire. It is the perfect love machine.

“Nothing can confirm your prejudices better than the web. It is the reflector and amplifier of all things human and we [early users] were completely unprepared for that.”

The whole of human culture is being sucked into the web, Pesce says and has become instantly accessible to the 4.5 to five billion people connected to it.

Culture is not merely being copied into the web, important parts such as books, are disappearing into it, he suggests.

“Over the next decade perhaps half the books will ephemeralise into digital form; they will disappear into the ether; they will never be seen [as books] again.”

Yet, despite this absorption, the web is still an experience distinct from the real world. Today’s web is at a green-screen “flashing-hyphen” stage of development, Pesce says; basic but pregnant with possibility. The future will entail a merger of the real and digital worlds in “augmented reality”.

Real things will be viewed through the lens of the web, he says. Holding up a hand-held device to a building, for example, you will be able to view copious annotations on its architecture and history. “The implicit will become explicit.”

This is not, however, simply a link to a static stored database. It will link the real object to the vast network that represents the cumulative interpretations of that object and related things in the real world, by a horde of web contributors.

You will point your web device at a book, he says, and be able to see which of your friends have read it and what they thought of it. The book, which has clung to its solo relationship with the reader, will “submit to hyperconnectivity and be subsumed into the network”. The hard and fast line between the digital and real worlds will fade.

Pesce paints a picture of the near future when a scan of a packet of steak in the supermarket with a digital device, will reveal the meat’s history right back to the animal on the farm. Or when the essentially digital information in everyone’s genetic code will be able to be combined with the known properties of a medication, to tell you immediately “whether it will cure you or perhaps kill you.” Digital devices and the web will intimately link real-world objects to each human’s desires for his or her well-being.

Pesce points to the Apple iPad as an early tool in the disappearance of the “threshold” between digital and real. It is a human device, he says; “the genius of Apple’s design is that it has been stripped of anything that signifies ‘computer’.”

Such devices, in tandem with the web will “write meaning into the real world”, Pesce says.

Asked whether he is simply describing “the semantic web”, Pesce says his vision of the future goes further. “The idea of the semantic web has been about pushing to get machines talking to one another.”

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