No Keyboards, Just Talk

Old fogies - those of us over 21 - never experienced the Internet during our formative years, which makes it difficult to predict where the Internet or its successor will take us. So Wetzel Consulting went to the experts, asking kids ages 12 to 18 how the

Old fogies - those of us over 21 - never experienced the Internet during our formative years, which makes it difficult to predict where the Internet or its successor will take us. So Wetzel Consulting went to the experts, asking kids ages 12 to 18 how they use the Internet today, how they want and expect to use it in five years, and what they believe they will be doing on it when they are 40. The informal survey of 225 high school and middle school students from three schools in Massachusetts and Montana was taken at the close of the 2001 school year. The results were eye-opening and often amusing.

Instant Messenger - A Must Have

The kids surveyed, especially the younger ones, are addicted to AOLs Instant Messenger (AIM) to keep in constant and immediate contact with their friends. "Instant messaging," as it has come to be called, is by far the favorite Internet activity for the younger crowd, followed by online gaming. Among high schoolers, surfing the Web is the preferred activity, with a tie between IM and e-mailing for second place.

As attractive as AIM is in its current form, however, kids want it to do more. When asked what they would like to do over the Internet that they cant do today, first on the wish list is voice and video layered over "chat" technology so they can have virtual face-to-face experiences with their comrades. "I would like to be able to hear or even see my friends while instant messaging them," said 15-year-old Hillary in Westborough, Mass. Similarly, an 11-year-old middle-school student in Upton, Mass., expressed a desire "to talk to my friends, like seeing them through my screen to see what they do."

Several of the students said they would also like to track their friends whereabouts - raising questions about future privacy invasions from little brother as well as Big Brother.

Lose the Keyboard, Please

Many of the youngsters surveyed hope for and envision a future in which typing becomes unnecessary and keyboards obsolete. A 12-year-old Upton student pictures "a talking typer [that] fits in your pocket, and you put the headphones on and whatever link you say it will go to." Similarly, a classmate wants to "tell the computer what to write."

Daryl, an 18-year-old Bigfork, Mont., high school senior, predicted that not only keyboards but text will become obsolete. "Reading will be done completely away with," he said. "Everything will be in either a film format or at least in sound.

I think people will communicate with movie cameras." In 80 years, "we will probably be able to transfer thoughts," he said. "I mean, as soon as we get a general understanding of how our brains work, we can hook sensors up to our minds and instantly transfer information in our minds to each other . . . like have a conversation without talking or typing . . . just thinking."

Business as Unusual

Telepathy aside, kids expect to be doing many of lifes ordinary activities over the Internet into their dotage. They foresee using the Internet for shopping, banking, research, scheduling doctors appointments, working at home, communicating with family and friends - and boys in particular see it as an avenue for other outlets, though teachers involved in the survey intercepted what they saw as "offensive" survey responses. One 13-year-old posited, "[In the future, the Internet will be used for] e-mail, porn, [and] buying things, basically what its used for today!"

But the way we buy over the Net may change.

TC, a 17-year-old in Bigfork, said: "Most likely [in the future, well use the Internet] for purchasing. We wont need stores anymore, just a good particle transporter and a credit card. Wanna go to Buenos Aires? Connect to the Internet, pay the fee and youre on your way."

What Will Become of the Internet?

The youngsters surveyed differ in their predictions for what the Internet will become by the time they achieve the ancient age of 40. Some see it as evolving, and others predict it will fall by the wayside. Pat, a 15-year-old in Westborough, said, "There wont be that big of a change, except faster connections." But 17-year-old Jennie in Bigfork expects that by the time shes 40, "something better than the Internet will be invented, and we will be using that."

Rob, an 18-year-old in Westborough, guessed "the Internet will not be around. It is going to crumble under its own weight." Others shared the outlook of 17-year-old Chris of Bigfork, who admitted he doesnt think that far ahead. One 12-year-old Upton student ominously predicted, "The world will end before Im 40," and so, presumably, will the Net.

Others, however, said the Net will not only persevere, it will play an even greater role in their lives. An 18-year-old Upton senior envisioned that "the Internet will be a vast plane in which you will be able to live, making anything possible." And 16-year-old Ashley of Bigfork believes that by age 40 "I will probably be living on the Internet."

Rebecca Wetzel is an Internet industry analyst, consultant and writer. She can be reached at [email protected]>.