Ken Edelstein’s son was born Oct. 30. But he’s already writing.

I wasn’t born yesterday. I was born two weeks ago.

My name’s Obi, and I think people who have been around for a while are trying to pull a few things over on me. They coo, and they smile over my crib. They hum gentle songs and swaddle me tight.

But I see the headlines. Climate change, dying oceans, overpopulation, endangered species. What kind of world are you putting me into? In this country, every piece of wilderness, every horizon for my future adventures, may be gone by the time I’m as old as my parents are.

And while Daddy sings lullabies and spins yarns I can’t quite understand yet, I sit here and wonder if even the old-fashioned ways that people passed along stories will disappear during my lifetime.

The crib offers a lot of time for introspection. I ask myself questions like: Will narrative storytelling become obsolete? Will electronic devices become so “intelligent” that at some point I won’t even have to read? And will Daddy’s job (writing) be replaced by a massing of words and data done by machines?

Yes, I know. I’m very advanced for my age. But just stick with me on this.

Most of all, I want to know how Mommy and Daddy expect to prepare me for a future in which communication may change even more radically over the next 50 years than it has over the previous 50 centuries.

So I had Daddy ask those kinds of questions to some real smart people. Some told him right off the bat that it’s silly to try to “pierce the fog of the future” by seeking a view of how people will get information in the middle of this century.

“Here's what honestly came to my mind (with no disrespect intended),” EveryBlock founder Adrian Holovaty wrote back. “I think trying to predict media habits 40 years from now is foolish.”

Jeepers, Mr. Holovaty. That’s a bit unnerving. I mean, I’m already figuring that the climate’s going to change unpredictably over the next few decades. Now you’re saying that the media climate will defy all modeling as well? Isn’t there anything anybody can be sure of in this world anymore?

A fellow named Patrick Tucker was willing to give Daddy more details. A lot more details. He’s senior editor at The Futurist magazine. They specialize in predicting things. He wrote an article last month predicting the “dawn of the postliterate age.”

In an e-mail, Mr. Tucker said: “Within the next 50 years, breakthroughs in IT, cybernetics, and artificial intelligence could render the written word a functionally obsolete technology for conveying information.” Already, getting information online requires kids to do stuff real differently:

“[T]he skills that come into play when one is using the Internet -- i.e. surfing the net for content, chatting, sending IMs, and writing e-mail all at the same time -- are very different from the skills that come into play when one is trying to sit and read a book in order to effectively absorb its contents. One activity favors patience, focus, and the denial of immediate urges; the other stokes visual acuity, reflexivity, and the ability to perform many tasks at once. As electronic communication rises in popularity against traditional writing, new evidence suggests that it actually undermines ones capacity to sit still and absorb static text for any extended period of time.”
Mr. Tucker said that around the time I’m old enough to go to college “computer technology will advance to the point where we can outsource much of our reading to AI [artificial intelligence] entities -- in essence, you'll be able to go to your computer and instead of typing in a keyword and then hunting through a bunch of search result articles to find what you're looking for, you'll just ask your computer and get a straight answer, saving you from having to look it up, or even think about it.”

Woo-hoo! That ought to make homework easy!

Mr. Tucker even said a lot of people will get “wireless implants” that help them surf the web. “A microchip hooked up to your cerebellum might sound uncomfortable, but keep in mind, it wasn't long ago that people scoffed at the idea of carrying around portable

phones.” Ick.

Another man who wrote Daddy back goes to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Dan Schultz is a Knight News Challenge winner who builds “dynamic web systems,” which sounds pretty complicated. He’s practically a kid himself, though. He said he wasn’t in the prediction business, but he gave Daddy’s questions some pretty good thinking.

He’s optimistic. He says that by the time I’m a grownup, I’ll be able to get information from all over the world tailored just for me.

“I think that by the middle of the century we will have cleanly finished the fusion between the Internet as a means for getting information and the Internet as a tool for personal communication. People will be talking to their friends in the same place that they learn about the accident that just happened down the block; they will be able to see what their doctor thinks about the health care bill in the same place that they can read about where it is in the legislative process. In other words, if you think media dominates people's lives today, just wait until you get to 2050.”
That’s kind of like something a man from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told Daddy. Matthew Hockenberry is a visiting scientist as the Center for Future Civic Media there. He says everybody’s going to end up being both an information source and an information consumer.
“So where is your son going to get information from? My sense is that he is going to have to be a more collaborative partner in creating, disseminating and shaping information and news than we have been up until now. He's going to feel like the sharing of information and the redistribution is a natural part of his existence. He'll get his information from colleagues and friends physically present and virtually available. He'll be not just a more involved consumer, but an equal partner in the creation and absorption of media. The only part I'm pretty unclear on is what the medium will look like through which he participates in this process.”
The bottom line question for me is what kind of homework Mommy and Daddy will make me do when I get older.

Mr. Schultz told Daddy that I’ll need “to know both technology and a trade,” “to embrace the concept of network karma (if you make good contributions to the information network, you'll be rewarded),” and “to know how to work with the system to minimize the noise sent his way.” OK. That sounds like a lot, but I think I can handle it.

Mr. Tucker’s view of a world where reading as we know it is replaced by the consumption of streams of data sorted for people by artificially intelligent search engines scares Daddy. Maybe, by the time I’m grown up, it won’t scare me so much.

Daddy says our brains still are hard-wired to gain true understanding through storytelling, so he thinks storytelling will be around for a long time. Someday, computers may be better than people at telling stories. For now though, people are better at it.

So Daddy hopes he’ll still be able to tell stories for a living. And he still plans to read me lots of Dr. Seuss.

Journalist Ken Edelstein writes the Media Mayhem column for the Mother Nature Network. From various coffee shops in Atlanta, he publishes an environmental news site at MyGreenATL.com. 

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