The University of Pennsylvania's Online Computing Magazine

Mar 1996  Volume 12:4

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CyberSociety 2046

By Jill Maser

Earth has only two classes of society: the techno-haves and the techno-have-nots. The techno-haves visit friends across the globe, cavort on sun-drenched beaches, and enjoy the best of Broadway's plays - all without leaving their homes. The have-nots exist underground in crime-ridden decay. They have no access to the technology that makes the good life possible, nor to education, the key to survival in the year 2046. Is this the stuff of science fiction?

Not so, according to several groups of Penn students assembled recently to discuss how the world will look in the year 2046. Although each group articulated virtually the same vision of a frightening underground uprising by the have-nots, all the students remain optimistic that technology will also bring forth changes for the good of society and the planet.

Some of the students' thoughts mirror those that accompanied the advent of the VCR. It was thought then that "nesting" would become prevalent, that people would spend less time outside the home, opting instead for the comfort of home theater. But while video stores have proliferated, movie theaters continue to rake in our entertainment dollars. We may prefer nesting at times, but as one student said, "We are inherently social, we need to socialize." Indeed, many of the students see technology opening new channels for us to meet people we would not normally meet. While "a small percentage of the population will remain Internet freaks," technology will allow efficiencies in everything we do, including socializing.

In the 50 years since the birth of the ENIAC, the world has already become a smaller place. Communica tion is easier and faster, and media coverage of world events is instantaneous. The students see a continually shrinking world, one where real-time capabilities, such as coverage of news and financial markets, will infringe on our "down-time."

But technological advances will also allow us more time to think and be creative, which will in turn lead to innovation and better technology. Economic growth will occur, some world problems will be solved, and exciting innovations in the arts, sciences, business, and govern ment will take place.

All the students agree that regardless of the outcome of technological innovations over the next 50 years, some level of social responsibility needs to accompany the advances.

We will, for example, enjoy viewing three-dimen sional murals. We will be able to call up the name of a playwright and view a production of the play we select. The medical profession will change. Specialists will not need to come to the hospital, and surgeons will perform their miracles from remote locations. Virtual diagnoses will be possible, and animated programs will show us our ailments and how we might overcome them. We will be able to make sophisticated decisions about our care.

Mechanical language translators will eliminate embarrassing faux pas as we communicate with colleagues around the world. We might see privatized mining operations set up on nearby planets. And we might elect our President and Congress by voting on the Internet.

A more disturbing scenario is the social division and turmoil that the students foresee. As technology invades every aspect of our lives, those who have access to it and to education will rise to the top of society, and those who do not will become the "slave class of the technologically literate elite."

The situation will generate two responses. Some techno-haves will break away and "get back to basics." One graduate student imagines that "people will opt out of the techno race and create communes where they can experience real human contact and diversity. Spiritual communities will spring up on the coasts."

Those less privileged, the techno-have-nots, will become a rebel class. All the students envision some kind of backlash against the "haves." They believe that as the gap widens, the have-nots will go to greater lengths to commit crimes to get a share of money and power. Instruments of crime will become more deadly. Just as warfare has become less personal with the introduction of computer-launched and tracked missiles, instruments of personal and corporate crime will also become remote. People will create viruses to disable technology. People will kill for fun.

The students also see a parallel divergence between countries that have money and technology and those that do not. While technology makes information readily available and leads the way for movements such as glasnost, some nations will remain outside the informa tion age because free access to information makes it harder to control their citizens. As one student noted, technological advances are easy compared to the diffi culty of changing people - especially people responsible for governing a populace they fear.

Exploitation will be the only way to survive a critical time when there will not be enough food, space, or money to go around.

Picture of South Philly Grafitti

The graffiti pictured in this article cover city walls in Philadelphia. They, along with other examples of graffiti around the world, can be found at the Art Crimes site on the World Wide Web. URL: [The photo above is by Dan Fishman and the graffiti is by Slae; the photo and graffiti at the top of this page is by Meak.]

The students picture a couple of large, technologically advanced countries dominating the world. Will these countries help the rest of the world or exploit others? Here the students diverge. One group thinks that powerful countries will simply invade "uncooperative" countries and take what they need or want. "It all boils down to politics versus resources," said a student who believes that exploitation will be the only way to survive a critical time when there will not be enough food, space, or money to go around. Other students see good relations among countries, fostered by the improved communication capabilities. Industries of the future may not have to be located in today's first -world countries. New technology will allow information - and perhaps even products - to be sent around the world in new ways. Powerful hubs such as those in the United States and Europe may become obsolete.

How will some of the horrific elements of this vision come about? As one student noted, "People who develop the technology aren't necessarily concerned with its implications; people use technology to increase power and wealth." Another student, concerned that technology provides the means for us to "abuse our anonymity," noted that "cruelty to others and taking no responsibility for our actions are products of a dehumanized, desensi tized society." All the students agree that regardless of the outcome of technological innovations over the next 50 years, some level of social responsibility needs to accompany the advances. If society does not consider the implications of the uses of technology, some of the more frightening scenarios described by the students could easily become reality. Let us hope that CyberSociety 2046 is indeed the stuff of science fiction.

JILL MASER is Director of Operations Analysis in the Office of the Executive Vice President.