Technology is about possibilities. Phones increase how many people you can connect with. Cars, how much ground you might cover. Powerful, highly networked computers may shift your every situation, changing what you might do and where you might be, every hour of any day.
Everything is possible, a continual auction of time, space and attention. It could mean ultimate freedom, or a whole new kind of control.
Imagine a world rich enough in sensors, databases and analytic software to do all this. It will be possible by 2020. The primitive stirrings of it are here already, in everything from suggestions about what to read next at Amazon.com ( AMZN – news – people ), to real-time traffic information on Google’s ( GOOG – news – people ) Android phone. Microsoft’s ( MSFT – news – people ) Natal gaming software responds to how you move in space, with no controller or gaming device at hand. All that’s needed, beyond the bigger computers, is greater awareness of how things interoperate and what role you might play, depending on price, urgency or your own needs.
One morning in this new world you wake up 20 minutes later than usual. Traffic is heavy today, and your company elected to pick up a few carbon credits through everyone missing the rush hour. Your alarm clock received instructions about the delay and knows when and where your first meeting takes place. You have time.
You go to a coffee shop. There are several lightweight pads there, free for the borrowing. You personalize the settings with a password, fob or fingerprint. Your mail, your schedule and all the documents you need are at hand. Some are videos, which you watch on the pad’s screen, or with a small portable projector and 3-D glasses.
Videos play in order of priority based on agreements with your employer, or software capable of prioritizing tasks. Your attention is allocated by the needs of the moment.
Even the off-peak commute subway is packed, and you want the space to think. A real-time auction buys you space in a “prime seating only” subway car, and sensors ensure maximal distance and comfort for paying passengers. You have rented the available privacy.
You need reminders of your office’s new location. The space is rented anew annually, maximizing allocation. Inside, you cannot tell it is a different space, since the layout and furnishings are stored in a remote data center, and every space is personalized. You have space.
A meeting room has holographic representations of individuals in other countries, and simultaneous translations of whatever they say. Language, once the core of cultural sovereignty, is a neutral space in which all may play.
Your personal habits are stored, along with your dietary intake and vital signs, thanks to improvements in perspiration-reading sensors, wireless communications with menus, and heart-monitoring wristwatches. It matters for your personal health, of course, but also in the calculation of what risk you represent within the pool of payers to your health insurer. Your lifestyle is another element in the auction: Eat a bacon burger, pay a higher premium.
Personal connections are reinforced by choices afforded around who you might see, what films are playing where, whether restaurants want to bid for your patronage, and any other combination of personal and external choices, established by a stored memory of choices you made in the past.
This world of continuous connection and continual auctioning of goods, services, and attention promises social efficiency we have never known before. Nearly every space is neutral, waiting to be occupied by the right quotient of what we want and what the world can permit.
It is all plausible. Much of it is here now, in the form of cafe wi-fi, which allows a coffee table to be an office space, or a study carrel, or an open plan cubicle design. This auction world takes these trends and adds elements of personalization and dynamic interaction.
But of course, pushing a trend far enough fundamentally changes the larger natural order: Who will make the rules by which the auctions run? What will it feel like when all space and much time is effectively neutral? Will we welcome losing our collective stamp at durability?
Reading that, one might recoil. But then, we do not yet occupy this auction world, or assume it as the norm. Our recent forebears may likewise have shunned a world where we lugged around machines into which we continually typed, but everyone today seems happy enough with them.
Too often, futurists paint a world that is exactly like what we have today, in terms of our needs and desires. Science fiction writers have made the opposite error, and created worlds, often distant, in which everyone has somehow become much smarter, and morally improved. Like most things, the reality tends to hover in the middle–our consciousness is changed by technology, but many of our deepest drives are not.
We will have a level of connectivity and awareness, of connection to the world and each other, that we cannot even imagine today. We may be enlarged and celebrated as individuals, but also evaporate into a statistical mass. We will hunger for display, self-expression and a sense of exceptionalism. Offering people that, a way out of the database and the auction, may be one of the great roads to wealth.