A few days ago, stimulated by the level of recent noise on the internets about open and closed and apps and HTML5 and walled gardens and governance models and why someone hates <pick one from Google/Apple/Microsoft/Facebook/the world/themselves>, I wrote a post asserting that it’s over, asserting that the waves won’t be turned back, that the genie won’t go back into the bottle, that the changes we’ve seen over the past three or four decades are here to stay, that the trends will sustain.
Some of you tweeted me your responses, some of you commented on facebook or Google Plus, some of you even wrote to me giving me your feedback. Some of you went further and sent me links and references to follow up. My thanks to all of you, I appreciate the feedback. Most of what you had to say was positive; and almost every comment I’ve received was constructive. Collectively, you’ve spurred me on to write this post.
I thought I’d spend some time sharing with you why I think it’s over, rather than just blandly making that statement.
1. Soon everyone on earth will be connected to the internet
We can argue till the cows come home about the quality of the connections or for that matter what can be done with those connections. The fact remains that the number of people with internet connectivity has grown by nearly an order of magnitude over the past decade or so; it is possible for over a third of the world to read this post if they so chose.
2. People choose how they connect to the internet
Gone are the days when customers were forced to use a particular device on a particular network, as mobile service operators desperately fought to differentiate themselves that way. Mobile phone unlocking services are now a dime a dozen, cropping up everywhere like nail salons. Soon I expect we’ll be able to get phones unlocked at nail salons or shoeshine stands “while you wait”. In fact, it appears that you can even buy mobile-unlocking franchises on eBay now.
3. People choose how they will engage with “content”
There was a time when you had to sign up with a particular service provider to gain access to a particular content service. This is being challenged at multiple levels. In some countries, the regulator is insisting on a level playing field, ruling that content must be made available from all providers. A Portsmouth pub landlady has gone further, challenging the right of the content provider to tell her where she has to acquire the content from: the case is now at the highest levels of the European Courts. There are even some studies suggesting that content is not really premium anyway, that it’s commoditised, that what customers pay for is convenience of access and ease of use across multiple devices and locations.
4. People choose where they engage from (even if it’s not where they really are)
Artificial scarcities are being met by artificial abundances. DVDs with region codes; phones locked to networks; music and film with DRM; every time someone comes up with a technique to “channel” a customer, others come up with techniques to remove that control. This has been happening for decades. People choose the location they’d like to pretend to be at, obviating regional constraints.
5. It’s getting harder to pass bad law
Connected people tend to get informed more effectively. Connected people have the power of acting collectively. Companies, legislatures, even governments are being challenged if they seek to act in ways that constrain connected people.
6. It’s getting harder to stop people connecting and congregating
7. The possibilities are infinite
Connected informed people represents immense possibilities, as we learn how to use this new power to solve problems we’ve not been able to solve before. Problems with responding to climate change, energy, disease, nutrition, wellbeing, poverty, problems that have dogged us for centuries. People will find ways we’ve never imagined, never been able to imagine. Things we’ve spoken of for years will start bearing fruit. Newish things like linked data, open data, the semantic web; the continued evolution of open source; 3D printing; the internet of things. And oldish things like democracy.
8. New paradigms, new problems, new solutions
The promise of the new comes with pitfalls. So we’re going to learn how to deal with abundance of intention and scarcity of attention, abundance of freedoms and scarcity of privacies. New tools will emerge. New laws will be passed. New rights will be argued for. Rights to be remembered, rights to be forgotten. Please-track-me-now, don’t-ever-track-me.
Guerrilla ways of providing tools and connectivity and access will continue. And we will sputter “terrorist” and “cybercriminal” and whatever else comes into our minds…. while our children get used to the new tools as a way of life. Witness BBM.
9. People still make shoes, not money
One of my favourite Peter Drucker stories. This is what he had to say:
No financial man will ever understand business because financial people think a company makes money. A company makes shoes, and no financial man understands that. They think money is real. Shoes are real. Money is an end result.
It’s never easy going extinct. Dinosaurs were probably distinctly uncomfortable with their lot, and the little furry rodent-like mammals probably found out about it.
Millennia later, the little furry rodent-like mammals have continued to evolve. Without the dinosaurs.
And that’s the way it’s going to be with business models. There are lots of ways of making shoes. They’re just new ways of making shoes. And if you’re good at making shoes, then you’ll make money. Just not the old way, that road is the route to extinction. Read Kevin Kelly’s outstanding Better Than Free if you want to know more.
10. It’s over
More of us are getting connected every day, on a host of devices, in a variety of ways. We choose. We choose when and how we connect, whom we connect, why we connect, what we share. What we produce, what we consume. We choose.
Some people don’t like that. So they try and restrict the choices. Lock the device. Lock the content. Lock the connection. Lock the data.
Lock the person.
It’s not working.
Nothing’s perfect. The internet was not designed to be perfect, there’s something organic and evolutionary and always-temporarily-flawed about it. So yes there are those who believe this is not what was meant to be. There are those who believe we have to break it all down and start again. There are those who believe it will all end horribly.
And then there’s us.
If we want it to be.
For a time I thought that the US and UK and Western Europe wanted it to be so. Before I saw how deeply ingrained the incumbent lobbies were, understandably focused on protecting past power. So they’ve managed to hold up progress, but at a cost. Some of them could have become furry rodents if they’d tried hard enough. Now there’s only one future for them, filed under Dinosaur.
For a time I thought that India and China would make all the difference, as they came online and changed the dynamics and the economics. That’s happening now.
But more recently, I’ve begun to believe that the real transformation will show up somewhere else.
Not the Africa of Arab Spring.
The continent of Africa may well be the first place to realise the true potential of the internet and the Web and all that they represent.
Alan Kay once said, probably around 1968, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it”. When I met him some years ago, he’d changed his mind: he amended his words to “The best way to predict the future is to prevent it”.
The West has been in the business of preventing the future for a long time now. They’ve gotten pretty sophisticated at it.
The East runs the risk of following in the West’s footsteps. I hope they don’t. But they could.
Which leaves the stage open for Africa. A land of incredible need, incredible possibilities. A land that may show the rest of us what the internet is really about.
Because they want it. Maybe they want it more than anyone else. They. Us.
It’s up to us. West or East or anywhere else for that matter.
It’s over. If we want it to be.