Nowhere in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence did Thomas Jefferson reference the Internet, eBay, Skype, or Flickr. But if he’d lived another 180 years, to 2006 instead of 1826, I feel certain he would at some point have said something like:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident,--that all
websites are created equal; that they are endowed by
their Creator with certain inalienable properties;
that among these are HTML, hyperlinks, and
the pursuit of AdSense clicks."
But what of the bigger picture? Beyond AdSense and AdWords and Mediabots and all that good stuff. Where, in short, is it all headed?
Well, one sure way of anticipating the future is to see what the professional anticipators are saying and thinking…and then getting ahead even of them. (As John Maynard Keynes used to say, “Successful investing is anticipating the anticipations of others.”) So let us turn for a moment to those who call themselves, or have been called by others, “futurists.”
Bill Joy’s Why the future doesn’t need us, for example, hypothesized that intelligent robots would replace humanity, at the very least in intellectual and social dominance, in the relatively near future. Now a partner in venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, Joy certainly lives with one foot firmly in the future. But while Joy and his colleagues at Sun indisputably grasped earlier than most the enormous impact the Internet would have on both computing and entertainment, I’m not certain that he’s any longer today the best person to turn to for a sense of where the Web is going. Designing and writing Berkeley UNIX is a remarkable achievement; but it’s not necessarily a qualification for designing and writing the future of the future,
Last year, for example, at the MIT Emerging Technologies conference, Joy actually retreated – for the organizing principle of his presentation – to the analytical framework used by those selfsame colleagues of his back in the 90s, in which Joy and his team described ‘Six Webs’:
Java was created with all six of these webs in mind, a deliberate attempt at creating a platform for all six of them. But times they are a-changing: today, the key to anticipating the future is to concentrate on the “social” web and Enterprise 2.0, both built on what Professor Andrew McAfee calls an infrastructure of SLATES (search, linking, tagging, authoring, extensions, and signals).
In other words, instead of there being six webs there’s really only one, let us call it – for simplicity’s sake – the New Web. The overriding characteristic of the New Web is its multi-faceted yet converging nature. With its acquisition of YouTube, Google for example has in a heartbeat ensured the eventual convergence streaming video and search. With its acquisition of Skype, eBay has done the same for VOIP and real-time auctions. And there are plenty of convergences ahead: newspapers and blogging (witness News Corp’s $580M acquisition of MySpace); what alliances lie ahead – MTV and Technorati? Bank of America and Flickr?
Before you accuse me of being deliberately far-fetched, consider the fact that the two co-founders of Digg, Jay Adelson and Kevin Rose, have set up the newly-funded Revision3 Corp – not a social-bookmarking site but an Internet video company? Or how about Jimmy Wales, who with Angela Beesley and Wikia is clearly setting his sights on the as-yet-untried fusion between wikis and search?But let us go back to looking at what the ‘professional anticipators’ are anticipating.
eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar, for example, has a pretty good track record, having staked Omidyar Network money on Digg.com – as did Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen and Greylock partners. Omidyar, who launched eBay as “Auction Web” in 1995, was a multi-billionaire just three years later when it IPO’d. His current investment portfolio is informed by his firm conviction that “strangers connecting over shared interests” is the key to the Web’s future. He sits accordingly on the board of Meetup.
In Andreesson’s case he isn’t only trying to second-guess the future by investing in other people’s social news ventures; he too, like Omidyar, is proactively helping to create it. His Ning, which launched in October 2005, is an online platform – currently free as in beer--for creating social websites and social networks.The list goes on and on, of investors – financial futurists – who are investing in the building out of the New Web that is poised to subsume all and every web that has gone before.
As for so-called ‘professional futurists’ like Ray Kurzweil – most commonly associated nowadays with his views on AI, genetics, nanotech, robotics, and (echoes of Bill Joy) the rapidly changing definition of humanity – he too has written much that can apply to those interesting in the future of the Internet, including what has been called “The Law of Accelerating Returns”:
"An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense 'intuitive linear' view. So we won't experience 100 years of progress in the twenty first century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate). The 'returns,' such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. There's even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth."
In volume sixteen of Patrick O'Brian's 20-part nautical series, The Wine-Dark Sea, Aubrey and Maturin and the HMS Surprise finish their adventures in the Pacific and land in Peru. There, Stephen Maturin gives a gratuity to a local who has helped him find his way, and the local bids him goodbye with a parting blessing, "May no new thing arise." Maturin solemnly replies, "May no new thing arise."
Whatever else you can or can’t say about the future of Internet technologies and the world they will take us to, you can safely say that it won’t be like Peru!
In other words, bring on the New Web, with all its convergences already happened, currently happening, and still to happen. It is what makes life in the software and Web applications world rich, wondrous, complex, challenging, rewarding, maddening, joyous and never boring. It's always something, and I for one wouldn't want it any other way.
I can only say that my own parting blessing, next time anyone favors me with a gratuity will be this: “May every new thing arise.”