“A funny thing happened to us on the way to the future.”

An eminently sensible article by John Naughton in The Observer setting out nine big ideas, or steps, towards a better understanding of the internet.

1 Take the long view

2 The web isn’t the net

3 Disruption is a feature, not a bug

4 Think ecology, not economics

5 Complexity is the new reality

6 The network is now the computer

7 The web is changing

8 Huxley and Orwell are the bookends of our future

9 Our intellectual property regime is no longer fit for purpose

Read the whole thing.

As John Naughton adds

It would be ridiculous to pretend that these nine ideas encapsulate everything that there is to be known about the net. But they do provide a framework for seeing the phenomenon “in the round”, as it were, and might even serve as an antidote to the fevered extrapolation that often passes for commentary on developments in cyberspace. The sad fact is that if there is a “truth” about the internet, it’s rather prosaic: to almost every big question about the network’s long-term implications the only rational answer is the one famously given by Mao Zedong’s foreign minister, Zhou Enlai, when asked about the significance of the French Revolution: “It’s too early to say.” It is.


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  • Comrade Stalin

    This looks like it was written about ten years ago. “the network is the computer” is a Sun Microsystems’ trademark all the way back into the early 90s at least. Wikipedia seems to say the guy who coined that phrase did so in the 80s.

    the author’s case for that particular point is that computing resources are being centralized, so your email or other applications are running on a central bank of powerful servers rather than locally on your computer. This is, in fact, a regression back into the way computing worked prior to the IBM PC (and indeed Sun workstation) in the 1980s. It’s significantly more efficient in many respects to centralize computing resources rather than distribute them.

    People were also writing “the web isn’t the net” way back then, and this was more important at a time when people used a wider variety of protocols more frequently than they do now. Does anyone here remember gopher, for example ? Usenet used to be popular; now people use web-based discussion forums. Web-based email is replacing regular POP3/SMTP mail for many home users. I’m sure the point where the stupid and rather pointless FTP protocol will fade out will also be upon us soon. The examples that the author gives about VOIP are a little self defeating, as Skype uses a proprietary voice protocol running over HTTP. We are increasingly getting to the point where the WWW in a sense is the internet to all intents and purposes. The trend – at least in terms of consumer use of the internet – has been less about inventing new protocols and more about figuring out ways to use HTTP and HTML to achieve more things.

  • joeCanuck

    Disruption is a feature, not a bug

    Hope they have copyrighted that. Toyota, or BP, might pay a few dollars to use it in an ad campaign.

  • Bulmer

    Worth reading if you are involved in IT.

    I helped launch the first private email service in 82. We charged £1 an email as we targeted at being a cheaper Telex. It was the only analogy we had. Ten years later email was free. All those early email companies are long gone.

    One of the problems in playing in these markets is that conventional accounting doesn’t work. Look at the recent sale of Bebo for yet another case of a once appreciating service collapsing. And despair that Friends Reunited was effectively facebook but didn’t see the next step.

    I’m waiting for next the thing to trump Twitter and Facebook. It’s out there somewhere and so bloody obvious we’ll kick ourselves for not seeing it.

    Bit like one MD I had. I was trying to launch an internet service in the UK six months before Demon went live. He killed the project with:

    “This internet thing…it’ll never take off”

    Needless to say his company was dead with two years.

  • Comrade Stalin

    “This internet thing…it’ll never take off”

    Thing is, he was in the company of well known and very successful people. I still remember when Bill Gates said that the internet was a passing fad. At that time, the Microsoft Network (MSN) was rather like AOL, ie a privately-run and controlled internet, and Gates thought that was the way things would be.

    I think Friends Reunited straitjacketed themselves a bit with their marketing. It seemed to be focussed on bringing together people from school, AFAIK. I didn’t bother because most of the people I knew in school were twats.

  • DC

    I agree about the intellectual property regime.

    Copyright in terms of music and so on is done for, as it conflicts with the way the internet now internalises things inside your house, new music is now available inside your private property – and all the psychology that goes with that process. Like for instance, if i can get a tune for free in two secs somewhere online as if I am going to spend a £1 or so buying it elsewhere.

    Basically if it is possible to get free music and whatever else inside your house then so be it and long will that continue. Private property is viewed as sacrosanct by many if not the vast majority now and the internet internalises things in that you become the customer inside your house getting things that were once only available to you on the outside – externally in selected shops. It is a tough luck approach to the music industry and many other vested interests.

    Enforcement of copyright etc and such issues is bound to become bitterly controversial in the same way the miners were told no more national industries and vested interests the same should be said to the big music companies et al. No one said loadza money was always going to be part and parcel of it all.

    In terms of public services it means more services can be provided using video clips and step by step advice can be given that way perhaps when doing training on complying with the law or around filling in forms etc. This means more hands-on work, more labour intense work can be diverted in to schools and in particular hospitals etc.

    All this change through the power of binary – mathematics really is the language of nature!!

  • Pete Baker

    “This looks like it was written about ten years ago.”

    And, if it had been, it would have been as eminently sensible then as it is now.

    As Naughton says in the quoted postscript

    It would be ridiculous to pretend that these nine ideas encapsulate everything that there is to be known about the net. But they do provide a framework for seeing the phenomenon “in the round”, as it were, and might even serve as an antidote to the fevered extrapolation that often passes for commentary on developments in cyberspace.

  • 8 Huxley and Orwell are the bookends of our future
    9 Our intellectual property regime is no longer fit for purpose

    Interesting juxtaposition – presuming 8 references Brave New World and Nineteen Eightyfour – then there is surely a comparable intellectual property issue with Zamyatin since (in contemporary terms) both heavily sampled ‘We’.

    The issue isn’t really intellectual property – it is current revenue models based on intellectual property that are not fit for purpose on the internet. Hence live music (and tour-based revenue) is become fashionable again. Films are looking to 3-D and other experiential attractions that do not replicate in a PC or television environment.

  • Pete Baker


    I’ve isolated the headings [ideas] in the post.

    The article extrapolates on them.

  • DC

    I suppose you are correct in that it is about money in the end and at the lowest level.

    The State doesn’t opertate constitutional protection of capitalism for any old reason other than for money.

  • In an episode of TWW at the turn of the millenium Sam Seaborn said that the big issue of the next two decades would be data privacy. How right he was and that battle has still to be fought if only because people still don’t connect data and information.

  • I’d been lazy – but having read them now the point still stands. The replication debate isn’t where people take issue with intellectual property it is the capacity to generate revenue is the issue.

    What is lost in the brain+web=stupid debate is that we’ve done this before. Speech developed as a way of accessing the group brain (sharing information about food sources, warnings etc). Until writing appeared, our information retrieval/storage systems were fallible as they relied on human memories. During the development of writing then printing we have externalised our capacity for memory while having to make space in our brains to perform reading, comprehension and related functions. No-one know doubts that these are useful skills. In the Illiad Homer, writing on the cusp of a period when memory of literature was lost and oral transmission had regained dominance, treats reading from text as magic. Caesar and other Roman sources imply that ‘Celtic druids’ looked down on written records since it promoted laziness in the human memory. Accessing web-based data and retaining the mental capcity to do so is actually an extension of the same process. I doubt we are becoming the pancake people that Nicholas Carr fears – simply because most people use the web to access information within the narrow frames of the cultural landscape that interests them.

    Somewhere globalisation wants to rear its head within this debate. We’re much more globalised today (we think) – yet go fish out a Newsletter, Times or Freemans Journal from the late-18th or early 19th century – there is news from around the world in greater depth than most people are exposed to today. I think television still holds primacy in forming societal norms. When the web displaces it – then things will get interesting…

  • Bulmer

    The key skill for the future isn’t learning huge amounts of data but being able to find the answer you need to an immediate problem.

    There’s an old canard about the client visiting his lawyer. He asks a question and the lawyer goes over to a wall of books, picks one out and reads out the answer.

    “I could do that” wails the client when presented with the bill.

    “But I know which book to pick and were to look” says the lawyer.

    We have an education system built around the idea of rote learning mounds of utterly irrelevant info because we are still stuck in the Tudor period. But the skills for survival are now totally different.

    My younger daughter mastered the concept of using strings to find obscure facts on Google when she was 6. Of course she wrote long sentences. But the result was the same. She got the correct answer. Like her generation, they do know where to look.