Blurring The Lines Of Life Or Web
The World Wide Web turned 15 on Sunday, marking a world-changing phenomenon that has reached adolescence, faster and more able than in its infancy, but still awkward in some ways, untamed, irreverent, and lacking in respect for tradition. What will the next 15 years bring? Equality? In some ways, yes. But when the Web turns 30, many think the digital divide will expand until the virtual world more closely matches the real world.
On November 13, 1990, British-born Tim Berners-Lee sent the first hypertext document through cyberspace giving a new medium to the world that “has transformed the way we read the news, watch films, sell our cast offs, gamble, order our food and drink, find our dates, write encyclopedias, steal music, commit fraud you name it,” says Times Online’s Rhys Blakely.
Within five years of its birth, the Web had 40 million users, exploding to an incredible 1.07 billion users by 2004, numbers that fulfilled Berners-Lee’s envisioning of information freely and widely accessible by everyone-information being a realm previously limited to the elite.
Google, with its loudly promoted goal to index the world’s information, shares that egalitarian role, especially as the search engine company aspires also to bring the Internet itself to everyone, a monumental cost supported by advertising.
Further in his article, Blakely goes on to pick the brain of none other than Vinton Cerf, the heralded “Father of the Internet,” now a Google employee with the title “Chief Internet Evangelist,” to find out how the web will develop in another 15 years.
“Very likely it will include 3D presentation capabilities, speech understanding input and perhaps even gestural inputs,” said Cerf.
All this talk of closing the digital divide, the expansion of capabilities, elite control of information versus all-access to raise to lowly-it’s all very touchy feely, idealistic, beautiful really, rhetoric. And I can only hope it’s true.
But the pessimist, or better, the realist, proposes a much different landscape. When Cerf speaks of 3D presentation and speech technology, it is chillingly reminiscent of other visions. While information will indeed lift up the masses, the microcosm being built in cyberspace will mirror the real world, complete with online personas that will or won’t make the A-list.
A blogger by the pseudonym, JR Pessimist describes the shift from Memex (how we see the Web today) to Metaverse (how we will likely see the Web in the future, where people are represented by avatars-the better your avatar, the more elite you appear).
“The killer app’ is computer-mediated realtime human interaction-such as talking to each other. (If you think that’s not important, here is a data point: Skype has 200 million downloads.)”
This device is a computer with a Web browser. By zooming in on it you can access all of the World Wide Web and run old-fashioned applications. (Here’s how it looks in Croquet.) You see a computer within a world, not a world within a computer.”
And in this computer world, the pessimists envisage prejudice, gated communities, entire spheres of the Web with restricted access.
Wikipedia on Metaverse (based mainly on the science fiction novel Snow Crash):
“The Metaverse can be accessed through public-access terminals in reality. However, using them carries a social stigma among Metaverse denizens, in part because of the low visual quality of the rendered avatar; the Metaverse representations of a user in virtual-reality In the Metaverse, status is a function of two things: access to restricted environments (such as the Black Sun, an exclusive Metaverse club) and technical acumen (often demonstrated by the sophistication of one’s avatar). The Metaverse is frequented mainly by the upper and middle classes.”
As in life, a good idea is rarely left untouched. People will build their hedges and castles, even in a fake world. Not exactly the purist egalitarian intentions of the Web’s creators-but some will continue the good fight.