The future of the web : chaos and sustainability

Digital transformation is a hot topic but it’s in fact nothing but one step in a broader process that will make internet (and not necessarily the web) the infrastructure of our lives, of our individual and collective actions all over the planet. If, obsessed by the present – we, and most of all enterprises focus on current stakes, it may be useful to put this phase in perspective, remind what led us there and what’s following next. As a matter of fact the next phase as already begun.

Phase 1 : The age of the foundations

That’s when internet was built, from a technology and physical standpoint. There were not much use cases but this was the time the foundations of what we’re using today were built (even if some have been improved over time). This age lies from the early times of internet in 1969 to the advent of the web (1989).

Phase 2 : The age of webizations

In 1989 the web makes internet (almost) usable for anyone. But we’ll have to wait nearly 25 years to see the web being democratized thanks to larger bandwidth and plans for the general public. During this age, what’s been existing “out of the web” before is brought to the web, the offline models are replicated online without any change. The web is a top-down, poorly interactive top-down media where internauts are still in a submission posture in regards to existing powers (businesses, media…) that are still imposing their their vision.

Phase 3 : The age of networkization

From 2004 to 2012 (more or less), not only machines but people are networked. Web 2.0 then social web. By becoming true players of the web, both individually and collectively, people turn power logics upside down and become stakeholders able to deal with “old powers” as equals, and eventually manage to impose their own engagement rules in some cases.

Phase 4 : The age of digitization

That’s were we’re standing now and it’s scaring lots of enterprise leaders. It’s the shift from the web as a tool to digital as a culture that goes far beyond technology to impact both online and offline activities. A philosophy, a way of life, a way of thinking or rethinking business models. That’s a tipping point. Adopting the technology (phase 2) then its codes (phase 3) is not enough : one has to deeply question and reinvent himself to not be thrown out the business. It applies to both people and businesses but it seems that people are ahead and are leading the game now.

It’s not anymore about doing online what used to be done offline but reinventing one’s business, mission and execute is in a coherent fashion both online, offline and even through objects as vehicles for new services. DNA, culture, management, technology, revenue model…everything is disrupted.

After technology adoption comes the need to reinvent ourselves

The good news is that being successful in the previous steps is not a prerequisite to achieving phase 4. It helps but we can see that some businesses have good at adoption but terrible at transformation while some that missed adoption found themselves being so late that they tackled digitization head on.

That’s where we are now. But if you consider that once you will be done with phase 4 you’ll be comfortable for a while, you’re making a big mistake. I know that making prediction is not easy (especially when it’s about the future !). However, I see two steps coming and hope they’ll be followed by a third one I find necessary.

Phase 5 : The cognitization age

Predicting this phase is not rocket science because it has already started. All the previous phases were about humans using machines. The next step is the coexistence of humans and smart machines that will lead to a new positioning : passive humans served by machines. People and interactions will be replaced by sensors, data and artificial intelligence as a main focus. If some compare advent of the web with the advent of printing, then here we have the equivalent of the advent of electricity. Like activities requiring manpower have been transferred to machines every time it was possible in the last century, activities requiring brain power will follow the same path. Machines are now able to learn and it’s a game changer. Either physical or virtual, robots and smart machine will become one the pillars of the internet, of our lives, of our economies as data are becoming their fuel.

Phase 5 : The age of rubbish and chaos

Many people are already worried about the consequences of the cognitization age and they’re partly right. Technology is nothing but technology, it’s neither good or bad by nature but that’s what we, humans, decide to use it for that is good or bad. The only thing we need is the right limits at the right place. But be sure of one things : we’ll never set these limits, or not at the right place or too late. Anyway, the result will be the same.

We’llgo too far. Too far in replacing people with machines without having thought about the society model it implies. The question is rightly raised by Stowe Boyd who can’t be accused of being technophobe.

The central question of 2025 will be: What are people for in a world that does not need their labor, and where only a minority are needed to guide the ‘bot-based economy?

Machine will go too far because humans will go too far

Too far in the advent of new business models. You’ll think about that the day you’ll get an SMS from your insurance company saying you’re fired as a customer because you went three times in restaurants known for their invigorating cooking in the same week and that – cherry on the cake – you’ve had drinks with friends twice in the week. Or because you’re driving too fast (you’re respecting the speed limits but are so close that the risk of exceeding is high). Broadly speaking the transparency+data duet, after having helped us to know ourselves better, to benchmark ourselves and even improve, will be used to set norms and punish those who don’t fit in the norm. As Jacques Attali said recently, the masters of tomorrow will be insurance companies and data aggregators. We’ve been warned.

Too far in going from data to norms and then norms to discrimination without wondering about the impacts of transparency.

Too far by overestimating the – albeit real – potential of machines and assigning them tasks they wont be that goog at.

Too far by betting that once routine, beslaving tasks requiring very few brain power from humans have been assigned to machines, humans will have time to develop themselves in the fields they excel at. That’s thinking without the human’s natural laziness that will lead them to idleness and, in fine, to regression. Remember Rome…

Too far by moving from a knowledge society to a watching society. We’re already well on our way but the worst is still to come.

Too far by lapsing into solutionism, thinking that human problems can be solved by technology.

There so many ways and fields where it’s possible to go too far that being exhaustive would require a whole book.

The limit of machines is Humans

Beyond that, there’s the risk of being overtaken by what we’ve created with no idea of where it will lead us. Even Elon Musk, Tesla’s founder, is worried.

The leading AI companies have taken great steps to ensure safety. They recognize the danger, but believe that they can shape and control the digital superintelligences and prevent bad ones from escaping into the Internet. That remains to be seen.

The limit of the machine is Humans. And Humans like to go as far as possible when playing with their new toys even if it means making mistakes and realize they must step back. Never  blame the technology, blame its users.

So should we build walls and say “no” to this future ? Not at all. These phase will be a necessary evil and corresponds to the way we like to progress, by test and error. That’s the only way to understand what we’re doing, where we’re going, what are the risks and opportunities. Something elsehas been tried, the precautionary principle, and we’ve seen its limits. Guarding against anything prevents progress and to avoid 20% of problems we abdicate the 80% benefits.So we’re going to push the model to its limits, until its excesses become humanly, economically and socially unsustainable. This will lead to the next phase.

Phase 6 : The age of ethics and sustainability

That’s not about making the internet more ethic but having a more ethic approach to our lifestyles, work, to the society we’re trying to build to make the most of the network.

In my opinion it’s less about technology than ethics and social responsibility. It’s about knowing what we can authorize ouserlves to do in a scope of possibilities that gets wider every day.

I can already hear voices saying  “that’s not possible. Internet is this way and we’ll have to do with”. “We can’t go against the nature and the philosophy of the network”. I don’t agree.

Internet has neither a culture nor a philosophy : it’s nothing but routers, cables and servers that have no other culture or philosophy that ours, that the ones we want to promote. Saying the contrary means using internet to impose one’s own values or resigning onselft to suffer.

Internet has no other culture or philosophy that ours, that the ones we want to promote

If we start with the assumption that we can’t change internet so it means it would have been impossible to forbid the exploitations of some zones of the Antarctic. At the beginning of the previous century, it would have been like saying that “automotive have its own philosophy and regulating driving and speed was going against the way of the word”. Of course we started with a lawless zone and then we realized that sharing a street implied some rules everybody had to comply with if we did not want the least traffic jam to become a remake of Mad Max.

As internet is becoming the engine of both our lives and economic progress, we’ll one day ask the question of knowing how far we can go to drive an harmounious and balanced development of the economy and society. Since we would have experienced the worse meanwhile, there’s no doubt a consensus will emerge.

Except if we’ve been really too far in chaos.

Image credit : Future of Internet by Hasloo Group Via Shutterstock

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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