Put down your smartphone app and think far, far ahead. Media prognosticators rarely do this, perhaps because advertising clients and digi-journalists gain more from toying with the latest Twitter group chat update than they do by conceptualizing the state of media 100 years from now … but a far-forward forecast could be worth the effort.
So let’s play the prediction game.
Before we start, here is our inspiration: the brilliant book “The Next 100 Years,” in which George Friedman examines the macro trends of history in attempt to predict world events through the coming century. It’s an amazing feat, reeking of intellectual arrogance, to try to foresee 100 years of future events … until the reader discovers that Friedman has a solid methodology.
Friedman bases far-forecasts on geopolitics — the combination of national resources, locations on the globe, culture, and economics — which has ongoing patterns that make shocking events, such as World War II or the terrorist attacks of 9/11, predictable. Individual players on the planet, even presidents or kings, typically have far less power than we imagine, and must play upon a chess board that is already set. The future, it seems, can be predicted, if you really examine the macro trends. For instance, looking backward, Friedman argues:
- It was inevitable Europe would become a global power in the 1800s, because it needed supplies from Asia, and after Turkey cut supply routes over land Europe sought a route west to India by sea and thus learned to manage the oceans — controlling global commerce.
- It was inevitable that the United States would win the cold war over Russia in the late 1900s, because allies to the United States could “sell in” to its vast consumer demand set, making U.S. friends rich, while Russian allies might get weapons but end up impoverished.
And, looking forward, he suggests:
- The United States will remain the leading world power in the 21st century, because it controls the world’s oceans, due to its fortuitous placement between both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, thus controlling trade.
- There will undoubtably be another horrible global war in the 21st century, given the tensions between the rich and poor and the continued belief of humans in their personal nation states.
- And this war, like all others, will eventually end, and generate new technology systems from the wartime investment that lead to sources of clean power and communications we today can barely imagine, such as microwave energy beamed down from outer space — the most efficient way to capture energy from the battery in the center of our solar system, the sun.
Oceans, human antagonism, and sunlight are all constants, and they will define our future.
So what is the real far-future of media?
Here are our predictions: (1) Environment monitoring, driven by sensors around us; (2) virtual visual overlays that are constantly on, created by the inevitable shrinking of screens until they fit in your contacts; (3) ambient personalization, as you control what you see everywhere; and (4) societal upheaval as we relearn how to interact with other humans in a virtual world.
1. Sensors everywhere — Behind all the Nielsen updates on multiscreen use or Pew reports on social media fads, the truth is information flows only two ways — to us or from us. While media writers remain fascinated with toys, the biggest trend in information flow is the spread of connected sensors in all devices. The iPhone 6 has six sensors built into it — including proximity, motion sensor/accelerometer, ambient light, moisture, compass, and a gyroscope — coupled with GPS features that pinpoint the phone’s location. The Disney Research lab has created a Touche interface that can turn the surface of any object, such as a table or couch, into an input sensor by monitoring vibrations created by human contact. Philips has launched “design probes” that explore tattoos with sensors that disappear based on touch, and clothing that changes color based on your mood.
With sensors everywhere, you will be tracked. Tracking will require control, so humans will use that to personalize their environments (a benefit) while suppressing unwanted third-party oversight (a cost).
When you walk into a room in 2070, the room will know who you are.
2. Screens everywhere — Concurrently, the spread of screens is obvious. At SXSW Interactive last spring, the head of the Consumer Electronics Association, Gary Shapiro, said that within 10 years consumers will buy wall TVs — or whatever we will call high-resolution digital screens that fill an entire wall. Apple has a patent for holographic wall screens that project 3D images to both eyes of each user in the room, without them wearing googles, by monitoring the location of their heads. And Microsoft has just launched a HoloLens goggle prototype that overlays 3D images on reality with a wider field of vision than the (recently aborted) Google Glass. As big TVs grow into walls, little visual screens will also shrink into contacts.
With screens everywhere, you will see whatever image you wish to pull up.
3. A personalized universe — The great media prediction for the next 100 years is that humans will be able to retreat into completely personalized bubbles of vision, overlaying data about others in their contact lens, porting their images into virtual meeting rooms thousands of miles away, and pulling entertainment into the real world around them. Because if everything (from couch to table) senses you, things will recognize your preferences, creating demand for automated content that overlays your reality to meet your unique needs.
From a content creation perspective, this will unlock a gold mine of opportunity for film (hologram) producers, game designers, social media entrants, work/office productivity software, pornographers (always the earliest refiners of visual technology), religions (where belief systems could now be “seen” as reality), and yes, marketers (who will find a way to support this content with some form of advertising over there on the side). This information rush will become fuel for economic growth, with visual services an entire new platform for monetization.
4. Societal unrest — These media trends are our predictions, not Friedman’s, but he has a point that may refine ours: Every evolution in society comes with unintended consequences. The vast rise of visual screens and the concurrent measurement of human personal preferences on every surface device may unearth new social dynamics we cannot anticipate. Will people become more gregarious as they seamlessly are able to beam their avatars into the world? Or will humans retreat into dream bubbles, like those poor enclosed battery souls in the Neo Matrix, asleep in cocoons while they envision a fantasy of greatness?
We cannot predict that. But one thing is certain: The far-forward future contains much more than an iPhone.