20-20 Vision of Digital Life in 2025

Pew Research Center recently published its vision of Digital Life in 2025, based on predictions from over 1,000 experts who generally said the Internet would become “like electricity” – more deeply embedded in our lives but less visible.

Word Cloud - Pew Research examines Digital Life in 2025

Before I present the top 15 themes from the Pew report, here’s my own Back to the Future vision of technology and and its impact & challenges, based on an article I wrote 11 years ago. It looked back 20 years to George Orwell’s 1984 and then forward 20 to the year 2024, and I present it here because it’s helpful to see a history of where things have come from as you contemplate the future. Futurists, however, will tell you that forecasting is not as simple as just extrapolating trends.

20-20 Vision of Technology

By Wayne Caswell

This article was first published in the CABA Home & Building Automation Quarterly in 2004 but is still valid today since it helps create a vision of 2024 technology that I think is as valuable as the Pew Research. While it starts with a historical look at past trends, it doesn’t just extrapolate trends.

The article aimed to help developers build homes that outlast the mortgage, but they would first need to embrace the unlimited possibilities. Only then could they visualize a version of the future they prefer and set that as their destination.

Looking Back to Orwell’s 1984

Let’s start by reviewing key developments from twenty years ago before looking forward twenty years or so. January 1984 wasn’t quite what George Orwell envisioned in his book, but that year serves as a benchmark for how far we’ve come since. Likewise, some of my predictions may never happen while others will be too conservative.

January 2004 marks the 20th anniversary of three key events that shaped our era:
3 landmark events that shaped our era

  1. Breakup of AT&T – The largest antitrust suit in American history broke up AT&T, created seven regional “Baby Bells,” deregulated the long-distance market, and created competition. No longer would a single carrier monopolize telecommunications, own every phone line, and manage every call.
  2. Legalized Video Recorders – Content owners in Hollywood sued Sony and argued that VCRs lead to copyright violations, but the Supreme Court didn’t agree. As it turns out, the “Betamax ruling” didn’t hurt the movie business and cleared the way for a multibillion-dollar videotape business where Hollywood makes more money from rentals than box office.
  3. Launch of the Macintosh – Apple’s graphical user interface sparked a major change in how we interact with PCs. And now Apple’s new iPod player and iTunes music service are changing digital music too, resolving similar digital rights issues as the Betamax case.

These three landmark events signaled a convergence of computing technology, telecommunications, and content.

Other important technologies from 1984 include the CD-ROM and portable CD players, the camcorder, the laser printer, and IBM’s PC/AT, which marked a shift in the company’s PC strategy to focus more on large enterprise customers and less on small business and consumers.

Highlights since 1984 include handheld PDAs, GPS navigation, direct broadcast satellite, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, digital & high-definition television, flat plasma TV screens, DVDs, digital video recorders, MP3 players, Auto PCs, wireless home networks, broadband Internet service, the start of service bundling, e-commerce, and more.

Technology has already changed home design. With hang-on-the-wall plasma displays, we no longer want a large hole in the wall for a 35” direct view TV set. But we do want network connections to stream audio and video from our DVR or media center to TV sets and stereo systems in other rooms. That’s just a start of design changes we can expect.

The Internet

The Internet changed how we live, work, play, buy things, communicate with others, and participate in society. For study purposes, it has five major components:

  1. The Network Itself – media (copper, coax, fiber, wireless), bandwidth, latency.
  2. The Applications we Run – as the Net gets faster and integrates into cars and homes, access devices get smaller and new apps & user interfaces appear.
  3. The Content we Access – all information about everybody: our report cards, love letters, arrest records, medical histories, sales receipts, tax reports, surveillance videos, history of web site visits, email, and IM & newsgroup postings.
  4. The Devices that Connect – from desktops to handhelds and embedded devices – they’ll work together over the Net.
  5. The Location and Context – Internet access from everywhere (office, home, car), where we must consider the context of that location.

By 2024, the very fabric of society will be bathed with Internet access, and what we know about the world around us will depend on the networks.

Gigabit Networks

There’s little need for gigabit home networks when most homes dialup at kilobit speeds. Even DSL & cable networks offer minimal performance with about 1 Mbps downstream and 56 Kbps up. U.S. broadband connections are slow compared to countries like South Korea.

Broadband Policy – South Korea has the highest penetration rate of any nation – 95% of households are covered and 54% subscribe. Korean Telecom offers VDSL (2-40 Mbps) for just $25/month, and another $8 adds Wi-Fi access.

Aggressive Korean policies call for ubiquitous broadband access of 155 Mbps to 5 Gbps by 2005. The government has already made direct investments of $2 billion in a national backbone network, $600 million to promote digital content, and $100 million in loans to service providers who deploy new access networks. And they’ve committed an additional $30 billion for public/private broadband infrastructure by 2010.

U.S. policy makers must wake up and realize that an aggressive policy will help us compete in the global information economy. And builders and equipment makers should demand and expect performance of at least 100 Mbps and probably much faster.

Home Networking Standards – Faster processors help improve the performance of different media and networking standards.

Ethernet, which appeared in 1985 at 10 Mbps, has since evolved to 100 Mbps, 1 Gbps and 10 Gbps already. Some people recommend using cat.5e or cat.6 cabling for gigabit networks, but faster chips will soon that that speed to cat.5 cabling.

HomePNA (using phone wires) and HomePlug (using power lines) are two no-new-wires home network standards that appeared around 1998 with 1 Mbps performance. HomePNA 3.0 now supports 128 Mbps, and the pending HomePlug AV spec will also support speeds up to 200 Mbps.

Even wireless standards are pushing past 100 Mbps with proprietary Wi-Fi extensions available at 108 Mbps. Twenty years from now, wireless should easily reach gigabit speeds and could replace all need for cabling. Until then, install cat.5 cabling (or better) where feasible.

Convergence of Services – Service providers that survive industry consolidation will offer a “triple play” bundle of voice, data and video services – available at lower cost, with greater performance, more function, a single monthly bill, and a single support line to resolve problems. They’ll need home networks to connect TVs, PCs, stereos, and phones.

Applications Online

The “network is the computer” when apps move online, and Web-advertising makes most of them free, where all you need is a browser – on a PC, TV, PDA, or phone.

Shared Apps & FilesMove the apps and files online, and you get remote access to everything (pictures, music, floor plans…) from anywhere. You can share what you want with family, friends and business acquaintances. Forget about installing software and keeping it up to date. Data managed by a trusted service guarantees its security and safety, and even if your house burns to the ground, those treasured photos, movie clips, recipes, and tax records are still there – for as long as you like, and shared with whomever you like.

Speech & Agents – What happens when machines listen, speak and appear intelligent? Smart agents act on your behalf, either because they are taught (rules-based agents) or because they learn on their own (through sensors that recognize temperature, motion, voice commands, and even faces).

With smart agents and speech recognition, machines and humans can work side-by-side, speaking to one another. The latest systems no longer sound like robots and instead sound like anyone you want. They’ll soon be able to hold a conversation in natural language with a large vocabulary, answering questions and performing tasks.

Since microphone distance is an issue for speech apps, you might need a microphone array with digital signal processing to eliminate noise, echoes and reverb so voice commands are understood when you’re far away or close by. Or you could simply wear a wireless Bluetooth headset with speaker and microphone.

The increased use of speech recognition is driven by smaller devices without keyboards, and enabled by faster processors and more memory. I don’t think speech will be the primary interface, however, just an optional one. That’s because sometimes we want quiet, like when we’re working late and don’t want to disturb others, or when it’s easier to hit a switch than say “lights out.”

Digital Content & Rights Management

Broadband networks with a mix of voice, data, and video help eliminate redundancy and dead space, including the idle time when no one is talking on the phone, the dead space between words, or TV channels that no one is watching.

Compression – Digital content is easy to compress and decompress (codec) and helps to further eliminate redundancy. It can be either “lossless” (for data apps) or “lossy” (for pictures, music and video where users notice little difference).

Music & Radio – Digital compression improves broadcast radio, whether it’s the new HD Radio format, satellite, or live streaming via Internet, and faster processors make for even better compression so networks can carry more interesting content.

The MP3 music codec made it easy to send music through the Internet over relatively slow connections, but it raised concerns about intellectual property. Apple’s iTunes music service has since found a way to protect the rights of artists and record labels while also making it easier to buy and download music.

For homes, this means consumers will want easy ways to distribute music to speakers anywhere.

Digital Video & Television – The digital video recorder and its ability to bypass commercials destroyed the old advertising model; so new business models are needed. We can expect a mix of video-on-demand, subscription services, personalized ads, and product placements with hotlinks to buy or just find out more.

T-commerce is a term describing personalized ads that match viewer interests so they’re more effective. Interaction adds the ability to find more information and buy online while advertisers gain a way of knowing who is interested. Nearly every home in 20 years will have highly interactive digital television, but you may still want to just sit back and watch passively.

Even when everyone can record video and publish online, a few large media companies will provide most of what you watch, because few people have enough talent or funds to make compelling programs.

MPEG-4 is a fairly new video codec that needs far less storage and bandwidth than MPEG-2. Rather than 3 Mbps to send DVD-quality video, MPEG-4 needs only 750 Kbps to get nearly the same quality. And instead of 20 Mbps for HDTV, MPEG-4 needs just 2-3 Mbps.

Terabit PCs with Lots of Storage

Moore’s Law describes a semiconductor trend where transistor density doubles every 18 months so products keep getting cheaper, smaller and faster with no end in sight. That trend will soon put high-end PC power on your fingertip.

Embedded Computing – As technology disappears into everyday devices (light switches, smoke detectors, doorknobs, appliances, jewelry, eyeglasses, clothes, toys and other consumer electronics), we move from the 1975 mainframe era of hundreds of people sharing a single computer to an era of embedded computing with hundreds of processors per person.

Wireless Networks – You won’t need to run cables to the smart toilets and windows since wireless networks complement your structured wiring. Even though wireless is the best option for mobility and will eventually support all of the apps you can imagine, wiring will still be the most reliable, secure, and best performing option in 20 years.

The exploding PC – More and more PC functions are moving into networked appliances, and printers, gateways and hard disks already connect to Ethernet. That way PCs, DVRs, game consoles, media centers, and other devices can all use them.

With ultra-fast broadband access, these PC functions can move onto outside services, but it’s not clear what will be stored locally or remotely. It is clear that you’ll have lots of storage available.

Disk Storage – The desktop PC of 1984 had a 20 MB hard disk, a 16-bit processor, a clock speed of 8 MHz, and a retail price of over $5,000 (in 1984 dollars). Today’s desktop is 250 times faster and has 2000 times more storage with a 40 GB disk.

If we still have desktop PCs twenty years from now, which I doubt, they’ll each have terabit processors and 2 petabytes of storage, given the current trend.

What would you do with 2 petabytes? Store a million feature-length movies? How about recording everything you hear, see, read, and write each day, so you can recall it later from your wearable computer, heads-up display, and wireless network? Never forget a face or name or birthday or anniversary.

Solid-state Memory – The capacity of postage stamp size, non-volatile flash memories will increase to 1GB this year and soon hold feature-length movies, but that’s just the beginning. Researchers are developing an inexpensive, fast, low-power, and non-volatile memory device that can replace flash, DRAM (dynamic RAM), SRAM (static RAM), and embedded memory in system-on-a-chip processors.

MRAM (magnetic random access memory) uses magnetism to store data instead of electricity, so contents remain when power is off. MRAM is faster than static RAM and can be dense enough to replace the hard disk. MRAM devices will also use far less power, be more reliable with no moving parts, and eliminate the delays of saving data to disk, shutting down, or booting up.

Remote Access & Security – Following the mantra of “any content, anytime, anywhere, on any device,” wireless devices can control home apps and access home files. However, builders must understand the security issues.

I’ve seen multi-million dollar homes where the systems integrator provided wireless access to the home security system without knowing how easy it is to break the weak security of Wi-Fi and gain access to the home and its contents.

Displays Grow Large & Small – Since large TV displays keep getting thinner, forget in-wall cubbyholes and think about getting power and network cables to wall-hung TVs.

As mobile displays get smaller for wearing on eyeglasses, large TV displays will get much larger – even wall-sized and building-sized. We may find that the 1080p HDTV format, which looks great on 70” displays, is not good nough for walls, so we may need new formats and faster networks.

Media Server – It’s not clear what sort of converged device will become the dominant media server, managing collections of music, movies, photos and Internet content. If it’s a PC, it goes in the home office; and if it’s a set- top box, it goes in the family room. Either way, we’ll want to send content to any PC, TV or stereo and control the content from there.

Convergence at a New Level

The last 20 years were about the convergence of computing, telecom and content; but the vision of an e-society with anywhere access to all human knowledge depends on pushing the technology drivers and removing the inhibitors, including complexity, security, social, economic, and political barriers.

That’s why I envision a new set of convergence spheres that bring together Nano-Science, Information Science, and Political Science.

Convergence of Information science, Nano-science, and Political science1. Nano-Science – The nanotech evolution is shrinking semiconductor features to molecular and atomic dimensions, and that will extend Moore’s Law well into the future.

With individual components self-assembled from molecules, and with nanometer connections, the circuits will be much smaller and more powerful than anything made from silicon. They may also be so inexpensive to make that they’re essentially free, and with this scenario, the value comes from programming the circuits.

The result for homes will be hundreds and thousands of intelligent devices that work together, assuming that other barriers are removed and standards allow.

2. Information Science – Believe me, your financial transactions, written opinions, love notes, inquiries and disclosures are already online somewhere and there to stay. How will you find them when you want them, and secure them so others can’t?

As we collect more information, we must learn more about the nature of information itself so we can use machines to search and parse the data and deliver useful knowledge and insight.

3. Political Science – The most difficult problems – universal broadband access, copyright, free expression, social networking, due process – have technical issues but aren’t really technical problems. They depend more on politics, business models, policy, changes in laws, and other factors.

Who will be the new political and business leaders? What companies, industries and nations will dominate? The business leaders must innovate more and rely on gut instinct, and the policy makers must have the courage to avoid political pressures from powerful lobbyists and focus instead on public good.

Education will become an even more important factor as students struggle to keep up with evolving science and consumers find it difficult to adopt technology and accept change.


The future isn’t what it used to be and is coming faster than ever. We can’t just study the past, extrapolate trends, and learn about what’s possible. The greater challenge is in knowing the right things to do, so we must also study changes in consumer behavior, lifestyles and attitudes, and social, political, demographic and economic trends.

This article was just a start, and you may now want to check out my other Trends articles on HomeToys.com.

About the Author

Wayne Caswell is a retired IBM technologist, market strategist, consumer advocate, and founder and senior editor of Modern Health Talk; but before mHealthTalk he founded CAZITech, an independent consulting firm serving broadband, wireless and home network markets with management education and marketing services.

15 Themes from Pew’s Digital Life in 2025

Here are the 15 themes the Pew Research Center identified in its report, with my perspective added after each one. Much more detail from the other experts is found in the report itself.

1)    Information sharing over the Internet will be so effortlessly interwoven into daily life that it will become invisible, flowing like electricity, often through machine intermediaries.

The smartphone, which has only been around for 8 years, offers a good view of the disruptive power of tech innovation, enabled and accelerated by Moore’s Law. While the iPhone created new jobs in tech, it was the cause of many more jobs lost, because it disrupted so many industries. In your pocket you now carry not just a phone but also a GPS navigation system, camera, camcorder, photo studio & albums, portable stereo, your entire music collection, television, alarm clock, flashlight, calculator, and much more, not to mention near instant access to a world of information on the Internet. With so much change in just 8 years, what might the next 10 years bring?

2)    The spread of the Internet will enhance global connectivity that fosters more planetary relationships and less ignorance.

With always-on access to the Internet and a free Translate app on your smartphone or watch, your world can easily expand beyond international borders and the English language. Imagine playing your instrument in a music ensemble where other musicians and the conductor are spread out everywhere around the globe, or American school kids collaborating with those in Japan, or participating in a TeleHealth video call with a physician in Taiwan who speaks… Tai.

3)    The Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and big data will make people more aware of their world and their own behavior.

While there’s been too much marketing hype about the Smart Home and Internet of Things, and the vision may come slower than expected, it wouldn’t take much to make it come faster instead. It all depends on exploiting natural market drivers and overcoming inhibitors, and that’s where futurists add value. AI might allow your digital world to anticipate and respond to your every move, but it is already automating and eliminating jobs, so here’s an article about which jobs are the most difficult to replace.

4)    Augmented reality and wearable devices will be implemented to monitor and give quick feedback on daily life, especially tied to personal health.

I’m not a fan of virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift, because they’re way too cumbersome, but Google Glass and Contact Lens aim to bring consumers a more acceptable form factor. Unfortunately, the very public fail of Google Glass has setback the vision of where these technologies can go. Still, no matter the form factor, imagine technology that improves and augments your vision much better than normal glasses do today. Think of adding night vision, zoom vision, or the ability to see beyond the visible spectrum of light, including ultraviolet, infrared, or even radio.

5)    Political awareness and action will be facilitated and more peaceful change and public uprisings like the Arab Spring will emerge.

As more of the otherwise illiterate and ill-informed global populations learn about disparities in income and access to healthcare, clean water, nutritious food, and education, and see these as human rights; we may see more protests and uprisings. Access to information has the potential to be a great equalizer but also a polarizer if information is selectively funneled.

6)    The spread of the ‘Ubernet’ will diminish the meaning of borders, and new ‘nations’ of those with shared interests may emerge and exist beyond the capacity of current nation-states to control.

High speed Internet access across international borders comes with new challenges for governments, including licensure, patent protection, and other rules of society that must evolve to support e-commerce, telehealth, telework, and more. Will they be able to respond quickly enough to enable beneficial innovation and discourage or prevent malicious use of technology? That’s doubtful.

7)    The Internet will become ‘the Internets’ as access, systems, and principles are renegotiated.

The Internet is already a network of networks and will continue to evolve that way, with private networks that protect security & privacy or to separate different classes of communication, connected to public networks.

8)    An Internet-enabled revolution in education will spread more opportunities, with less money spent on real estate and teachers.

“The biggest impact on the world will be universal access to all human knowledge,” according to Hal Varian, Chief Economist for Google, and I believe it. Watch the video of Easton LaChappelle, a 17-year old inventor who spoke at TED about his 3D printing, prosthetics, and animatronic limbs. He started this work at age 14 using the Internet to research and learn about electronics & sensor technologies, programming & modeling software, 3D printing & industrial design, and wireless networking. Now think of all those How To videos on YouTube and the free courseware available online at MIT and Kahn Academy, imagine how distance learning can enable young people everywhere to innovate as quickly and powerfully.

9)    Dangerous divides between haves and have-nots may expand, resulting in resentment and possible violence.

Depression and despair are already fueling increased violence and attacks against authority, and it’s largely driven by the widening wealth gap. Most Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, have no idea what inequality actually looks like, so I encourage you to watch this video infographic. It’s followed by video clips from “Inequality for All,” a documentary featuring former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who served under three presidential administrations — Ford (R), Carter (D) and Clinton (D). If our nation, and the world, can’t find a way to contain the widening gap, which is largely fueled by tech innovation, then more violence is inevitable.

10) Abuses and abusers will ‘evolve and scale.’ Human nature isn’t changing; there’s laziness, bullying, stalking, stupidity, pornography, dirty tricks, crime, and those who practice them have new capacity to make life miserable for others.

Cyber-terrorism, abuse, fraud and other dirty tricks are a natural result of incentives being disproportionately larger than deterrents in a simple reward vs. risk equation. It seems that crime pays with a widening wealth gap, high profit potential, and a low risk of getting caught and punished. As reported this week in the New England Journal of Medicine, fraud has even entered the scientific community through peer-reviewed journals, likely fueled by a trillion dollar drug industry. Retracting fraudulent articles only serves as an embarrassing slap on the wrist, not a real deterrent. What we need are stiff fines that are far larger than any potential financial gain, along with loss of license and potentially prison.

11) Pressured by these changes, governments and corporations will try to assert power — and at times succeed — as they invoke security and cultural norms.

Because corporations, the converged news media, and governments can filter Internet content to effectively control social and political climates, I expect we’ll see public demand for paid services that promise unfiltered truth.

12) People will continue — sometimes grudgingly — to make tradeoffs favoring convenience and perceived immediate gains over privacy; and privacy will be something only the upscale will enjoy.

Most people, especially the young, seem willing to share sensitive information about themselves and their health as long as they see a benefit, even sharing health information with friends while seeking advice, but news reports of big hacks causes concern. So products and services that avoid or guard against hacks are gaining traction. At the recent Innotech Austin conference, nearly a third of all exhibitors showed off security products. And Apple just announced that its latest iOS browser has the ability to turn off all advertising, both to improve performance and security.

13) Humans and their current organizations may not respond quickly enough to challenges presented by complex networks.

As Albert Einstein once said, “It has become appallingly clear that our technology has surpassed our humanity.” So I guess we’re no better now than then, as the good guys keep struggling to stay a step ahead of the bad guys.

14) Most people are not yet noticing the profound changes today’s communications networks are already bringing about; these networks will be even more disruptive in the future.

One of my biggest worries is the effect tech innovation will have on jobs and the wealth gap. Will we have the courage to stand up to wealthy special interests, fund strategic national investments to help retool skills, provide temporary unemployment assistance, help people out of poverty, and develop a healthy and productive workforce?

15) Foresight and accurate predictions can make a difference; ‘The best way to predict the future is to invent it.’

Thankfully, the technology that promises to turn our world on its head is also the technology with which we can build a “brave new world” with an unlimited ability to collaborate, share, and interact. ‘The best way to predict the future is to invent it.’ It is a very good time to start inventing the future.”

Humans have always had the ability to adapt, and Americans are especially adept at innovating. We often rely on futurists and tech experts to help us anticipate different paths that the future could take, and in doing so help us plan for our preferred future as well as contingencies. That’s what I attempted to provide in the related article that follows.

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