Tonight I’ll be giving my “future of the Internet” talk at Bootstrap Interactive. I’ll cover a bit of history and evolution of the Internet and ‘net applications, talk about what’s been changing, related effects, and network trends. We’ll talk about the kinds of applications that are emerging, and utopian and dystopian scenarios for the future. This’ll be interactive; come tell me what I’m missing. Free, at Conjunctured, 1309 E. 7th in Austin, 7pm.
I’ve been researching, thinking about, and presenting on the future of the Internet, and this week I’m preparing to propose a SXSW panel and getting ready for a presentation next week at Bootstrap Interactive in Austin. At the moment I’m thinking we’re in a “post-Internet” era. The collaborative, peer to peer network of networks has been co-opted and overlaid by a very few large corporations, and as was the case with earlier information technologies (film, radio, television) monopolies (or duopolies) are forming for network access, hardware, and information services, and the advertising model originated by David Sarnoff et al. for radio is pervasive on an Internet thick with ads – increasingly sites you visit throw an obnoxious full-screen ad in your face as you land. I’m hearing more and more conversations about building a new alternative Internet (and, for that matter, alternative economies and forms of governance).
As I was thinking hard about this, and digging deeper, Google + launched, and the geekiest cohort among my friends started showing up for the limited beta. Plus is YAAS (“yet another activity stream”), probably better-engineered and more social than Facebook’s. No real marketing vibe so far, just a lot of people hanging out (often literally, using G+’s “Hangout” feature, a high-quality form of videoconferencing that’s very cool but crashy).
Google + is the Next Big Rockit. People who are (or wannabe) paid to think about social media are filling many buckets with bits of speculative and often redundant information about the system, which doesn’t strike me as particularly new and innovative in the patterns it’s aggregated. But it is a welcome change from the other high-adoption social environments du jour, namely Facebook and Twitter. Unlike Twitter, it allows longer-form posts and inline media-sharing. Unlike Facebook, it has functional management of relationships (via Circles) and better handling of both transparency and privacy…
And did you mention Diaspora? Their launch has been so constrained as to be a mere whisper, next to the great swooshing sound of the Google+ launch.
I saw Robert Scoble post that he likes it because he can share videos and articles with everybody, and I assume that his emphasis was not on the ability to share (because we’ve been sharing on Facebook, Twitter, Friendfeed et al), but on the idea of sharing “with everybody.” Google + is structured so that you can see and reach more people, and when you’re selective about what you see it’s your choice, not a selection by algorithm as you have in Facebook’s “Top Stories.” At Google + you can drop people into “circles” according to whatever categorization scheme fits your DNA, and that’s really the only operational filter at this point.
But, back to my point about the post-Internet world, what’s been cool about Google+ so far has been the absence of that overlay of commercial messaging that has fogged other sites. It’s been a relatively spam-free zone, reminding me what fired me up about online social spaces from the 80s onward. How long the beta period will last I don’t know, but it’s been a nice reminder of what we could potentially have, if we could turn down the volume the advertising and marketing blasts that seem so much pervasive online lately than even on television or radio.
Back to thinking hard about the future of the Internet.
Something immense is happening as the world transitions to a hyperconnected state where, for many, the distinction between the real and virtual worlds has ceased to exist. All the trailing paraphernalia of states and borders and government-to-government palavers, not to mention privacy laws, look so 20th century.
The more I speak and write about “the future of the Internet,” the more I realize that I’m talking about the future of the human world. Cohen goes on to say “that technology and international relations are becoming interchangeable topics. There are many more networks in our future than treaties.”
Clueful, yes. Also interesting is the article’s mention of Google Ideas and Jared Cohen’s thinking
that technology is agnostic: It can be used in the cause of freedom — and has been to great effect from Tunis to Cairo — just as it can be used in the cause of repression. So how do you “tip the balance in favor of the net positive?”
There’s seven billion people in the world, population’s growing every day. We’ve been organized as nations, and more recently corporations have been taking power and authority for action (though they still work through legacy forms, i.e. legislatures that are influenced by various means, including contributions of money and personal persuasion). We see a tendency for people to want to have something we call “freedom,” though the meaning of that label, and its limits, are not always clear. Traditionally effective action has been associated with authority and leadership, and the nature and meaning of leadership in a democratized world is unclear. (Also the pervasive influence of corruption, and how it will play out if systems of authority are diminished, as we have more “freedom.”)
We live in exciting and “interesting” times, but we should be skeptical – and I appreciate Jared Cohen’s point about the uncertain potential in social technology. We should be exploring how to tip the balance.
Irons in the fire:
- Plutopia Productions projects are on fire… including the Plutopia 2011 event during SXSW and the Plutopia News Network that Scoop Sweeney and I will be launching within the next month. Scoop and I are also producing events on the side, like last Friday’s “From Jerusalem to Cordoba” performance by Catherine Braslavsky and Joseph Rowe. Scoop and I, like our Plutopia Productions colleagues, see event production — creating compelling experiences — as an art form. We expect to produce at least one event per quarter, either as part of Plutopia Productions or onw our own, in addition to our work on the content site, which will include podcasts and god nose whatever other media.
- I’m partnering with other web developers in creating Teahouse Media, a web consulting and development cooperative. Web development is my day job, and I pursue it with relish… an avid builder of information environments and systems. As in the past, I’m focused on open source platforms, primarily Drupal and WordPress.
- With a loose group journalists and other thinkers and doers, I’ve been exploring the future of journalism and the emergence of digital news applications; set to moderate a panel on the subject at SXSW Interactive.
- Trying to get my head aorund the future of the Internet. I gave a talk on the subject at a recent meeting of the Central Texas World Future Society, and will give another similar talk at Link Coworking at noon on January 8.
- In that context, I’ve also been tracking the Wikileaks controversies, thinking to convene a public forum on the subject via EFF-Austin. Is Julian Assange shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre? Or is he a contemporary Daniel Ellsberg variation? Also thinking about transparency; working as an organizer (with the LBJ School) of the Texas Government 2.0 Camp, which will be January 28-29.
- A practicing Buddhist, I’m looking into the Gurdjieff work, a different system of thinking, but similar in its cultivation of mindfulness. True mindfulness is easy to conceive but hard hard hard to achieve.
- I’ve signed up to be a reviewer for the City of Austin’s Grant for Technology Opportunities, which awards money to community technology projects. I’ve always had an interest in community technology, and that’s revived somewhat as I note that there’s still a digital divide, and it’s even more significant as so much more of what we do in our daily lives requires access to technologies and networks. Also interseted in digital literacy; not long ago Howard Rheingold and I were discussing his next book, which will be on that subject.
- The world is incredibly screwed up at the moment; I feel an obligation to get into an active an visible advocacy for the things I think are important… a humane progressive agenda, a positive and transformative cultural agenda, depolarizing politics and an end to the cultural cold war in the U.S. and beyond, commitment to the ideal of sustainability, acknowledgement of and response to the problem of global warming, etc. Can a web developer do all that much? I’m with the army here… we should all try to be all that we can be…
I’ve found myself giving cautionary talks on the future of the Internet, or possible futures, plural – the real danger that the Internet and the World Wide Web that operates on it will become less open, perhaps become fragmented, balkanized into closed networks that no longer cooperate, filled with walled gardens with various filters and constraints, and no longer be a platform with low barriers to entry and assurance that if you connect something, anyone anywhere in the world will have access to it. The Internet would no longer be the powerful engine for innovation and communication it has been.
Tim Berners-Lee, who created the World Wide Web, writes about this in Scientific American, saying that some of the web’s “successful inhabitants have begun to chip away at its principles. Large social-networking sites are walling off information posted by their users from the rest of the Web. Wireless Internet providers are being tempted to slow traffic to sites with which they have not made deals. Governments—totalitarian and democratic alike—are monitoring people’s online habits, endangering important human rights.”
If we, the Web’s users, allow these and other trends to proceed unchecked, the Web could be broken into fragmented islands. We could lose the freedom to connect with whichever Web sites we want. The ill effects could extend to smartphones and pads, which are also portals to the extensive information that the Web provides.
Read Berners-Lee’s important longer piece, “Long Live the Web.”
My next scheduled talk about the future of the Internet is January 5 at noon, at Link Coworking.
Tim Wu explains the rise and fall of information monopolies in a conversation with New York Times blogger Nick Bilton. Author of The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires (Borzoi Books), Wu is known for the concept of “net neutrality.” He’s been thinking about this stuff for several years, and has as much clarity as anyone (which is still not much) about the future of the Internet.
I think the natural tendency would be for the system to move toward a monopoly control, but everything that’s natural isn’t necessarily inevitable. For years everyone thought that every republic would eventually turn into a dictatorship. So I think if people want to, we can maintain a greater openness, but it’s unclear if Americans really want that…. The question is whether there is something about the Internet that is fundamentally different, or about these times that is intrinsically more dynamic, that we don’t repeat the past. I know the Internet was designed to resist integration, designed to resist centralized control, and that design defeated firms like AOL and Time Warner. But firms today, like Apple, make it unclear if the Internet is something lasting or just another cycle.
Social media-savvy medical advocate Regina Holliday pointed out a clueful post at Health is Social, a blog “about integrating social and digital media into healthcare.”
The post’s subject is “Healthcare Blogging: Wide Open Opportunities,” but the post itself is not just abou9t healthcare blogging. It’s a more general explanation why blogging is NOT dead, contrary to the opinion, expressed by some supposed social media experts, that “blogging wasn’t worth the effort and that nobody reads blogs.” Of course, “experts” who are totally focused on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube argue that those platforms are “all that’s needed anymore and that … websites [including blogs] were basically useless.”
Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, among other social apps, are indeed important to consider in creating an organizational media strategy; many businesses truly don’t understand how to use them effectively. Anyone hoping to create a vital and productive Internet presence should go where the conversations are, generally Twitter and Facebook.
Note that there’s a lot of confusion and questioning about the future of the Internet. John Battelle posts about points of control, and Tim O’Reilly has posted a map to highlight the point that we’re seeing platform wars from which the Internet of the future will emerge. [Link to complete map.] Blogs are nowhere on that map, probably because blogs will be everywhere in that world, like trees spewing oxygen into the ecosystem.
So blogs and web sites will continue to be critical points of presence for individuals and organizations, where they will develop more static core content, and dynamic emerging content via blogs, to show expertise, articulate new ideas, publish news about relevant organizations or projects, etc.
Some history: Blogs catalyzed the mainstreaming of social technology by making it easy for anyone to publish online. This meant more writers and more readers, a more robust social ecosystem online, which spiraled ever greater adoption. As more people were communicating in more ways over the web, social network platforms and messaging systems other than blogs appeared and evolved – the platforms on the O’Reilly/Battelle map. The growth of interest in social connection and persistent short messaging made Twitter a hot phenomenon, and as Facebook incorporated its own form of short messaging and activity streaming, it grew like wildfire and became the mainstream platform of choice for all sorts of social activity.
A new breed of consultants emerged who were not especially active on the Internet before Twitter and Facebook came along. I would argue that these consultants have blinders on; because of their limited experience, they don’t have a deep understanding of the Internet and the broader set of potentials inherent in its still-evolving ecosystem. Much of what you hear about “social media” is noise generated by folks who’re smart enough, but have limited experience and constrained vision. Considering that, confusion around “platform wars,” anxiety over economic instability, persistent growing deluges of unfiltered information, it’s great to see a breath of fresh air like the post at “Health is Social.” In fact, I’m finding that empowered patients and their advocates are as clear as anybody about the current and potential uses of social media in their world. They’re in the middle of a revolution that depends on the Internet, democracy of information, and robust social knowledge-sharing environments (patient communities).
I have more to say another day about the importance of deep, sustained conversation, not really supported by Twitter/Facebook short messaging/activity streaming strategies.