The Known-Unknown of the Internet

Of late, I have been thinking – about how far we have come, about where we are, and how far we will go from here.

Apart from a lot of reading, tweeting and learning, I spend a significant part of time thinking. I cannot stop wondering about what the future would look like. What is the world my grandchildren would inherit?

Most of what we ponder about the future, comes from whatever we have experienced in the past. We have seen the rise of Internet – first connectivity, then spread of information, and now the tearing down of the physical barriers to found, own, and operate a business. The Internet was a dream come true for business owners and investors as it bought about rapid scaling of businesses with low capital allocation.

The tearing down of conventional barriers also brought opportunities to the door step of the world’s people. Your location, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political leaning did not matter. A person from a remote village in Eastern Africa with a laptop and an Internet connection could compete with someone in Silicon Valley. The Internet has been a great equaliser.

It might appear that every opportunity the Internet has to offer has already been lapped up. Finding a domain name is an arduous task, so is getting a twitter handle which resembles your name, or even an e-mail address. In this scheme of things, it may seem that we have reached an impasse – building every social media outlet we could envision, share every available car with another person, leverage real estate as a tourist offering, or connecting every soul on this planet with another. But, this is the same impasse we were in about a decade or two earlier.

The second internet domain name registered was BBN Technologies registered the domain on the 24th of April, 1985 - 4 days before I was born. Did anyone at that point of time perceive of the power of the internet? Almost 35 years in, it is next to impossible to find a domain name for yourself.

In the 35 odd years since the internet was born, we have hiked up the mountain of progress at an unprecedented pace. I presume we are only half-way up the mountain. We are yet to glimpse the summit of the internet-technology peak. Or, are we even going to see the summit? Will this be the proverbial ever-growing mountain whose peak keeps getting higher with the knowledge and technology we accumulate? In a few decades, today’s progress will seem like the cave paintings found in Lascaux. A grey-beard is going to be sitting on a doorstep decades from now explaining to his grandchildren about twitter, uber and google like tea time stories.

There are certain aspects of life that change slowly with preordained outcomes. You are able to notice the pace of change and are able to envisage the outcomes. You can act to counter these changes and set sail so that they act as tailwinds. Then, there are those changes which rapidly rise and fall but which do not affect your life in any manner – the fashion industry trend, Dalgona coffee, etc,. The only impact they have is a brief appearance on your social media feed. Then there’s the other kind of change – one that happens fast but is unpredictable. Also they bring along with themselves an uncertainty in outcomes. These kind of situations go by a not-so-friendly name – “A Known Unknown”.

A known unknown is a scenario where you know that an event will occur but do not know what is the possible outcome of the event that you need to prepare for. Such a scenario demands you to prepare for a wide range of outcomes - even if the range of outcomes are opposing. You may be expecting a loud blast but in the end it may only be a whimper.

Considering the sway the internet holds over us, I came up with a few questions that are presently skirting these edges of change. These are embracing the Known unknown use-cases. Each question has a plethora of answers/ outcomes and each outcome will have a domino effect on the world as we know it or as we imagine it to be. I haven’t the faintest idea how things will pan out, but these are some questions which I believe will be worth pondering over. Also, the answers to some of these questions will be where the next Google or Facebook will appear from.

What will people not share?

The share button has becomes ubiquitous. It is available with every piece of information – ranging from a DP to a diagnosis. But where do we draw the line? We share our likes and dislikes, our fantasies and realities, our similarities and singularities. But, will we also share our income? Going a step further, will we share our tax pay-outs?

How will the Internet shape religion?

Religion was mostly limited to congregations at churches, temples and mosques – where paeans of praise were sung by one and heard by all. Will the internet herald a new religion that is disparate from conventions of ‘I’ say and ‘You’ listen? A religion heralded by supposed equality for all its followers? Religions are after all founded on principles of faith – so why not one of the Internet? The Religion of the Internet?

How much bandwidth is enough?

We turn a tap of water and we expect water to flow out, we turn on a switch and we expect a bulb to glow. We are yet to click a play button or log into a video call and not wonder for a second whether we have enough band width. When would we take bandwidth for granted? How much band width is enough?

We need to understand that the essence behind every piece of technology and the founding of the internet was sharing information. Information is an exchange of meaningful data between the creator and consumer. In the case of humans being creator, these are nothing but thoughts. How much bandwidth do we need to exchange thoughts?

How many devices till we find “The Device”?

It was not long ago that we carried with us a notebook, a camera, a recording device, a calculator, a calendar and a personal music player. Now we have rectangular slabs of glass and metal that have rendered the above into obsolescence. We now have laptops, tablets and phones. What next? Will we stick to phones? Will be progress to something so amazing that we need no device at all to share thoughts?

How much information are we going to produce?

Written communication was a means to store and transit information across generations. They evolved from paintings to symbolic representations to the more formal scripts used widely today. However, with technology marrying the Internet, there’s plenty of digital information that is being created from sensors, clicks, etc,. Consider this article from the World Economic Forum which has collaborated with Raconteur:

...the digital universe will reach 44 Zettabytes in 2020. If this number is correct, it will mean there are 40 times more bytes than there are stars in the observable universe.

This however does not take into consideration the increase in pervasive computing – from your watch to your weighing scale, from your coffee maker to your car. These are being adopted on a hitherto unheard of scale. How much of this do we need? How much of this do corporations need? How much data do governments need?

How are we going to balance producing information vs consuming information?

The rate of consuming information had always surpassed that of creating information. A 30 second video clip took 30 seconds to consume but may have taken 30 hours to create. This post would take you a few minutes to consume, but has taken me a few hours to write up. This was a limitation of creators. With the dawn of AI and machine learning – they create information based on analyzing data from sensors, from signals, from clicks and even frowns – information creation with rapidly overtake information consumption. Are we built to handle this imbalance?

How are we going to deal with information overdose?

A domino effect of the rampant increase in the creation of information is distinguishing between the signal and noise. The only way you’re going to discern what matters is by going deep instead of going wide. Develop niches among the internet audience. If you believe that what you’re saying and doing is mundane, then your belief may probably be incorrect. Look deeper and you will be astonished to find people who are looking exactly for the same thing you want to show them. In some cases they may have not been aware of the need for it in the first place. But, what is deep and what is wide?

How much are we going to pay creators?

When I mean creators, it includes the entire gamut of the creative universe – cinema, music, arts, theatre, etc,. With sinking distribution costs and production costs, how much will creators charge? How much will consumers be willing to pay?

How will organisations restructure?

Traditional organisations have been following a tiered approach – a higher ranking official above. Will the new internet world order break this structure and lead to a peer-to-peer system where feed back is given more value than feed in? Will there be no top and bottom? May be one level in the organisation that wants to build better products and services?

How harmful will surfing the Internet prove to be?

There have been numerous debates about how surfing, click-bait, porn have spawned a series of disorders – ranging from attention deficit to ED. How are we going to curtail the surf-game? We have seen these effects to be temporary and inconvenient; but would they become fatal?

I do not know which way the pendulum will swing, whether we will even be able to answer these questions either. But I know without asking questions, we would still be hunched over a camp fire in a forest using crude signs and sounds to communicate.

P.S. Thanks to Ryan and Keagan for reading drafts of this post and offering their valuable feedback!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s