The Future is Now | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 27.06.2007
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The Future is Now

The World Wide Web as an interactive, collaborative platform for data exchange -- best known as Web 2.0 -- has become, in industrialized countries, at least, a part of everyday life.


Will computer programs replace the human need for face-to-face contact?

The Internet revolution is showing no signs of fatigue. Millions of people are writing Wikipedia articles, reviewing books at Amazon, evaluating articles they bought at eBay, publishing their holiday photos on Flickr and presenting themselves on Facebook. Wherever they are, they are part of a larger network that knows no national or cultural borders.

"The internet has become a platform," said technology publisher and Web 2.0 guru Tim O'Reilly. Millions of networked personal computers are providing access to "the one global, electronic brain that we're creating."

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This collective brain is processing vast amounts of information at an increasing speed. Companies are already using data freely available on the Internet to look for and contact their potential customers.

Jeff Hammerbacher of the social networking site, Facebook, asserts that his company does not sell its users' data, but it negotiates with advertisers what additional analysis can be performed on the very private details that often appear on the site.

Web search giants Yahoo and Google, while claiming to be very protective of their user data, also point out that they follow the law in the countries in which they operate and are obliged to cooperate with law enforcement agencies, when asked to do so.

Data collection with no limits

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In theory, at least, the possibilities for data collection and aggregation on the Web are limitless. Data mining expert and former chief scientist at Amazon, Andreas Weigend, said that if GPS signals from cellular phones were available to everybody, his students could, for instance, figure out that he was 15 minutes late for his morning lecture, if they saw his cell phone emitting its signals 10 miles(16 kilometers) away from campus.

If, however, he'd make it to the lecture hall on time anyway, the police could, as Tim O'Reilly points out, also conclude that he must have exceeded the speed limit on the road. A speeding ticket could easily follow.

Social network platforms such as Facebook and Myspace -- in which users set up their own pages, profiles and links to other users with similar interests -- can't say anything on their own about the actual relationships between two people: Would they really get along? Can they trust each other?

O'Reilly, however, believes that software applications will soon be able to make decisions in the social realm that were previously reserved for humans only. If an application can make the decision, which would normally require a face-to-face contact, then it can also decide if it should give out somebody's phone number to a third party.

Additional value through global data collection

The development of new technologies goes hand in hand with the transformation of society. Five years ago, people would think twice before writing something intimate on a postcard, well-aware that anybody could read it. Nowadays, personal web logs -- or blogs -- are filled with publicly accessible, personal information.

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Young people, especially, find nothing extraordinary about this. While benefiting from the added value of global data collection, they are ready to contribute their part.

Web researchers agree that digital devices will continue to play an increasingly prominent part in everybody's life. In China, says Andreas Weigend, one million cell new phones are sold every day. Farmers in the country may not have a computer, but they do have cell phones. "And the government sends them, for example, information about health care on their cell phones," Weigend said.

Soon, other devices for accessing information will come into play as well. Smart radios and other wireless devices, for instance, will avoid transmission bottlenecks by reconfiguring themselves to use frequencies that they sense are clear.

One Laptop per Child (OLPC) -- a non-profit organization chaired by MIT Media Lab founder Nicolas Negroponte -- is developing a $100 (75 euros) portable computer for children in developing nations as part of a mission to bridge the digital divide between industrialized and lesser developed countries.

"We'll be surprised"

The Silicon Valley, for its part, has definitely recovered from the 2001 crash. New startups are launching -- although everybody is somewhat more cautious than in the past.

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It is, however, getting crowded on the Internet market. The big players are already swallowing the smaller ones: Google now owns the video-sharing platform YouTube, whereas Yahoo purchased the photo-sharing site Flickr.

This, according to Tim O'Reilly, is to be expected in the development of a new technology. The more participants a network has, the more valuable it becomes. And those who were there first, profit the most.

What is certain, at this point, is that there is no way back. It's hard, however, to make any predictions about future technological developments. O'Reilly sums it up the best when he says: "I think we can expect to be surprised."

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