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Elgan: Will gadgets make knowledge obsolete?

When everyone can find out anything, anytime, anywhere -- why learn?

June 20, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - In the 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, author William Gibson describes a future in which people can acquire knowledge by buying special chips called "microsofts" that plug into a surgically installed jack behind the ear. Once you plug in the chip, your brain can access its database and — voila! — knowledge!

It's an interesting and creepy idea, but one that we're going to have to face eventually. No, not painful implants; we're going to have to face the problem of education in a world in which nearly all knowledge is available to everyone, instantly, all the time.

A mere 20 years ago, almost no one had heard of the Internet, had ever used a cell phone or even knew what "GPS" stood for.

Today, most people I know over the age of 12 use the Internet every day, access data all day on their cell phones and use GPS gadgets to get from one place to another. Mobile broadband is rapidly getting faster. Mobile devices are getting radically better screens and user interfaces. And the whole world of data access on mobile devices is quickly bringing us to the point where we can find out just about anything from anywhere.

Where will we be 20 years from now in terms of our ability to access any information from anywhere? The mind boggles. Let's look at a few trends.

Trend No. 1: The rise of Internet-connected smart phones. Smart phone shipments are up 29%, according to market research firm Gartner Inc., and now represent 11% of the worldwide cell phone market. In many countries, they represent the majority of sales. As handset prices drop, and data plans and online services become more compelling, smart phones will largely replace "dumb" phones for just about everybody and become totally mainstream.

Trend No. 2: The increasing speed of data connections. Both the number of people upgrading to mobile broadband, and the speed of those connections, are rising very fast. Cell-phone maker Ericsson predicts that mobile broadband subscribers could reach 2.2 billion within five years. As of January, there were 204 HSDPA (3.5G) networks in 89 countries either fully operational or well on their way. This level of performance will quickly go mainstream, and users will start looking forward to 4G, or Ultra Mobile Broadband (UMB) performance on their phones, which will be capable of downloads as fast as 280Mbit/sec., two orders of magnitude faster than DSL on a desktop PC!

Trend No. 3: Improvements in user interfaces. The Apple iPhone and its ginormous, high-quality screen and intuitive user interface reset the bar for how easy and appealing grabbing online data over a phone should be. Imitators abound, and all are scrambling to produce ever better mobile-data experiences.



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