Today, we recognize and celebrate the 30th anniversary of a simple proposal.
That proposal was for an information management system. Behind this unassuming title lay a simple, powerful idea: the world wide web, a way for us to share and find information freely across all of connected humanity. History will judge, but many already feel that the paper detailing this proposal was the most significant step forwards since the printing press.
Certainly, as we stop to reflect on how our lives have changed and what is to come, it is hard to escape the thought that we are just at the beginning of a transformation of society that is having - and will have -both broad and deep implications. It is also clear that divergent futures lie open before us – and it is not yet clear which path we will go down.
The web has already started to change the world around us - and how we shape the web today will shape our lives.
Inclusion on the web will determine our opportunities in life
In December 2018 we marked another milestone. It was officially recorded that for the first time, 50% of the world’s population is now connected to the internet – the ‘50/50 moment’. Whether you feel that this is a great achievement or slow progress, it means that all of the innovation and change that we see across our lives today is a result of just a fraction of the world being online – and not for very long. More will come, and likely the pace of innovation will only increase.
But it also means that many people are not part of this transformation. They cannot enjoy the benefits nor can they be the next entrepreneur bringing new benefits to others. Furthermore, as access growth rates are slowing and the penetration of digital technologies into the fabric of mainstream economic activity globally continues at pace, we risk dramatically increasing the barriers preventing large swathes of the world from meaningfully participating in the 21st century.
The potential exists for all knowledge to be freely available to anyone in the world. The risk is that we create a two-speed society (globally and nationally) and inter-generational exclusion.
Trust and transparency on the web will determine our values
The internet is also transforming our values. The classic ‘no-one knows you’re a dog on the internet’ meme was soon reversed. Today, we seem to be caught in a double bind with regards to our own privacy online. High-profile cases like Cambridge Analytica make us worry that powerful organizations, private and public, have all possible information on us and use it in ways we cannot comprehend. Too often this leads to a kind of digital fatalism, and we give up trying to protect ourselves. However, stories of state-sponsored micro-targeting and big brother capabilities erode our trust not only in online services, but in public institutions at large. So digital fatalism spreads, and begins to erode trust in democratic institutions themselves.
For a while, it was clever to claim that privacy is dead – ‘just look at the young people’. And yet, the apps and services that are most popular with young people are those that protect their identities, allow at least some form of pseudonymity and don’t retain historical information. We are seeing an explosion of technologies, products and initiatives that aim to empower individuals with real choice. Real choice beyond surrendering privacy, agency or the service you want to access. Not least is the initiative on which Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor we are celebrating today, spends his time: Solid, a way for each of us to have our own ‘pod’ which contains and allows us to manage all of our own personal data.
The web will increasingly influence our safety and wellbeing
It is all too easy to think of the web or the internet as being some virtual place, separate and distinct from the real world. However, we already know that this is not true. The internet has material impact on our real world wellbeing, both for good and bad. On the one hand, the internet can enable elderly people to be supported and monitored in their own homes, improving their quality of life. It can support professionals in high-risk environments with automation or improved intelligence to save lives. The emergence of a new communications standard, 5G, with reduced ‘latency’ will enable real-time remote control in situations never possible before, such as remote surgery or control of research equipment around delicate coral-reefs.
But we are also seeing the real-world impacts that can occur when things go wrong online, whether by accident or by design. Identity theft and child safety are topics with which most of us are familiar. However, we are becoming aware of greater risks and potential risks that are emerging. An estimated 50 billion devices will be connected to the internet over the coming years. These are fridges, cars, drones, planes, oil pipeline valves, teddy bears… everything we can imagine. The boundary between the physical and digital will continue to blur.
Even closer to home, digital exposure and addiction is being increasingly recognized as a legitimate concern – and not just for children or teenagers, but for all of us. Many are questioning the compulsion that we feel to be constantly online, checking and rechecking our feeds. This is not entirely an accident. The ‘attention economy’ has led designers to actively create products that leverage human bias and psychology to get humans to pay attention to something. Digital minimalism is the Marie Kondo of the online world. (Literally – the Amazon page for Digital Minimalism minimalistically suggests one book only – Marie Kondo’s.)
The way the web works will shape how we see the world – and how we organize ourselves in society
Arguably, the most important impact that the internet and the world wide web will have is the effect it is having on how we see the world – and the effect this will have on how we design solutions to our shared problems. By making information available across peer networks, traditional hierarchical structures are often rendered obsolete. Think of how the first peer-to-peer music-sharing sites swept aside traditional music businesses like Sony Music in such a short space of time (this story and others are neatly told in The Starfish and the Spider). The web is distributed and leaderless – and yet has continued to grow and evolve over 30 years to touch half of the planet.
As humans, we constantly search for new and better ways to understand the world around us. There is a rich history of using our newest technologies as lenses to see anew the natural and social systems around us. When clocks were invented, there was no shortage of expositions, essays and analogies using clockwork as a way of better explaining all sorts of phenomena. The human body operating as clockwork was a particular topic of fascination. Some of these analogies may read simplistic or even comical to the modern reader, but others have broadly influenced how we perceive the world still today. Think Isaac Newton and the clockwork universe. We still talk about our body clocks. A high-performance organization functions like clockwork. It is baked into how we see the world and it gives us a mental template for designing solutions.
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The web helps us all see the idea that leaderless, distributed, non-hierarchical social systems that can self-organize, persist through time and deliver positive outcomes are not only possible, but in fact may be quite common. We understand that ants or birds can act in concert for greater collective benefit on the basis of some simple rules of the road (protocols, in web-speak) that each individual follows. We can start to see the power of such a model for social organization, for movements, and for collaborating towards shared societal goals.
As the web turns 30, we might also take note of another 50/50 moment. Today, 50% of the world’s population is under the age of 30. This means that more of the world’s population have been born into a world with the web than not.
In South Africa, the children born after the end of apartheid are called the Born-Free. The world they grew up in was very different to the world of those before them.
As a greater and greater proportion of minds are born into a world which operates as much in networks as hierarchies and as much in decentralized structures and centralized authority – how will this influence how we see the world and how we organize ourselves in society?
We cannot tell. But it will certainly be coloured differently if we have shaped a web that is inclusive, trusted and safe than if we have not. Which world do we want our young minds to grow up in?