Web 9.0

What will the Web do? Never mind that; what will it do to us?

In the past 15 years, the Internet has changed the world as dramatically as did gunpowder or moveable type.  But unlike these other two inventions, the Internet will continue to develop over the next few years, so the myriad changes it can potentially bring about are far from over.

How might the business landscape, our jobs, our lives and – OK, let’s be dramatic, then – the whole world be different 11 years from now, thanks to the Web?

First, a caveat: I’m not a technology expert, just a regular guy – a user of the Internet, of course, but not anyone with particular insights or insider knowledge about what may be on the drawing board when it comes to future capabilities or functionalities of the Internet.  So I’ll refrain from making any predictions about the technology itself (with one exception, as you’ll see below).

That said, it is worth reflecting about the future consequences of the Internet, even if it isn’t easy to predict all the things it may be able to do.  Because what it will do is certainly intriguing, but I’m much more interested in what it will do to us.  How might the Web continue to change the way we live and work a decade from now?  Here are just a few issues to ponder.


Education? How about a smartphone instead?

Can there be any doubt that the Web will play a decisive role in the future of education?  I wonder if it may end up replacing education.  What I mean can best be illustrated with this (sad) example:

11 Changes - Division

Do you remember how to do long division?  I hate to admit this, but I don’t.  As near as I can figure, it’s been around 40 years since the last time I had to work out such a problem on paper, and I just cannot remember how you do this any more.  Me!  A Phi Beta Kappa university graduate and holder of an MBA from Harvard Business School.  I hang my head in shame.

But then, why should I remember?  There is always a calculator handy when I need one.  There's one right here on my phone.

Eleven years from now, it will not be calculators that obviate the need to know how to solve a math problem the long, hard way.  It will be a new generation of handheld devices that will make 99% of the world’s accumulated knowledge accessible within microseconds.  Of course, this device already exists, and you probably have one in your pocket now, but I am not talking about a smart phone à la 2012 but a smart phone à la 2023: faster, cheaper, perhaps smaller and lighter, more user-friendly, and with an interface that greatly facilitates the only tricky part of accessing all that information, i.e. asking the questions efficiently.

This will be my only technology prediction, as promised.  Normally I would feel sheepish trying to predict a technology of the future, but I'm confident about this one.  How can this not happen?  We’re already on the road there right now.

When it does, and every 8-year-old has one, how will education change?  Will we feel the need to demand that children learn things by heart that they will always be able to look up, anytime, anywhere?  Or will a large part of education center on how to use this magnificent tool?  How will such a device change schools?  How might it change children - and childhood?


The globalization of everything and everyone

It’s not just big companies that move jobs offshore.  Even at the individual level, the Internet allows us to globalize our networks, teams and communities – to the possible detriment of local alternatives.  I myself offshore work to talented people I know in Austin and Belfast, for example; I collaborate online with a publisher in Maastricht, and this Web site was designed for me by a dynamic team of developers in Mexico City whom I’ve never even met.

So I’m a one-man global conglomerate!  You probably are, too.  Have you thought about the impact of this trend – for example, on your ability to create, compete, react?  Will far-flung “dream teams” take the place of equally capable people right here under your nose?  Will the Web be helping you get the best talent in the world, or allowing you to overlook talent just down the hall?


Disintermediating the humans

When was the last time you went to a travel agent to book a flight?  Or to a bookstore to buy a book?  Or for that matter, when was the last time you walked into a bank and dealt face-to-face with a teller?  The Internet has enabled us to avail ourselves of a huge array of products and services directly, without much need for, or contact with, human “middlemen.”

Cutting out the middleman works in both directions, too: for example, while we consumers can go online to buy an MP3 of a song, bypassing the music store, musicians can record a song and sell the MP3 to fans online, leapfrogging the record label.  Both parties – consumers and producers – can develop strategies to use the Web to cut out the middlemen they would traditionally have to deal with, saving money (consumers) or maximizing profits (producers) in the process.

Travel agents, bookstores and bank tellers may all still exist in the physical world 11 years from now, but if they do, their role will need a rethink.  In a world where people prefer to hop online and buy airline tickets or books directly, these people will need to add value – and, importantly, value that you will be willing to pay for through higher prices - which become a kind of “human interface fee.”  If not, and the middleman’s services are unsustainable when competing against the Web, what services provided today by real flesh-and-blood people will probably have disappeared 11 years from now?


Price pressure

I was "shopping" for an external hard drive the other day.  I say “shopping” because I never even considered physically traipsing from one retail store to another to find the best deal.  Instead, I went straight online to a Web site where I could compare product features, then compare all the offers for the item I decided I wanted.  The site (www.toppreise.ch; I get no commission...) listed all the retailers in the entire country where that model was available (here in Switzerland that meant 19 or 20 different retail providers), and showed the price and shipping costs from each.  No surprise – I ordered from the store offering the lowest price.

By providing this degree of transparency, is the Web a fundamentally deflationary instrument, always steering buyers to the lowest prices, and thus forcing prices down across the board?   At first glance it would seem so.

But I’m reminded of something Lord Nuffield, founder of Britain’s Morris Motor Co., once said: “There is always someone who can make something a little worse and sell it a little cheaper than the next man, and he who judges by price only, is that man’s lawful prey.”

Not every seller is able to compete on the basis of price, and as Lord Nuffield hinted, not every buyer will make his decision on the basis of price.  In that case, over the next 11 years, could the Web bring about not only downward pressure on prices but, by necessity, a parallel development as well: the flourishing of a true service culture?  If you are a seller and you know that you are not offering the cheapest price (and the Web allows you to confirm this), would you not feel compelled to build up some other aspect of your offer to compensate?


Privacy: “In a relationship with… “

Privacy concerns seem to be a function of age.  For example, here in Switzerland, a lot of attention has been focused recently on how Google Street View invades people’s privacy, and the company must obscure practically anything that would actually help to identify an individual: not just faces and car license plate numbers, but skin color and clothing.  In Germany, you can demand that Google blur the image of your house.  In Japan, a woman recently sued Google because on Street View, her underwear was visible hanging on a clothesline.

Sounds like a bunch of old fuddy-duddies to me.

11 Changes - Google Blur

At the other extreme, teenagers and young adults are willing to disclose an astonishing amount of information about themselves online.  Instead of risks, they see benefits in sharing photos and personal information: Sharing helps them establish friendships and build communities. They even use social media to announce that their new boyfriend or girlfriend is "FBO" - Facebook official.

If this degree of openness becomes the social norm as they grow older over the next 11 years, will privacy simply become an outdated notion?  Will the value of being part of an open community be regarded as greater than the value of being sure that no one can see what your house looks like?  Will everyone share everything?

I said above that privacy concerns grow with age; but maybe it’s actually a function of whether you own any assets.  If so, Facebook-addicted Gen Y’ers may outgrow the desire to share everything about themselves after they have become homeowners themselves… “Being an adult means having more to protect and more to lose,” as David Ellis at York University in Toronto wrote recently.  I doubt if even Mark Zuckerberg would want the whole world to see over his fence.

Even the CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, feels it’s necessary to warn kids that nothing on the Internet ever goes away. While you may be proud to record all your life’s triumphs and accomplishments on Facebook and YouTube, you shouldn’t forget that all the opinions, foul-mouthed rants, mean-spirited practical jokes – and all those embarrassing photos from spring break – that you also post, will be around for posterity as well. To the bemusement, consternation, or sheer horror of future employers.

Thanks for the heads-up, Eric! Ironically, while Mr. Schmidt is alerting us to the dangers of inadvertently ruining our own lives by posting some saucy photos of ourselves online, his company is introducing Google Glass – which makes it possible for anyone – anyone who is basically just looking at you – to snap a picture of you in a potentially compromising moment and post it on the web. What happens to privacy then? What happens to our behavior in public? What happens to trust? (What happens to Google?) Stay tuned. Things are going to get interesting.


Leaving a trail of electronic breadcrumbs wherever you go

Another aspect of privacy that is being whittled away by the Internet concerns our financial privacy.  Today, you can still go to a grocery store and buy a week's worth of food for cash.  In the next 11 years, services like Google Wallet may take over the function of money and credit cards.   To pay for your purchases, you'll simply wave your smart phone over the cash register/reader, and your bank account will de debited.  Frictionless!  Quick and easy!  Environmentally friendly!

But such a system has a potential downside.  Every transaction you make leaves a trail of data. None of your purchases will be anonymous any more.

These data can be tracked and used by marketers.  For example, discovering that you are a regular buyer of Coca-Cola, the supermarket where you do your shopping may send you an electronic coupon for a discount on your next purchase.  Seems harmless, right?  But what if they could sell this information to Pepsi, who could then begin sending you advertising or enticements to try and get you to switch to their brand?  Based on your personal shopping habits, you might receive a flood of product information, ads and promotional offers - wanted and unwanted.

If you look beyond the mere marketing aspects of this trend, you could imagine even more unpleasant scenarios. For example, in a country where healthcare is paid for by the state, it could be in the interest of the state to monitor its citizens' eating habits and modify them if possible so as to keep them healthy.  Buying lots of high-cholesterol foods?  Big Brother may want to know.

What it all comes down to is this: Do you own the information about what you buy?  This will be a major issue to be resolved 11 years from now.


Seven billion eyewitnesses

Imagine you are an evil dictator (it’s easy if you try).  One day a riot breaks out in the capital. Thanks to social media, mobs form quickly these days, and this one is whipped into a frenzy by online "friends" and supporters, and your troops open fire.

In this scenario, your regime’s worst enemies are not the demonstrators but Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.  With their ability to zap eyewitness reports worldwide in seconds, these tools are very dangerous to your regime, perfect for stirring up reactions against you around the world, not to mention facilitating actual revolution in the streets.  In the next 11 years, how will dictators fight back?  Will they throw the switch and turn off the Internet?  Will tweeting become a criminal act?  Will the regime's goons go after anyone using a Flip cam or smart phone to film a violent street scene and potentially embarrass the government?

Helping bring about (we still hope) a nascent democratic movement in place of an oppressive dictatorship is no doubt a good thing, welcomed by all.  But social media may shape the future of political activism in other ways as well.  If applying “Twitter pressure” to entrenched institutions can bring down governments in Tunisia and Algeria, is it imaginable that the power of social media could also help bring about the end of the monarchy in the UK, the Netherlands, Japan, Scandinavia, Belgium…?  Steered in just the right way, could people be summoned out on the streets in one of these countries, forming a flash mob that would lead eventually to the fall of a royal house?  What might have happened to Queen Elizabeth if Facebook and Twitter had existed when Princess Diana died?


Facts vs. opinions

When I was growing up in the 1970s, my sources of information about what was going on in the world were the hometown newspaper, which my family and I all sat down to read during a quiet half hour before dinner, the CBS Evening News on TV every evening (God bless you, Walter Cronkite), a weekly flip through Time magazine, and the occasional 3-minute bulletin of news on the radio.  All four of these sources seemed at the time to be utterly factual, utterly neutral, utterly trustworthy.

Today I get almost all my news online, and probably 80% of that is filtered through blogs.  In other words, I am usually exposed to opinions about the news before I read the news itself.  Sometimes I don’t even have to get the facts; the opinions are perfectly sufficient, thank you very much.

Since the Web became interactive a few years ago, it is much more a medium of opinions than facts.  (That is my opinion anyway.)  Comments on articles, blogs, flame wars, ratings and reviews: The Web provides everyone a ready platform to opine, argue, complain, urge or pontificate.

Where could this trend lead?  Already, consumer reviews about a product are considered much more reliable than information published by the product’s manufacturer.  About half of all buyers consider opinions shared on their networks before making a purchase. Ninety percent of consumers trust online recommendations from people they know; 70% from people they don’t know.  In short, advice and opinions are actively sought out on the Web, and they are trusted.

In 11 years’ time, when we all have the hand-held devices I mentioned above, is it conceivable that a huge amount of our time will be spent accessing, digesting and contributing to the ceaseless flow of opinions on the Web – recording our reactions to everything, documenting them with photos and videos, and dumping them into the maw of the Internet for the edification of our “followers”?  What could be the consequences?


Connected all the time (yet totally unconnected)

It seems to me that as we devote more and more of our time to our e-mails, Facebook accounts, Twitter feeds, SMS messages and WhatsApp dialogues, and less and less to the actual human beings all around us, we may become unable to carry on normal human conversations any more.

Mind you, I know some people where this is definitely a blessing!  But when you look at the effect on society as a whole of this increasing withdrawal from the “here and now” and immersion instead into an endless series of quick written exchanges with people who are present only as text on a screen, I wonder where this could lead if it went on for another decade. Isolation and alienation? Depression? Or maybe just the opposite: pride in being able to master dozens of “conversations” at once, and elation at feeling a sense of connectedness with the world (albeit in 140-character chunks)?  It’s definitely more exciting to send a quick quip to someone on the other side of the world than to feel trapped in a boring conversation with your neighbor about the weeds in her garden.  Isn’t it?


Finding Mr. Right

Depending on the source of the statistics, between 15% and 45% of newly married couples in the USA met online.  In other countries, the figure appears to be between 5% and 10%, trending upward.

If this development continues, what could be the consequences a decade from now?  Lower divorce rates, for one thing.  Presumably, couples who meet online have already established their compatibility in a range of potentially touchy areas, before even meeting for that first glass of Chardonnay.  They have vetted one another.  Logically, this should mean that their marriages will be stronger.

Or will they?  People are not logical; they’re unpredictable.  Sharing mutual interests isn’t a guarantee that a marriage will last longer.  If the thrill is gone, it’s gone – even if you both adore Thai food and the BeeGees, and your favorite author is Malcolm Gladwell.

On the contrary, the Web may make it easier to look for a new partner and move on.  If that’s the case, the Web could in fact be a contributing factor to an increase in the divorce rate.

And that would be a shame.


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