In 1899, US patent commissioner Charles Duell reportedly said: “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”
Though a supremely depressing thought, not to mention a supreme cock-up in hindsight, one can hardly blame poor old Duell given the sheer volume of 19th century inventions that forever changed the way we live.
Then again maybe Duell was on to something. Though he couldn’t have anticipated the likes of the Internet, one could argue that even the Internet was a 20th century take on the 19th century blue-sky thinking of Charles Babbage, aka the father of computing.
Sci-fi author William Gibson once observed that the future has already arrived – it is just not evenly distributed yet. If the future is the Internet, then Gibson was spot on. The number of surfers has surpassed the one billion mark, with 17% of the world’s population now logged on. Respectively, 70% and 40% of the North American and European populations have access to the web, but only 11% and 3% of the populations in Asia and Africa are online.
So, there is a lot of catching up to do on the most basic connectivity front, to say nothing of the surprisingly low levels of worldwide broadband usage.
High-speed web access for all may not sound futuristic, until you consider the vast global economic and societal implications. “The web was designed so every user could be a contributor,” Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Internet, recently told The Economist.
To a large extent, the web already acts as a global contribution platform through sites such as YouTube and MySpace. The future will bring a continued convergence of the social and technical elements of the Internet, until the line between the two is indistinguishable.
This is why big business has started paying close attention to the Average Joe’s blog and why backers such as Cheapflights are taking an interest in arrivals like WAYN.com. It is also why conversations about the Semantic Web are so interesting.
If Duell were alive today he might observe that the web is on target to realising Berners-Lee’s original vision. The next generation of the Internet may not be the so-called new, new thing, but it’s the newest thing we’ve got so far this century…
Tricia Holly Davis is chief writer for Travolution