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One of 24 Metaverse Summit question-answer sets: Ethan Zuckerman shares his thoughts on the networked future

This page contains one of a set of 24 transcripts including remarks made by interview participants at the Metaverse Roadmap Summit at Stanford Research Institute in May 2006. Each person was asked a series of five questions regarding the future; only the most “telling” responses were transferred from the recordings into these transcripts, thus, some of these interviews will include five question-answer sets, some will have four or fewer.

To jump to another interviewee’s set of answers, click on the person’s name below.

Bridget AgabraRandy FarmerJerry Paffendorf
Betsy BookGuy GarnettMarty Poulin
Corey BridgesWill HarveyRobert Scoble
Iveta BrigisDaniel JamesJohn Smart
Jamais CascioRaph KosterDavid Smith
Helen ChengMike LiebholdSibley Verbeck
Esther DysonJulian LombardiMalcolm Williamson
Doug EngelbartBob MooreEthan Zuckerman

  >> Return to Metaverse interviews lead page for links to recordings of these comments

Zuckerman HeadshotEthan Zuckerman, a research fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, specializes in ICT development. His work covers telecom policy, free and open-source software, and participatory media technologies. He is a cofounder of Global Voices (www.globalvoicesonine.org), a community of citizen journalists. He works with the Open Society Institute’s Information Program. He founded Geekcorps, a volunteer group that sent tech experts to work with ICT companies in the developing world. He is also the former CTO of Tripod.com.

What is your greatest fear for the future of networked technologies? The simple answer is I do not have a tremendous amount of fear for the networked future. I do think some of the new technologies that people are compelling almost to the point of addictiveness. And I do think that in the same way that I watched some of my friends in college drop out of school playing MOOs and MUDs, we’re seeing people drop out of life in general playing massively multiplayer online games. While I think that’s interesting and a little troubling I don’t think that’s the sort of thing one legislates around. I don’t think you can prevent people from encountering these things. Instead it’s a really interesting indicator that these games are doing things and providing things that are missing in the rest of our society. It’s a really interesting question. I think if we’re finding that people are getting some sort of social stimulus that they otherwise lack (by going) online, first of all, at least they’re getting that stimulus. I know a lot of my online relationships are at least as important as my offline relationships. But it’s also a really interesting question about what are the social spaces, what are the constructs that allow people to interact or not interact with the people who are physically proximate to them. So, I don’t have a whole lot of fears. I don’t particularly want a positive future in which we’re all locked in, staring at our boxes, but to the extent that I am locked in staring at my box, there are many ways in which my life has gotten better and more interesting. My box connects me to a lot of interesting people in really interesting corners of the globe. As long as this is something that we do, as long as it’s a tool that we use in a larger, full and complicated life, I don’t have a lot of worries.

What is your most fervent hope for the future of networked technologies? My vision has to do with getting all six-plus billion people on this planet communicating with one another, and I’m willing to sacrifice a great deal of the high end to grab the pervasiveness of networked technology. I’m not especially interested in 3D spaces, flashy animations, being able to simulate physics on a computer. What I’m interested in is the ability to listen to the stories and the experiences of people all over the world talking about what’s going on.

Looking out more than 10 years, what development will have the greatest impact on society? I get excited about extremely lightweight clients, the spread of the mobile phone … how do you use this not just as a one-on-one device but as a publishing platform or an interacting platform. I’m interested in the aggregation of filtering of content – how do you listen to six billion voices? Someone’s going to have to help you sort through it. I’m interested in translation, which is an enormous problem as we start trying to deal with an internet that is not a de facto English internet, but also has an enormous Chinese populations and other language groups growing rapidly.

What technology will have the greatest impact on our everyday lives the next 10 years? (There are) two that I would love to see happen in the next 10 years – but I’m not sure will happen even in the next 10 years. One is truly reliable speech recognition that allows a voice interface to create content. We have all this enthusiasm about podcasting right now, and podcasting is very nice and fun – you can imagine how fun it would be if I could pick up my cell phone and say a few words and have a blog post out of it. But right now you’re creating an audio file, and there’s huge problems with those – you want a text transcript for searchability and for translation. The other big one, as I mentioned before is translation – really good machine translation, to the point where I can pick up my phone and I can talk to my friend Isaac and he can speak Mandarin and I can speak English and we’re unaware of the language the other is speaking because it’s being seamlessly translated and it appears in that other person’s voice. That’s the sort of miracle-type scenario that would have an enormous social impact – just absolutely enormous. The ability for people in countries that we don’t know about and don’t pay attention to to report their own news and call attention to situations, if they could make the news they needed and in the language that they spoke would be tremendously important.

What do you think policymakers should do to ensure a positive future for networked technologies? The most important thing toward a positive networked future is network neutrality. It’s essentially ensuring that the networks we use are capable of carrying whatever sort of content people can invent. There’s a real push right now to essentially allow companies to prefer one type of content over another. The first content we’re likely to see this on is voice-over-IP traffic. Generally, networks run by phone companies, which may be running their own phone services, don’t typically want to carry Skype phone calls or Vonage phone calls – and we’re already seeing, in Canada a network essential degrade the traffic of Vonage. This ends up being an enormous problem for anyone trying to innovate on the internet. If you allow a network to say, “OK, I’ll sell you internet access, but I’m going to optimize it for my services and those services include video streaming and e-mail but not virtual worlds,” for instance, and then someone comes along and virtual worlds suddenly become very important, you have a whole set of people who are functionally cut off from that corner of the net. What’s worked so well about the net so far is we’re all on the same internet. You make the decision of what provider you go with, but ultimately you’re going to get the same bits. That’s now under threat. And that’s an enormous danger that policymakers should be considering seriously.

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