Expect the Unexpected

Seeing how ubiquitous the Internet and social media are in the lives of today’s younger generations, it’s no secret that social media is increasingly becoming the crux of mass communication. And it seems likely that it will only expand from here and begin to encompass many other facets of our lives. But when first introduced to the market, some scientists were quite skeptical of worldwide success of the World Wide Web. Astronomer and computer systems administrator Clifford Stoll wrote a piece for Newsweek in 1995 entitled Why the Web Won’t Be Nirvana. In this article that opposes the beliefs of some of his colleagues, he states, “the truth is no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.” He also claims that instant posts to bulletins across the nation have little importance or verity because each and every voice on the Web can be heard without any editing or fact checking, contributing to a muddled and contradictory conversation.

Boy, was he wrong. In the computer world, Stoll is most known for search for Markus Hess, a German hacker working for the KGB who was able to penetrate files on hundreds of US military computers during the Cold War. Stoll knew the ins and outs of computer systems and yet still could not fathom a world in which “a clunky computer replaces the friendly pages of a book.” All of his apprehensions regarding the future of the Internet have been refuted in just 20 years. Now, every major newspaper has both a website and online subscription option, programs such as Rosetta Stone that has taught 28 languages to users in 150 countries, and Amazon’s Kindle (device and app) that has, in fact, allowed a computer or tablet to take the place of the bound book.

Recently, I saw an article from The Wall Street Journal about an eminent rise in the availability of healthcare apps for smartphones. Eric Topol predicts that digital technology will soon be medicalized. There’s talk of apps in production that have the abilities to track heart rhythms and monitor mental health patients. The idea is that eventually, smartphone apps will be able to take the place of a doctor’s visit with an in-app ability to diagnose, give a prognosis and course of treatment. Of course some conditions will require a visit to the doctor if physical medical attention is needed, like in the case of stitches or surgery. Major consulting firms like Deloitte and PricewaterhouseCoopers suspect that these apps will become the norm for many patients, which can have immense benefits for those unable to pay for a doctor’s visit each time something may ail them.

So, what can we learn from Stoll’s assumptions? We can learn that even the most knowledgeable scientists and mathematicians cannot guess the potential the Internet has in the future. In the last two decades, we have accomplished such things that never seemed possible. I think it’s incredibly valid to assume the medical field will soon be revolutionized by digital technologies. And I think we can even speculate that along with these advances will come realities that were only feasible in our wildest dreams. Who knows? Maybe one day we will communicate to friends/family/peers via holograms emitted from our paper-thin tablets?

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