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Future Surf

The Future Surprises Those Looking in the Wrong Direction
Jamais Cascio

Future Surf is an annotated hotlist about tomorrow. The Internet sites this page will link to concern issues that may be important to us in the near (and sometimes the not-so-near) future. I do not simply mean emerging technologies; I take a fairly broad view of what might be important. I'm as interested in what changes our art as in what changes our machines. Nor do I mean this to be predictive. These pages are not some sort of "official future" of what will happen.

I would like Future Surf to give us a glimpse of what tomorrow may hold for us.

Who the hell do I think I am?

I'm the Technology Manager for Global Business Network, a future-oriented consulting firm in the San Francisco Bay area. My job puts me in contact with a wide array of people thinking about what the future may hold, and an even wider array of new toys... er, technology. I have a BA in a double major of history and anthropology, and a Masters in international politics. I have written short pieces for the Washington Post, Wired, and Time. I am married, with no children (but with four computers).

Future Future Surf columns will present a mix of longer, multi-link, topics and shorter one- or two-link click-bys. If a click-by topic elicits sufficient response, I'll expand it into a longer section for a later piece. I am also always on the lookout for new trends and ideas. If you know of a site on the Net that you find fascinating, drop me a line at and tell me about it.

Nanotechnology has gotten just enough mainstream press to make it as a buzzword in science fiction movies. The underlying conceit of nanotechnology is that, just as the organic world can construct living things the size of blue whales or sequoias out of molecular-level machinery (DNA), humans will soon be able to create macro-scale products with astonishing precision and power using human-devised molecular-scale robots. Furthermore, the ability to operate at this level will allow for the creation of entirely new items at that level, from embedded supercomputers to ultra-efficient disease fighting agents. The most influential articulation of this concept came in the 1986 book, Engines of Creation, by Dr. K. Eric Drexler. "Engines" lays out, with careful logic, the steps leading to a working molecular technology. Equally important, the book examines the possible social, political, and economic results of such a revolution. If even a small portion of what Drexler envisions came to be, it would be an utter transformation of the industrial world. Drexler and his colleagues (including Xerox PARC's Ralph Merkle) went on to found the Foresight Institute, an organization dedicated to making molecular nanotechnology a reality and seeing this transformation in our lifetimes.

Unsurprisingly, the feasibility of nanotech is fairly controversial; Scientific American's April 1996 issue included a scathing review of the state of the technology. The magazine's web page on nanotech also includes Dr. Merkle's response to the review, as well as a few links to other nanotech sites. A longer list of connections can be found at the Molecular Nanotechnology Page.

A nanotech-related site worth checking out for the aesthetic pleasure alone is the image gallery at IBM's Scanning Tunneling Microscope Pages.

Much more visceral pleasures come from the musical work of MOD hackers. The MOD (from music MODule) scene is one of very few exclusively Net sub-cultures. MODs are a special sort of sound file, containing both audio samples (as with typical WAV and AIFF files) and track/effect information (as with MIDI files). MODs (and their sibling file types, S3M, MTM, and XM, among others) are constructed, edited, and traded electronically. Most MODs are original compositions, but music elements sampled from popular songs (and even from other artists' MODs) are common. A good -- if somewhat hard to read -- site to begin learning about MOD files (and to download a player appropriate for your computer) is at The MOD Page; another good jumping-off point to find out more about MOD hackers is the SuperUnknown site.

Once you've poked around a bit, and have downloaded a player, take a look at these music archives:

MOD Archive
MOD list at
MOD list at Washington University St. Louis

This is probably my favorite MOD (you may need to instruct your browser to save rather than open this link).

Believe it or not, the Net sometimes provides useful information. Transportation departments across the United States are gradually adding sensors to the highway systems to allow for real-time traffic monitoring. Some have cooperated with local businesses and schools to make this information available on the World Wide Web. Real Time Traffic pages give up-to-the-minute reports on speed, congestion, and possible accidents in a straightforward map format.

Granted, few people have access to web browsers in their cars (yet), so these sites aren't of much use when you're actually on the road. But for commuters who wish to check road conditions before the nightly crawl home, these sites are wonderful.

Real Time Traffic sites can currently be found for these regions:

Southern California

Interestingly, some areas that could really use the service (Washington DC, the San Francisco Bay area, New York City metropolitan region) are not yet up and running. It's likely that the missing factor is a business or school willing to work with the local transit authorities. (Note that, of the six sites listed, only Seattle has links to the official Department of Transportation web site.)

Ever since Neuromancer the popular conception of cyberspace has included navigation in a three-dimensional representation of the Net. The first real world technology to get close to this ideal is Apple's HotSauce, formerly known as "Project X" (a much cooler name, if you ask me). This software (available for both Macintosh and Windows NT/95) allows browsers to navigate web sites in pseudo-3D space. The look is still fairly utilitarian, with lots of generic ovals and squares and terse identifying text. The functional approach works well, however: finding resources on large sites is much easier with the HotSauce interface than with typical site maps.

MIT's Things That Think links you to some preliminary work on the creation of what could best be termed a smart environment. Smart rooms, smart desks, even smart clothing are under development. Although their outward structure differs, however, these devices remain visibly computers. To compare an alternate form of this vision, take a look at Mark Weiser's Ubiquitous Computing work at Xerox PARC. Weiser envisions a future where computers are everywhere, but essentially invisible.

The American Patriot or Militia movement owes much of its rapid expansion over the last few years to the decentralized many-to-many communication possible on the Net. While the press interest in militias subsequent to the Oklahoma City bombing has died down of late, various militia groups continue to grow. The Militia Watchdog keeps track of the Net presence of these groups, and includes links to their web sites, so that they can be judged on their own words.

The notion of a data haven was explored in Bruce Sterling's cyberpunk classic Islands in the Net. Once again, reality has caught up with fiction faster than anyone would have suspected. Offshore Information Services on the Carribbean island of Anguilla provides storage of sensitive material, safe from everything except hurricanes.

For thoughtful world news reports - from a decidedly non-U.S.-centered perspective - there are few better options than The Economist. One of the oldest news weeklies, it is remarkably technology-savvy (it even had a gopher site with article archives back in the days before the Web). For those who don't have the time or the opportunity to read the print version, The Economist will now email world and business news summaries weekly, for free; link to the Economist News Mailing List to subscribe.

That's it for this edition. Next time on Future Surf: living on Mars, war on the Net, and Principia Cybernetica. Keep those cards and letters coming. G'night!


rafeco said:

If you're looking for something that could change the face of civilization as we know it, the spread of tropical diseases to the rest of the world (or the mutation of existing diseases to new strains that can't be treated) have a much better chance for success than a disastrous run-in with an asteroid.

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Topic 13 Deep Futures

Topic 38 AI and computers that are "smarter" than people

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Also in Future Surf:

Head First into the Future
The future of chaos, warfare, urban living and more.

It's the Only Way to Live.
In Cars.

The future of the automobile and the road we drive it on.

Intense Pulses of Light
The latest edition of Jamais Cascio's Future Surf looks at security, warfare, turf battles, and social discord on the Net. Plus, neat magazines and a question about lasers!

Complete Archive




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