Anyway, in the meantime, it struck me that back when I was an undergrad, I was talking with a computer science major about the way the Internet might change our thinking (and use) of software.
At the time, I suggested that eventually we might be able to dispense with most other software if we had good enough web browsers: music, video, office tools, and more could all simply run off the web if bandwidth were high enough and the browsers were developed well enough. Indeed, I suggested that the function of browser might subsume the older idea of OS — wherein the OS essentially just supports a kind of firmware OS/browser. I didn’t have that vocabulary then, because this was 1995 or so, but that was the general idea.
The computer science major told me that was impossible, not practicable, and so on.
Well, the OS hasn’t disappeared… yet. I’d bet Google is moving towards something like this, as more and more of what we used to do on our own computers is moved online. I can see something like that on the horizon for personal computing — and really, I can imagine the iPod working this way once wireless broadband gets as widespread and cheap as (or cheaper than) cell phone coverage is today.
The negatives are clearly visible. Pay-per .doc, controlled access of media and other cultural product archives, and so on… it’s all a little spooky. But either way, it just goes to show the creditability in what Clarke said about someone declaring something impossible: it’s not just distinguished elder scientists. Young people who are very up-to-date on the latest technologies can mispredict stuff just around the corner. And weirder, people who know very little about technology can make wild guesses that come weirdly close to what eventually really develops.
Which is not to say people who know less are better at guessing. It’s just that knowing the technicalities of today is a different skill set from guessing something of the vague shape of tomorrow.