No matter how this election ends one thing is clear: what happens online in the next decade will have an increasingly important effect on our daily lives. Until recently politics, warfare, commerce, and education has mostly been offline. That will change drastically in the next ten years.
But isn’t the world already digital? Most of it is but the places that it isn’t – parts of rural America, the third world, huge swathes of Asia and India – are getting more bandwidth than ever. Our devices are constantly online and listening and our homes are full of things that glow, beep, and buzz.
Look at the news. The FBI is using Malware “like a grenade.” Legal pot sellers are using the Bitcoin to skirt banking regulations. The coffee shop has been replaced by the Facebook thread. The two biggest crises of this US election are based on the infallibility of network memory. In one corner Clinton was constantly attacked for an email server and on the other side Trump was attacked for things he said in passing that spread like kudzu through the Internet. Ultimately both sides used the Internet to magnify their message.
Social media is just the beginning. We are already offloading most of our petty tasks to computers and as they get smarter we’ll offload even more.
A plugged-in fried of mine expects commercial quantum computing to come online in five years. This means we’ll have more computing power available to us (and our cloud services) than ever. Our devices are constantly listening and at the ready and self-driving cars are coming faster than we expected. While many technologies, including blockchain, will take decades to mature we can expect parts of these technologies to embed themselves in our lives in the next few years.
We must react to these changes quickly or be quickly left behind. The digital-first government services cropping up in Estonia and the pro-startup movement in Poland are perfect examples of countries doing it mostly right. The bad news is that legislators are bailing water out of a sinking boat and not plugging existing holes. Banking regulation is woefully behind the times as is the slow crawl of drug legalization. There are no clear ways forward to catching and trying international cybercriminals and in an era when the next military attack could come from the Internet that’s pretty scary. 3D printing is a great hobby but it quickly get derailed by talk of 3D printed guns and drone bombs. We are at once ignorant of the extent and danger of our digital world and deathly afraid of it.
The next ten years will require us all to understand the vagaries of email servers, how to react when the credit card system is shut down by Anonymous, and how to avoid getting hit by ransomware. We’ll be plugging in more and more often and the world may look like an episode of Black Mirror if we don’t start actively separating the online and offline by putting our toys away and looking each other in the eye. And, in the end, the pace of change will keep rising, leaving the angry, the afraid, and the uneducated behind. I’d wager it’s our collective mission to make sure that doesn’t happen and, if it does, that the damage is limited and the lessons learned are the good ones.