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The Big Future: What comes after texting?

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How do we want to communicate with each other? This week's Big Future looks at chat tools, from WhatsApp to the Star Trek communicator. If we could get past the tangle of carriers and spectrum rights, what kind of communicator would we actually want to use? It turns out, science fiction may have this particular gadget all wrong.

It's not about the tech

Chat tools are a social technology, so the etiquette of the device is often more important than the antennas and displays. We prefer talking in private — that's one of the reasons texting is so popular — so we probably wouldn't want to talk out loud. We'd also need a way of signaling whether we're available to talk at all, which might get complicated now that we're carrying these devices around with us all day.

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More rooms in more places

How do you signal that you're available to talk about movies, but not to talk about work? As we talk to more people more of the time, we'll also need smarter status indicators and smarter ways to break down conversations. The closest thing we've got today is chat rooms — but expect them to get a lot more complicated.

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The world will get a lot smaller

The biggest change is that, as more of our communications move online, it will be easier to reach across borders and continents. As our programs get smarter, it will also be easier to find the people we want to talk to. That means a more tight-knit world, and one where many of today's geographic boundaries have been broken down.