This past weekend saw the confluence of three different events — the 20th anniversary celebrations of both the World Wide Web and Lollapalooza, and the unprecedented S&P downgrade of the U.S. government’s sovereign debt. These events happened days after the shuttering of the U.S. space shuttle program in July. It feels as if we’re witnessing the end of an era.
The young men and women coming of age in 1991 could never have predicted the changes that would take place over the next two decades, as the World Wide Web established itself as one of the greatest information and communication tools ever created. The college graduates of 2011 are coming of age when the Internet is nearly ubiquitous. Today, it is commonplace to communicate with friends and followers scattered across the globe. The dream of Tim Berners-Lee twenty years ago — to create a truly World Wide Web — has come true.
When the Web launched twenty years ago with a single website and a single server (”This machine is a server, do not power it down! “), it was entirely non-commercial and intended to provide open access to a universe of hyper-linked documents. The past twenty years, when seen as part of a larger technological cycle, is a period of openness and global participation. This era gave rise to a uniquely social architecture that encourages the rapid proliferation of information to everyone. In fact, the very first Web site Berners-Lee created included easy-to-follow instructions for anyone to create their own website.
In technology circles, there is a tendency to create linear narratives about the trajectory of innovation, in which one technological innovation leads inevitably to the next. These narratives reassure us that, when it comes to the increasingly fast pace of technological change, there is a method to the madness. Today, when asked what comes next for technology, we usually hear quick, easy answers like this: “Every year, mobile phones will become smaller.” And don’t forget this classic: “Each iteration of an operating system will be faster and more powerful.” And then there’s this oft-repeated answer: “Each new online innovation will make the world more democratic and more open.”
However, if this is, indeed, the end of an era, that means these answers no longer suffice, presuming they did before.
So, what comes next for the Web?
The Web — propelled forward by memes, hyper-sharing and the remix culture — is free to develop in the same way as other industries, where trends and ideas come in and out of fashion in regular cycles. Take finance, for example. Financial markets undergo a steady ebb and flow. In the short-term, these changes look chaotic and random, but viewed from a longer-term perspective, it’s possible to discern regular cycles of boom and bust.
In the case of the Web, there are always new evolutionary pressures that influence which memes will be passed from generation to generation. Now, for example, values like openness and altruism are in favor. This means organizations that fail to embrace these values will likely die out.
However, if we take a step back and view the variety of forces that impact the future development of the Web — rumors of a coming cyberwar with China, the growth of the mobile Internet, the sudden appearance of Anonymous hackers, and the demand for Net Neutrality — it is clear that the future of the Web is uncertain. What is to keep corporations from attempting to charge heavy Internet users for bandwidth? What will prevent the government from introducing super-secret Internet Kill Switches? What will stop organizations from trampling our right to online privacy?
The S&P downgrade of U.S. debt from AAA, as jarring as it was to the psyche of the nation, should be a wake-up call. After all, there is absolutely no reason to assume that the next 20-year cycle of the Web will look anything like the first twenty years if we do not actively seek to maintain it as an open, participatory place — just as Berners-Lee intended. One day, we may find ourselves pining for the “good old days” when bandwidth was cheap if not free, the heavy hand of the government was nowhere in sight, and we still held tightly to the illusion that our personal privacy was sacrosanct.
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