Sunday, December 14, 2008

The future of the Web

I have been critical of some of the claims made for the Internet and the World Wide Web, as I believe that much of the hype is just that, people trying to credit themselves for being smart enough to see the next big thing. My doubts, which I've expressed here a number of times, come from trying to look at what's really going on, and asking myself if the ramifications of the Web have been truly transformational. I've concluded, no, not yet, and have encountered some disagreement (on the blog, more in real life).

I've never actually said that I don't disbelieve that the Web might have that power some day, just that it hasn't reached that point yet. TIME's 2006 choice of "You," the blogging, YouTube-uploading, commenting, "creating your own content" You, as Person of the Year was provocative, but not really convincing. Much of so-called Web 2.0 is less about empowerment and more about having a broader forum to run one's mouth, and I cheerfully admit that this blog is less socially significant than I would prefer to claim.

When a bunch of early adopters get together, it's easy to see why they might choose to believe in the importance of that life decision; it's less easy to see why those of us who have not yet fully embraced the "brave new world" would go along with it, even to the point of feeling inadequate if they have not fully Web-ized their lives.

So I like to point out evidence that, maybe, just maybe, we are not, as a society, as far along the online curve as some of the more radical adherents would claim. (Again, I am not a Luddite; we are moving along that curve, and, while there will be unforeseen problems, we will and should keep doing so - we are simply not close to the position of Columbus glimpsing the New World.)

Yglesias quotes Henry Farrell as to how the Obama campaign used the Internet, "as a means to facilitate real world volunteering, rather than an end in itself." He goes on:
So it’s perfectly clear that Internet activity wasn’t seen a form of mobilization in itself, contrary to the impression given by some of the more breathless coverage, but rather primarily as a means to more efficiently organize the traditional forms of direct contact.
Yglesias comments, focusing in particular on the political, but I think his words can be extended to other realms:
But only a tiny fraction of the electorate comes from the age cohort that’s really embraced the internet and thinks of email, IM, social networking, etc. as second-nature. So for most voters, it’s natural to use the internet as an efficient means of organizing non-internet interactions — like how at the office people will send out an email to organize a meeting. But as time goes on, it seems plausible that the gap in efficacy between online interactions and things like face-to-face conversations and (especially) phone calls might close, making it more plausible that you would organize online specifically in order to generate online contacts.
This pretty much summarizes how I feel, that we're in the early stages of seeing how the Internet will change things. But, in some ways, I'm actually more optimistic than most. I think the amazing expense of the expansion of airports (most notably for me, O'Hare in Chicago) is throwing money away, because I think videoconferencing is getting more viable and acceptable every day. Some good-sized percentage of business travel is going to disappear into the Web, and many of our assumptions about growth will be shattered.

There are a lot of other examples we could find, but I'll leave it there for now. The Internet is still a young technology, it doesn't need outsized claims to be made about it, and we will see more of our lives centered around it. That will bring profound changes, but, once again, they haven't happened yet.

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