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How important is the Web?

Amazingly, the course I’ve been co-teaching with John Palfrey, called The Web Difference, ends on Tuesday. The question the course poses is, unsurprisingly: Is the Web very different from what came before, a little different, or not different? More important, in what ways? The class has looked at a number of different domains and dimensions. (A now outdated version of the syllabus is here.)

John and I haven’t talked about what to do on the last day, but I’m tempted to raise the question of the Web’s difference by asking the class how epochal they think the Web is. Is it different enough and important enough to call this the Age of the Web? (For purposes of this discussion, I’m not distinguishing between the Web and the Internet. If you’d rather substitute “Internet,” I won’t argue. And, yes, I do know the difference.)

Since that’s still pretty vague, suppose we were to ask whether the Web is as big a deal — in terms of defining an epoch — as genetic manipulation. TV. The telephone. Anesthetics. CB radio. The printing press. Paperback books. Bronze. Steam engines. Commercial aviation. Electric keyboards. The computer. Ball point pens. Johnny Depp.

Personally, I think it’s roughly on the order of the printing press. But I also believe that Wikipedia is our Gutenberg Bible… no, not in terms of credibility or spiritual depth, but as the artifact that shows the importance of the new technology. I suspect and hope many of the students in our class thoroughly disagree… [Tags: ]

10 Responses to “How important is the Web?”

  1. Some of this will be perspective. I’m 49. I grew up with radio and TV, but I remember our first TV was black & white and had… tubes. TV was the 3 majors and PBS.

    The other day I was IMing with a friend who was in New Zealand on a trip. She said “hey, want to see Napier?” and sent me a URL to her ustream page… i went there and she picked up her Macbook and pivoted it so that the built-in iSight showed me early morning in Napier, NZ. In the context of someone who’s never known a non-web world, not a big deal. And, yes, I’ve seen webcams before. But the sheer idea that I could have a friend grab her laptop and give me an impromptu tour of a town 10,000 miles away just hit me.

    It’s easy for those of us immersed in technology to become blasé about what we have, but to think of the changes I’ve seen already since I was a kid… yeah, the web is epochal. And some of its impact can be illustrated by the fact that for a 20 year old it seems normal whereas for a 50 year old it’s radically, fundamentally different from what they knew when they were 20.

  2. do I miss being a student : )

    here 33 yrs old, we had the step right at 16 yrs old
    the right time to catch up, but quite rough if you dive into it
    exciting though, no doubt

    don t know about the states, but in italy tend to have
    still built-in the alphabetic mindset
    this generation will tranfer one culture into another
    quite and hard task
    tell them to hurry up ! : )

  3. Heck, just show them this:

    http://www.southparkstudios.com/episodes/166179/

    (“there is no internet to check why there is no internet!”)

  4. During Q&A following a presentation 10 or 12 years ago, I asked Kevin Kelly how important he thought the Web would be. Was it an important new advance, like television, or more fundamental, like moveable type?

    He didn’t pause: “I think it’s more like fire,” he said.

  5. This is the foundation over/upon which the post-singularity culture will be built. Whether called the Data Sea, virtual world, or whatever, this is the “reality” of 2020. The meat world is just a supporting role after that, IMO.

    There is no relevant comparison; never before has has our physical plane of existence been relegated to a second-class status (except by monks).

    Varley saw voluntary biological mutation as a commonplace but Vinge, Stross, Doctorow, and other visionaries realized the Iway for what it was: the great equalizer. The “tie that binds”. The new social milieu. The step just before telepathy. The ultimate weapon.

    So this analogy makes the WWW on a par with personal armaments: the 21st century revolver. Which probably sells it short.

  6. I believe the hype. I live the hype. I hype the hype.

    But sometimes I wonder about the effects of thinking and talking about the issues all the time, and indeed of living and working in places like Brookline and Cambridge. (That’s not a hit; I did exactly the same thing at one time too. I wish I were doing that now.)

    My questioning comes from my current situation—living in Portland, ME. Portland is hardly the far side of the moon, but, even so, it can feel very far from this change.

    For example, most of the people I know up up here—college educated, social, well-adjusted—aren’t on any social networking site. If they are, they tried it X months ago and never do anything with it. This isn’t just mid-30s like me, but some of the 20s I know too. Weirdly, even the teenagers I know—some in Massachusetts—basically restrict themselves to AIM.

    Sure, they know Google and they use it to write their papers faster, but the change still seems modest, unevenly distributed and in no hurry. Sure, we can see Napier, NZ, but how is that changing our lives?*

    Maybe the future is here, just not evenly distributed. I believe that. Maybe the big changes only happen when technology become ubiquitous, as Shirky argues, and that, so far, we’re still mostly chewing through the effects of email. I believe that too. But I also think the world cares about all of this less than we think if does.
    *My aha! moment was a gopher search bringing up college cricket scores, also in NZ. There’s something falsely exotic about New Zealand. It’s so far away, yet so familiar, or at least it feels it. If you were to flip open your laptop and suddenly understand a foreign culture that would be something, but that’s very very hard—and not much easier through technology.

  7. Tim, I understand your restraint. My experience of the Net, based on class, place, education, interests, age, etc., may be the exception and may be highly misleading. In fact, I think that is almost certainly the case. We can start simply with my America-centrism, followed by my developed world-centrism. Even locally I’m watching the Net become something for The Kids it wasn’t for me. It’s not just hard to tell what the Net will become, it’s impossible.

    But, I continue to believe that its effects — unknowable, unpredictable, varied across every vector of difference — are likely to be as unsettling and transformative as printed books were for the West. I don’t know what those effects will be, but given that sociality is so important to humans as a species, and given that the Net is a connective “medium,” I do think the change is likely to be epochal.

  8. No, I agree. I think, however, that large-scale cultural and social changes are slower than technology. But they’re in motion, for sure.

    For methodology sake, however, I feel like the printing press is so big that it’s effects almost can’t be talked about. In some sense the printing press is responsible for modern literature, scholarship, science, religion and political organization. But it wasn’t that on it’s own, but as a necessary precursor to other, different revolutions.

    I can speculate on what the internet means, but I have no idea what the revolutions it enables will mean. But—O posterity—if the internet turns out to be a key element in universal telekinesis, well, we didn’t predict it.

  9. I think is a very good tool for practicing telepathy
    we may arrive to be good in that pretty soon

    David the printing press has been the acceleration in sharing the culture
    but the writing culture was already there, from the laws written down to the property and maps
    a tiny fraction of the society, yes they where mostly priest,
    was already shaping a pretty good hierachy
    and it s pretty much still there since then

    that may require a bit of time but I would say
    less then we would like ))

  10. The web is a pretty big deal. People do everything over the internet now. Teachers and professors leave their lectures on the internet and (unfortunately ;) ) post homework on it. It’s also increasingly people’s choice for news. Now we have more and more tv shows and YouTube on the web. The internet is actually a little addictive. :o ;)

    -Steve


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