We read and write a lot about the evolution of technology, standards, integration and interfaces. But there is not much written or said about how the web will continue to change the lives of people. Indeed, the future of the web is less about what is behind the curtain and more about how it will change the ways we live, work and interact. Here are five ways that the web will change our lives, even to the point of helping our species to progressively evolve:
1. Dot.com booms again
The original dot.com boom was driven by the tremendous business opportunity provided by interconnectivity, and the surplus of good ideas for taking advantage of digital technologies. Unfortunately, among the many failings of the movement was an inherent technology limitation. Most people, even in a business setting, were dealing with inconsistent access and external connections that were not equal to the good ideas, applications and potential. That inherent accessibility and related usability boundaries kept the promise of the web beyond the grasp of too many people that would need to embrace it for the booming industry to solidify and become sufficiently mainstream for continued sustainability. As the crash was exacerbated by a larger recession, the industry was left to lick its wounds. At the same time, infrastructures were becoming more robust, and today many people relevant to business concerns are not only connected, but via broadband.
And that is only the beginning. We are finally heading toward the ubiquitous web.
Technology companies have been promising this for years. Science fiction literature, television programs and movies have foreshadowed it for decades. Now, with our cell phones and PDAs and wireless laptops, in places like Starbucks around the world, we are seeing the tentative first steps. Right now the interfaces and the usability are generally poor, but it is a harbinger for where we are going. By the end of this decade, we can expect to have on-demand connections in most every urban and even suburban setting – and not necessarily needing our own personal device to interface with it. And, between now and then, the second dot.com boom will have already started. Only this time it may not bust.
The next ten years are going to be an exciting time to be part of this industry.
2. Richer personal relationships
The industrial age has brought with it protracted communities and families. Connections between people now have significant space between, filled with products and ephemera that only widen the gap to understanding and a deeper personal connection. At the same time, through advances in physical and social sciences, we understand so much more about how and why we function and what makes for a healthy relationship and deeper interpersonal connections. Some people take advantage of that, yet many do not.
While on the surface a paradox, I have found that virtual relationships melt away much of the disconnect between people. For example, I have never physically met my best friend. We met through a mutual hobby on the web and our relationship evolved over some six years from being casual, to actively engaged, to deeply personal, to the point of being an essential component of my life. Digital communication has enabled me to open up with him in a more raw and honest way than is feasible in most physical relationships. More, the fact that we can communicate whenever it is convenient for one of us (without requiring both of us to be present) keeps an ongoing dialogue and exploration of very personal, deep and ultimately meaningful things ongoing and active.
Since the earliest days of the web, people have used the medium for personal publishing and expression. This evolved from unsophisticated and largely static “personal home pages” to the weblogs that technology professionals and youth, in particular, are taking advantage of. Publishing is more frequent, more personal and marked by meaningful content much more than has been the case in the past. It has changed from being an exploration of the technology to a reflection of the self.
We will experience a much more formal, deep and textured level of personal web publishing, which leads to people enjoying far closer relationships with one another. As people become comfortable with and have access to relatively simple features like multiple levels of password protection, they will begin to use the web to communicate with people as opposed to direct communication methods like the telephone or even email. After all, what I write once on the web, everyone I care about can read, understand and respond to – as opposed to personally re-telling the same stories, feelings and facts over and over. Time that used to be spent exchanging information is instead spent reflecting upon that information and productively responding to it. More people will understand us better, and the relatively shorter amount of personal time and attention that we have to take with one another in order to provide meaningful responses will be condensed. It certainly will not replace direct communication but will very strategically augment it – and, in the process, improve it.
While initially this will prove to build close virtual relationships, as the technology becomes more universally understood and comfortable, we will see this also be a primary communication point in our physical relationships. And these relationships will be much stronger for it, as the level and depth of mutual understanding between us will be far greater.
3. Deeper understanding of ourselves
Building on richer personal relationships, we will develop a much deeper understanding of ourselves, and even a greater self-confidence and sense of personal security by having a handful of people deeply involved in our close, personal lives. While it may not put psychologists completely out of business, it certainly will provide a lot of people with similar benefits to those of therapy: the opportunity to share in a way that allows open feedback that we can then properly contextualize and grow emotionally with. Even as the web puts us in touch with incredible knowledge, no more than a small fraction of people are taking advantage of these opportunities for emotional growth. Part of that is the current immature point in the evolution of digital technologies; part is generation gap; part is general levels of personal comfort and communication. Assuming certain levels of education and access, our youth will not face those same barriers, and thanks to the web, they will have the opportunity to enjoy a level of emotional growth and maturity – and wisdom – that was not previously possible.
4. Living the virtual life
In some large part due to our abundance of space, people in the United States accumulate things. From collections to knick-knacks to personal objects from our past, too many of us drag around physical objects that we have little use or need for. Other people, or those in other cultures, take the opposite tact and remain relatively unburdened, sometimes discarding things out of necessity rather than choice.
Today it is simple and accessible to capture almost anything digitally – instantly – using either a camera or scanner. From there, it is a very straightforward set of steps to “permanently” capture those digital images on a server or media device. This will only continue to get easier as the tools become less expensive and comfort with using them more universal.
Back in 1996, when I admittedly did not understand how the web would evolve, I envisioned a worldwide enterprise, based on local brick-and-mortar stores, where people brought in any images, objects or documentation pertaining to their family history to be captured digitally and integrated into a global network, where anyone could access them in the future. This was born from personal experience. In 1995 both of my maternal grandparents died. Their effects and documents were split between the three children and eight grandchildren. A consolidated set of invaluable historical and genealogical data was scattered, never to be assembled or together again. What if it had been captured in one place, organized, integrated and thereafter accessible by anyone for generations to come?
Digital photography and web publishing are growing so quickly that a brick-and-mortar enterprise like that simply would not be sustainable. However, the idea – capturing information in a centralized place where it is permanently available – is more pertinent than ever, thanks to our ability to capture and post it ourselves. Applying this to my own life, owing to my career and progressive nature, I can forecast the need to be quickly portable and not place bound. There is real value in taking my physical possessions that are not essential to everyday living and capturing them digitally. More, by capturing those things digitally instead of physically, they will be easier to share. People can browse the artifacts of my life and better understand me, tying into some earlier points in this article.
Taking it to the next step, the need for physical space and permanent physical place will become increasingly less important. We will need less space, because our artifacts will exist digitally. Also, items that we historically have treated as permanent artifacts, such as videos, CDs and DVDs, are being delivered digitally instead. The days of owning “collections” of media are terminal. We will also be far less tied to our actual physical space, much more nimble and spontaneous and even changing our physical location with more regularity, just by being able to do so. The impact that this will have on residential buildings of the future, workplaces of the future, lifestyles of the future, is too early to predictably tell. But, thanks to the web, life will be much different.
5. Closer physical communities
If human history has taught us anything, it is that we act and react as though affixed to a pendulum: we live through a very conservative period, shift to a very liberal period, then back again. This basic pattern is evident in government, religion, cultural standards and so much more.
While the next few years to a decade will be punctuated by a growth of and involvement in virtual communities and relationships, this will shift back shortly after becoming the cultural norm. After all, along with the advantages of a virtual life come a myriad of disadvantages: relatively flat interactions, lack of tactile contact, lack of experiential factors, possibility of gross deception that can lead to significant physical, emotional and/or financial hurt, security issues. Even as virtual relationships boom to become big business and an essential part of our lives, the limitations of those relationships and communities will also be amplified.
The result will be closer physical communities, enhanced by the technology. People will use the web as a tool to maximize their relationships and interactions, but there will be a decisive movement back toward physical interaction, relationship and experience. This is inevitable, assuming the promised breakthrough of the virtual. People will be drawn back to the real, and collectively much closer to one another through the proliferation of the virtual.
How ironic: the industrial revolution and rise of science is what protracted many communities in the first place; now, the technology that emerged as a natural part of those movements will be the tool that brings us back closer together – perhaps even closer than ever.
The future of the web is about people
We all know that web technology, the effects of web on business and the nature of applications will evolve. But the future of the web is far more about the power of people. The way that we live our lives and perceive the world will dramatically change through the advance of the medium. Especially in our personal development and in the quality and nature of our relationships and community, the web already proves to be the ideal media to re-define how we frame ourselves and one another. While the future of our global culture will pull the masses in that direction, we should begin stretching the boundaries of our existence today. Along with the upcoming second advance of the dot.com, there are vast personal and professional opportunities for all of us.
If you take nothing else from this article, remember: The future of the web is about people.