In a world where today’s internet population exceeds three billion users, and the number of internet enabled devices is on a trajectory of reaching 40.9 billion by 2020, I don’t think anyone in the field a decade ago could have truly predicted the level of growth the internet has experienced in its short lifetime. While we have the support of internet pioneers like Vint Cerf promoting the growth of a free and open internet that is unrestricted by legislation such as net neutrality, the RFC 3271 he wrote from 2002 gives a great historical snapshot of a simple fact – the Internet is for everyone, but only if we continue to work towards that reality. Indeed, it would appear we have succeeded in some of these goals considering that over 40% of the world’s population are internet users, a dramatic number in comparison to 16% in 2005. This number would have only reached 25% of the world population by 2047 had the growth rate not continued to accelerate as it has. While the internet’s growth over the past decade far surpassed expectations at it start, the reality is that this was only attainable because of the ingenuity and entrepreneurship of users and corporations that has fueled the internet growth to be a global vehicle for information, products and services, and communication. The internet has grown close to becoming a fully representative sample of the world’s thoughts and feelings on a wide variety of topics, it has become a forum for democratic thought and conversation. It has also forced us to look deeper into several ethical issues, with the privacy and reliability of users’ data on the internet being one of the most controversial in recent years. While many have experienced the frustrations associated with privacy being violated, data being lost or stolen, credit cards being sucked dry, and social security numbers being published on the internet, I can only conclude that these events will force the internet to evolve and adapt into a virtual reality that is far more fortified than where the internet began in the 70s and 80s.
For me personally, the ability to connect people is the internet’s most powerful “feature” if we were to characterize it as a composition of distinct attributes. It sounds wishy washy to characterize the internet into such an amazing and perfect place, and although the internet has a tall demand order from the public and sometimes falls short, I have found the evolution of the internet to be on a promising path – from both a social and technical perspective. The realization didn’t really set in for me until I became an avid podcast co-host over at The Average Guy Network, where my recent efforts have been dedicated to talking about the security and frontier technologies that are impacting our lives. Having podcasted for 4+ years now, the realization that the technology has evolved is only one of the many surprises when you are also surrounded by a community of dedicated listeners from across the country and world. It’s only when you are sitting at a restaurant with an engaged podcast listener, or taking apart someone’s computer in their living room for a “geek meet-up”, or going into work everyday relying on the ability to get tasks done over Microsoft Lync and Google Hangouts that you can appreciate the power the internet has to connect and empower people to discover and work towards common interests together. People who we would otherwise never see or interact with are closer to us and have impact over the path that we take in life more than we could possibly imagine. The tagline I often refer to is “because of the podcast, xyz happened today.” And while I will omit some of those xyz’s for the sake of privacy, I am amazed at the professional development opportunities and information I have had access to through internet mediums like podcasting and being one of several billions of search engine users on the internet. This reality of the internet holds this same promise for all of us, regardless of the way in which we decide to use the internet to our own advancement and connectedness with others. And for those of us who are type A and live the life of future planning and strategic development, the promise of the internet holds true when we realize that the ability to conduct business abroad and form strategic partnerships from the comfort of our keyboard is quite remarkable.
And to be clear, this doesn’t mean we don’t have serious social difficulties with how the internet should be used properly, but these are the “growing pains” that we continue to unravel with the progression of the internet. If you haven’t seen Sherry Turkle’s video on “Connected, but Alone?” – she makes some interesting arguments for some of the social difficulties that we have on the internet, and ways that we might be able to address these issues along the way (but I will leave you to draw your own conclusions).
For the technologists reading this, we have a responsibility to continue to improve the internet and its framework so that it can be a place for everyone. And for the rest of us as members of the global community, we have an obligation to keep the internet growing and developing into an open, unrestricted medium – so that the ingenuity and creativity that has empowered us to lead better lives can continue to flourish without bound.
“Internet IS for everyone – but it won’t be unless WE make it so” — V. Cerf, RFC 3271