What the web changed, really.

The web, fundamentally has changed three things: Firstly it has vastly increased the amount of information available. Secondly it has organised that information. Thirdly it has made it available regardless of time, geography or (almost) cost. The result has been rapid, exponential change in absolutely everything. How?

1) Many-to-Many Model

The web connected people in a particular format that had never been done before, this format resulted in the largest increase in expressive capabilities in history. It is called the ‘many-to-many’ model.

What we had before the web was a series of communication revolutions: the first was the printing press in 1500 (mass media), then came the telegraph and telephone (two way media); then recorded media like photos, sound, movies; then radio and television. All of these technologies fit into one of two categories: either they were good at addressing a group ( i.e print / tv), or they were good at conversation ( i.e telephone). They performed the ‘one-to-many’ or the ‘one-to-one’ pattern.

But then came the web, and it was different. It was capable of the ‘many to many’ pattern, in which consumers are also producers of media, and media can be shared to billions with zero friction. All other media is migrating to the internet, because they are all capable of being replicated within a ‘many-to-many’ system. But not only are all these previously distinct methods of communication migrating to the internet, they are merging together. An off-the-shelf computer/smartphone is also a telephone, book, printing press, radio, broadcaster and tv. Companies like Facebook and Google are merging these communication methods into single platforms.

2) B.G – A.G

Information increases exponentially, but this in itself isn’t useful. You have to organize it. The significance of the search engines was to allow the web to usefully increase in size and complexity, by organising and making available exabytes of data. Roughly between 0 A.G and 10 A.G (After Google) we saw search engines organise an internet that was basically a data storage and retrieval system. Someone put up static information on a server, Google made it possible for you to find that information. In the last few years though, the semantic (rather than syntactic) web has sprung up. The semantic web means building on the common language that has been developed to allow meaning to be understood. Though everyone seems to hate the term, ‘Web 2.0’ usefully describes the attempt to understand the semantics – its about creating contextual data, and using it to understand our intentions when we use technology. This is why the iPhone was such a revolution – not because it had a touch screen , but because it contained a compass, accelerometer, GPS, touch capacitor, proximity sensor, gyroscope and ambient light sensor. All the contextual data being thrown out is what allowed the device to be an order of magnitude smarter. In the soft tech side IFTTT is basically a script-runner that’s aware of your online context and thanks to that can do lots of stuff for you automatically.

3) Access

Access to the web is increasing massively: barriers are dropping away – it’s increasingly cheaper (smartphones, netbooks, OLPC, open source OS); increasingly widespread (the world is increasingly connected by fibre, alternative internet infrastructure is growing rapidly, free wifi spots and internet cafés abound); and increasingly cross-generational; computer literacy is growing faster than the demographic – literacy is spreading up to older people.

Some implications

1) Stuff moves faster.

Its seems like the more information there is, and the better it is shared and consumed, the faster things move. Students are starting degrees that are outdated by the time of graduation, business plans are legacy by the time they are completed, politicians are playing catch-up with grassroot movements.

 

2) The web has supported western post-war public doctrine like nothing else.

By public doctrine I mean the set of ideas that are accepted by the majority of a society, and the questioning of which causes a backlash. The post-war public doctrine includes ideas like equality, non-discrimination, fairness, democracy, meritocracy and mobility. But most of all it is defined by ‘freedom of choice’. Choice has been the most sacred value of the post-war era. Choice of the political class, who to work for, what to buy, who to listen to, what to do, what to eat, where to sleep, who to sleep with, how to live, who to worship… This is the age of the individual, the age of personal expression, and that process happens through choice.

People can withhold or allocate their money, time, talent and labour in ways they never could; they are mobile, connected and informed – free to migrate to institutions that reflect their values, or abandon the ones that don’t. Blind acceptance of authority has been replaced by rationalism – everything can and should be questioned. Tradition for tradition’s sake has no place in a new set of values based around the preservation of personal time and the cultivation of relationships based on earned trust, not faith.

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