What does the 20th year of the web mean?

Gina Minks, who I know only through Twitter (@gminks), tho’ hope to meet someday, tagged me for the following Questions from On. Her post was immensely personal, and I have no such deeply significant experience, but I have been on the internet since before there was one, so I reckon I can throw out a few ideas.

The questions are:

  • How has the Web changed your life?
  • How has the Web changed business and society?
  • What do you think the Web will look like in twenty years?

How has the web changed my life? Well, that’s an interesting question.  Starting at the beginning, as an undergraduate I discovered computers and learning (I got a job managing the computer records for the office that coordinated tutoring on campus, after having been a tutor, and recognized that computers for learning was a keen idea).  I managed to convince my Provost to let me design my own major, and hooked up with two brilliant academics: Hugh Mehan and James Levin, who let me be part of a study to conduct classroom discussion via email.  This was circa 1978, but our university was on the ARPANet, and consequently we had networked computers and email.  So I had an early taste of networking capabilities and it was seen as just part of the infrastructure.

After working in the real world for a couple of years (designing educational computer games), where I got a taste of PLATO (another networked environment), I went back to grad school, where we again had networks with email, and sometime during that period I discovered UseNet, a sort of topic-based discussion board, and became an active user.  (This was before we had any idea this would be stored forever and become searchable, and movie reviews, recipes, and other such stuff I wrote back then can still be found!)  It was a great way to get ask questions, share ideas, follow certain people.

So, when I moved to UNSW for an academic position following my postdoc, I’d met some Aussie surfers online before I went, and hooked up with them for some surf sessions when I got there.  It was during that period that the web came out, following on initiatives like WAIS and Gopher that provided ways to store and find information on line.

The point is, when the HTTP protocol emerged, it wasn’t a big deal to me. I’d been immersed in a distributed digital information environment for years, and consequently one new protocol didn’t seem like that big a deal.  So in a sense I really missed the sea-change that so many people felt, and pretty naturally took advantage of creating web pages, sites, and then online content.

One big change for me, however, accompanied a subsequent development, the CGI protocol.  A student and I had developed a learning game for the Children’s Welfare Agency, and it was successfully distributed on floppy disks.  When I found out about the CGI protocol, I realized this would allow maintaining (game) state, and that we could then play games on the internet.  I had another student project port the game to the web.  It may be old-fashioned now, but I’m thrilled that it still works, 15 years later!

Since then, the web has both been a source of employment, as a channel for designing learning solutions, and the more common infrastructure for life that others have discovered (info, commerce, collaboration).  Along the way, in addition to the game, I’ve developed online conferences (back in 1996), an online learning competition (1997) streamlined online course (circa 1998), and an adaptive learning engine (1999-2000), all ahead of their time (for better and worse :).  And the innovation continues.

How has the Web changed business and society? Here I don’t have much to say in addition to what’s been written by many. It’s provided an opportunity for information to reach more people, flattening hierarchies, breaking up information monopolies, and serving as a source for democratization.

Businesses have been able to dis-intermediate the market, cutting out middle-men.  Internally, it has been possible for organizations to flatten the hierarchy, and work more effectively while distributed.  Externally, companies are able to have richer dialogs with their customers and partners.  It’s been less easy for companies to control information, as well, as the Cluetrain Manifesto and the 95 theses has alerted us to.

It’s also created new businesses and business models.  Web 1.0, producer generated content, had some impact, and I’ve argued that Web 2.0 is about user-generated content, has created new opportunities.  Web 3.0 will be even more interesting, with capabilities of delivering custom information and capabilities.  Which leads me to the last question:

What do you think the Web will look like in twenty years? I really think that the web will have become transparent. For most of us, the information access capabilities will be transparent: so ubiquitous we take it for granted.  There just will be information wherever and whenever you want it.  We’ll be surrounded by clouds that follow us that define who we are and where we’re at both physically, chronologically, and metaphorically, so that information will be available on demand in whatever ways we want.

From the production side, we’ll be creating information by our actions that will be aggregated and mined for useful ways to serve us.  We’ll have new models of learning that integrate across technologies and space to develop us in meaningful ways to empower us to achieve the goal we want.  And, most likely and unfortunately, there will be information to continue to try to sway us to do things that others would prefer we do.  I would hope, however, that we’re moving in a positive direction where we slow down our progress to the point we can make sure we’re bringing everybody along.

The opportunities are huge and potentially transformative, we just have to marshal the social will.

Finally, I’m supposed to tag two people to continue this chain letter.  My colleague Jay Cross has talked before about how the internet changed his life and it’s a great story, so I’ll suborn him here.  I’ll also ping another colleague who you should know about, Jim Schuyler, who shared several of the journeys I mentioned above.

Link to original post

Leave a Reply