Answer by Phil Wolff:
Let’s start from what computing and communications in general will be like in 20 or 30 years. I assume they’ll be:
- more pervasive (seamless connectivity, internet of things, etc.),
- more wearable or built-in (contacts, cochlear implants, dermal displays, etc.),
- and we’ll have new services to help us bring that universe from overwhelm to whelm.
One more assumption:will completely blur the lines between spoken and written language, and even which language (Hindi, Pirate, ) you use. So you’ll be able to choose how you want to communicate.
So, in that hypothetical future, email is part and parcel of the whole mix of conversational media. Conversational media have several basic events:
- conversation initiation,
- consumption (reading, listening, watching, feeling, smelling, haptic senses), and
- expression (speaking, drawing, singing, writing, gesturing, etc.).
Discovery. How do you find who to talk to? In the 2010s, work-persona directories () and enterprise discovery services help find the person or group of people to contact for a given purpose. Since we’ll be awash in personal data long before 2040, we’ll have more than “white pages”, “yellow pages”, or “social networks” to find people. systems, serendipity services, topic networks, reputation networks like , tribal event networks like , and location services will help you discover the right person to work with or talk to at the right time.
Initiation. In thirty years your software agent/proxy/broker will field offers of new conversation before they reach you. Think spam filter meets alerting service meets professional assistant. Services will compete on how well they interact with you, how accurately their filters reflect your preferences for interruption and notification, and how well they negotiate a mutually agreeable blend of time and media. These “inboxes” will have a wealth of data to use to calculate whether, when, and how to notify you or to start a conversation: social proximity (you’re both friends of your ex-husband), prior interactions with you and others, affiliations (works for x, belong to y) and endorsements (your mentor says you should take this call), verification of identity, commercial offers (will pay 元10 for nine minutes in the next hour or a Starbucks cup of coffee), alternative ways to spend your time (you’re in line for a concert), your interest in the subject, whether you’re on company/personal/family time, etc. In 2013, Facebook decides which updates of thousands from those you trust fit into the fewer than 100 updates the average person reads in a day; in 2040 you’ll have more control of what shows up in your inbox.
[Side bet: Microsoft or Google will be better than you at choosing which ‘inbox’ items are the most interesting to you by 2020 based on user satisfaction tests.]
Consumption. One of the things people like about Skype is it’s easy to throttle up and down a ladder of intimacy. At the low end are slow-changing mood messages and presence indicators. IM lets you throttle up from asynchronous messaging to live back-and-forth chats. When that’s not enough you can add voice. And when you need to see faces and body language, you move up to video. In thirty years we’ll have more UI presentation methods to choose from like holographic avatars oror having your tweets sung to you in the style of . You’ll have new metaphors and design surfaces for consuming asynchronous conversation. And we’ll find it smooth to rapidly switch among any media and any visualization paradigm.
Expression. Thirty years’ ago in the earlywe didn’t have Internet, smartphones, electric cars, free video conferencing, private spacecraft or nanotechnology. We’re now in the 1980s of 2040, the subject of costume dramas and kids ironically our fashions. By 2040 we should have at least a few more billion people connected to cyberspace, some very intimately. The range of available connectivity, devices, and media will continue to diverge with haves and have-nots.
When talking human-to-human you’ll be able to toss original content – data from what you say or perform – into the conversation flow. The channel should take care of converting it from how you choose to express yourself (longhand, typing, talking, foxtrot) into forms preferred or needed by the other other person; consider this automation of the interpreter relay services provided for the visually impaired or the deaf on phones today.
Your channel will let you play “live streaming producer” on your part of the conversation, feeding media objects into the conversation as you like. You’ll even be able to merge and fork live threads/streams (think git for live conferences).
You’ll also have some control or influence about other attributes of your conversation. Who has the right to share the record of this conversation? How much? With whom? Can records of this conversation be destroyed in real time the way some email services delete email after expiry? Can we have this conversation permanently archived in public? How much anonymity or pseudonymity will you accept?
Toasters and insulin pumps. But email is not solely the province of people. We’ve been hooking up machines to email for decades. By 2040 we’ll have trillions of sensors and devices engaging in conversation with people and each other. Notifications from our bodies (), our things, and our places will be in our s. Our inboxen will test Inquiries from stranger devices just like inquiries from strange people: Is this notification from the bus you’re riding worth your attention now? If so, what’s the best context and form for engaging with it given you’re in a space where it’s impolite to talk and you’re using your hands to hang on for dear life? Some conversations just don’t need words, after all. You may just need to see a chart or hear a message; you may just need to grunt or wave in response. Remember to buy a premium personality for your pacemaker: for an extra two percent, the Bollywood star of your choice will be its living avatar.
Personal vs. Work. Do you remember when you had separate email accounts for each job, for your personal life, from your school, and for volunteer gig? Umpteen mailboxes? Whilst it keeps your peas from touching your potatoes and your boss from talking with your mistress, the actual act of juggling mutliple accounts is painful. You’ll have one queue, one spew of inbound offers to talk from every part of your life. You may offer different faces/handles/personas for each context the way you hand out personal and business email addresses now, but your single, seemingly self-aware “inbox” will let you wear the appropriate mask and project the appropriate identity for each. New legal constructs, like, will support this.
Work vs. Talk. You asked specifically about email for business. Email and other electronic media are part of how labor markets work today and how workers get things done together. So let’s talk about thefor a moment. Thirty years from now, on the other side of wars, famines, depressions, disruptions, and alien invasions, many elements of work will be the same: many of us will rent our time to people or organizations that will pay us. But expect much of that work, to be done with, if not through, your communication channels. There will be no need to have separate toolkits for conversation vs. metawork (work about work, like scheduling, to-do lists, project management, budgeting, etc.) vs. collaboration. Context providers will let you “skin” your full-body-browser to add the features that blend work, metawork and conversation together. Think of it as Bring Your Own Inbox/Phone/Reality. So whether you’re sortieing with your squad for work, tweaking your bots for fun, or negotiating a contract for your family, you’ll use the same conversational media.
Somewhere in 2040, email as we know it in 2012 will continue to flow. But we’ll be thinking about “email” then the way we think about teletype consoles and punch cards now: antiques that paved the way.