Today is something of an unofficial pop culture holiday: October 21, 2015, is the date Doc Brown, Marty McFly, and Jennifer visit in “Back to the Future 2.”
In the final scene of the original “Back to the Future,” Doc sets the time machine circuits for this date. The words he then speaks are surprisingly accurate, though for the wrong reasons.
He’s right: where we’re going, we don’t need roads. But it’s not because we all drive flying DeLoreans: it’s because the Internet is fundamentally changing the way we live, and the infrastructure we build to support this lifestyle. In an article in the “Harvard Business Review,” authors William H. Davidow and Michael S. Malone argue that the Internet isn’t just changing our social landscape: it will change our physical landscape, and the future will look more like the past than the present.
Why the Present Looks the Way It Does
Davidow and Malone argue that basic 20th-century infrastructure evolved as a solution to the problem of transporting information. To exchange the information needed to make society work, we had to gather together. To do so, we needed cars, roads for them to drive on, parking lots to store them, and massive infrastructure just to keep them full of fuel. This infrastructure, they argue, is nothing more than an information transfer proxy.
Why the Future Will Look Different
Know what else is an information transfer proxy? The Internet. It has already significantly altered the way we exchange information, and as it continues to do so, our infrastructure needs will change. In other words: where we’re going, we don’t need roads.
• We don’t need them to get to work: we have video conferencing, email, Cloud storage, and many other solutions to share information between employees in multiple locations.
• We don’t need them to go to the movies: we can get films streamed to our laptops and TVs.
• Utility companies don’t need them to restore power following a power outage: networked “smart grids” locate the problem and reroute power automatically.
• We don’t need them to shop: we have countless online shopping options.
• Soon, the online vendors we buy from won’t need them to ship our purchases to us: Amazon is already pursuing delivery via airborne drone. What’s more, 3D printing might mean that delivery of future items is nothing more than a file downloaded to your home printer, which actually creates your order.
As the Internet continues to reduce our reliance on roads to transfer information and goods, the authors write, we’ll need fewer roads, fewer retail stores, and so on. This change could have a dramatic effect on what our future looks like in a physical sense: if cars created the suburbs, as the article says, will a future with fewer cars still have a need for suburbs?
Not Even Hollywood Predicted This
“Back to the Future 2” made some good guesses about life in 2015, especially considering the film was released in 1989.
• We have flat-screen TVs and phone calls that provide video in addition to voice.
• We even have working hoverboards.
• We have baseball in Miami, and the Cubs are in the playoffs. Hoverboards are one thing, but that’s a bold prediction.
• And in a self-fulfilling prophecy, Nike built the self-lacing sneakers seen in the film.
But what’s more interesting is what the movie didn’t predict. For everything the producers imagined for the future, they didn’t predict the Internet in any significant way. Perhaps the video call is part of an Internet that goes unmentioned, but the film never really hints at any sort of computer network that fundamentally transformed the world, which seems like a topic that might come up at some point.
Which Would You Rather Have?
We didn’t get flying cars, but we do have the ability to connect with each other and transfer data at multi-gigabit speeds. While the former does admittedly sound awesome, the latter is far more useful. We can’t help you find a pair of those self-lacing Nikes, but we can help you find an Internet plan so fast it gives you back more of your future by reducing upload and download times.
As Marty would say, “That’s heavy.”
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