Inspired by John Naisbitt’s eerily accurate 1980 book, “Megatrends,” Stephen Abram, a leading international librarian, looks ahead 20 years to make his predictions about trends that will change the world. Here’s what he says will likely go down in 2012:
1. We’ll switch to virtual payment systems.
The way we pay for things is about to change drastically, Abram says. While the first “frictionless payment system” called Square was introduced in 2010, Abram predicts these virtual wallets will really capture the public imagination in 2012. Instead of using credit or debit cards, you’d have a device attached to or built into your smartphone that allows you to pay for something instantly.
It seems like online payment companies such as SalesVu, Google Wallet, and Ben Milne’s startup Dwolla have arrived at the perfect time — amid Occupy Wall Street protests and growing disgruntlement with giant financial institutions that issue credit cards. Dwolla bypasses credit cards altogether.
2. We’ll all be using smartphones, sooner rather than later.
Before these frictionless payment systems can take over, the majority of the U.S. population has to be using smartphones. At the moment, 40% of Americans use smartphones, Abram says. He believes we’ll reach the tipping point next year, thanks to the explosive growth of Android phones and the iPhone 4S, and the possible release of iPhone 5 in 2012. Plus, Microsoft upped the ante with Mango, the update for its Windows 7 Phone. Mango offers more seamless integration with Facebook, letting users text, phone, email, IM, or tweet anyone on their friends list. But perhaps the most frictionless Facebook integration will occur when the social network launches its own smartphone in partnership with HTC, possibly late next year.
3. Social networking will go to the next level: commerce.
Speaking of Facebook, have you noticed how you’re suddenly seeing lists of articles your friends clicked on? Well, they didn’t post them; Facebook did. Next year, “you won’t actively write things on your wall; instead, the wall is going to start self-populating with your behaviors,” Abram says. “Believe it, yes, it’s creepy.” (Facebook is also rumored to be going public between April and June 2012.)
Naturally, the tech industry, particularly sites such as Twitter and Google, sees tracking as a “massive economic opportunity.” First, your preferences can be mined for market research and personalized advertising. Then, anything you recommend — from books to concert tickets — can be sold to your friends on the spot. “You have to remember you’re not Google’s customer,” Abram says. “You’re the product that they sell to their advertisers.”
4. This new form of advertising will follow you through GPS and geotagging.
Does that sound like Big Brother to you? Well, our world is about to get even more like science fiction. Remember the scene in “Minority Report” where the subway ads and billboards address the hero by name?
With the GPS and geotagging features in your smartphone, advertisers will not only know who you are and what you buy, but they’ll also know where you are, Abram says. That way, they can send coupons and promotions tailored to your tastes and location. For example, when walking by a store in a different city, you might receive a text message inviting you to come in for a sale.
5. Every smartphone will have a voice-operated assistant.
Siri, the voice-operated personal assistant app on the Apple iPhone, was possibly the biggest technological breakthrough of 2011. It’s just the beginning, Abram says.
Siri “is the scariest thing to Google and Facebook right now,” he says, because it frees users from the keyboard and reduces the friction between the smartphone and the people who lack the skills to fully exploit it. “There are other ones coming along in the back room that haven’t made it out as quickly.”
6. Information clouds will redefine what it means to own things.
As digital information clouds continue to expand, you’ll see fewer people with great collections. At some point, we’ll be able to stream all our music, TV, movies, and books through subscription services. “It’s one of those frog-in-the-frying-pan things where you’re just unaware that you’ve changed your perception of what it means to own,” Abram says. “It’s shifting from owning content in a physical format to owning priority personal access, and that’s going to keep happening in 2012.”
7. Digital curators will rise in importance.
With this influx of information, Abram believes trusted Internet influencers will become even more important. Everyone you know can make recommendations, but who shares your tastes? At the same time, so-called content farms are flooding the Web with information, some of it incorrect or misleading, with hidden biases or agendas. If we’re smart in 2012, Abram says, we’ll start to look to credible sources for information — professional curators, professionally managed databases, and knowledge portals — instead of the first site that comes up in a search.
“That’s going to be the next step,” he says. “If we don’t get through that step, we’re going to have such a diminution of intelligence within culture that we have Big Brother at a very scary level, where you’re not even aware of how you’re being manipulated.”
Ultimately, Abram is hopeful about our technological future. “I see people being more connected and knowing more about each other,” Abram says. “I want to have a world where people understand each other, and I see that happening. But maybe I’m an optimist.”
Lisa Hix is a freelance writer and a former Yahoo! editor who has been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Glamour, and Bust. She’s currently an associate editor at Collectors Weekly and a KQED Arts blogger. Find her on Twitter.
Photo by Blake Patterson/Flickr