THEY don't write, they don't call and they certainly don't fill my hard drive
with e-mail. But I know they're out there nonetheless -- those dour souls
who secretly wish the Internet would just go away.
After years of watching one friend after another cross over to the wired
side, even the most well-insulated among them is probably beginning to feel
the chill of social isolation by now. Even their comfortable old media has
betrayed them. Alas, there is no refuge for the lame, not when every other
billboard, TV commercial and radio jingle seems to herald the arrival of
yet another Next-Big-Thing.com.
I have some comforting news for these tormented individuals: The digital
revolution will not be in your face for much longer. The Internet will disappear, in a
manner of speaking, within 10 years.
Of course there will still be a global network of digital devices
exchanging information in the Net's lingua franca, TCP/IP. That
network will almost certainly be many magnitudes larger than the one we
know today. But will there be a distinct and separate cultural space called
the Net in 10 years? Will we be thinking and talking incessantly about a
destination called cyberspace?
The year 2010 may find your faithful correspondent still writing about
some manifestation of digital culture -- but the Internet as the defining
framework for that culture will be long gone. As the Net becomes an
ubiquitous component of the economic and social landscape (or, to look at
it another way, as economic and social affairs become part of the Net's
landscape) all this technology will recede to the back of our consciousness
and seem utterly unremarkable. To the digerati of 2010, phrases such as
''the Internet Generation'' and ''living at Net speed'' will seem as
hopelessly quaint as ''23 skidoo.'' (Actually, ''digerati'' itself may need
to be taken out and shot long before then.)
Consider for a moment the American West and the closing of the frontier.
The West never went away, but once the land was partitioned, settled and
cleared of those pesky natives the concept of a Western frontier was
Today, we are closer to the closing of the Net frontier than you may
For starters, the homesteading of cyberspace has been going on for many
years now. When our communities and our careers moved online, the Net lost
its sense of other-ness. It went from being a foreign space ''out there''
populated by faceless strangers to being a space where our friends and
family were only an instant message away. (Say what you will about AOL, but
it's lived up to its promise to democratize cyberspace. At some point just
about everyone in your life will turn up @aol.com.)
The next step in closing the Net frontier is currently taking place in
the commercial arena, where again the Net is losing its aura of other-ness.
Right now, we talk about the Internet as a distinct economic sector or an
industry unto itself. We speak of e-commerce as a beast apart from regular
commerce. This cannot last. Very soon it will become apparent that setting
the Internet economy apart from the regular economy is as silly as
referring to the ''electricity-using'' sector or the ''telephone-using''
A recent, well-publicized University of Texas study sponsored by Cisco
Systems noted, among other things, that the Internet economy now rivals the
airline industry in size and in three years will overtake the health-care
sector. It doesn't take a doctorate in the dismal science to recognize that
any airline or health-care company that intends to be around in three years
is already, to some degree, in the Net business. The hazy distinctions
between online and offline business will blur even more as so-called
''click-and-mortar'' giants such as REI.com perfect the art of using
multiple channels (e-tailing, physical stores and direct mail) in a seamlessly
The last step in the Net's disappearing act will involve the
infrastructure. At some point in the not-too-distant future all the talk
about embedded systems, Internet appliances, so-called ''thin clients'' and
other manifestations of ubiquitous computing will come to fruition. It's
gotta happen. There are just too many bright people around the world
staying up all night for it to not happen. Once liberated from the confines
of a personal computer on a desktop, the Internet becomes the common
connective tissue between all the information in our lives.
There is not a doubt in my mind that one day soon the Internet will
reside in your credit card, your refrigerator, your garden sprinkler
system, your car's dashboard and your child's textbook. And on that day, at
long last, the place we call the Net will cease to exist.
WHO'S MINDING YOUR BUSINESS?
A new report by Forrester Research on the state of Net privacy controls
paints a fairly bleak picture of the near-term future. The paper says online
advertising networks that collect and aggregate user profiles and other
data go about their business ''without the consent -- or even knowledge --
of most consumers.''
Forrester says advertising networks' attempts to clean up their act will
not be enough to forestall government regulation of the industry. The firm
believes we'll see new consumer-protection laws coming from Congress by the
end of next year. ''Too many privacy stakeholders share too little common
ground,'' says the report. ''Profiling concerns a broad range of
constituents including advertisers, retailers, law enforcement and
consumers. Asking this group to reach consensus is like expecting
hospitals, insurers and patients to agree on a managed care plan.''
Forrester warns online retailers that in an environment where half of
all Net consumers are ready to ask the government for enhanced privacy
protections, their reputations are at stake. ''To avoid harm, stores should
impose rigorous privacy practices now and err on the side of caution when
buying, selling or sharing data.''
DEPT. OF LONG LAST LOOKS:
If we can set aside this unpleasantness about when the millennial
odometer truly flips (yes, I know it's not for more than a year, but I'm
not going to be a pill about it), let's give a nod to Deby Stewart, a Fort
Lauderdale Web-design instructor who's planning to celebrate the New Year
in a very artful fashion. As she explains it, some time back she heard a
story about a photographer who'd taken a photograph of the last sunset of
the 19th century and been quite well-paid for his labors. ''My aspirations
are not so grand, but I did think it was a cool idea to see if I could get
people to help me preserve some of the last sunsets of the last year of the
century,'' she says. The result, very much an early work in progress, is
Stewart hopes the worldwide Net community at large will submit photos of
sunsets from the waning days of this year (and particularly the last sunset
of the year). But she's no marketing wizard. (''One of my worst traits is
the inability to advertise myself,'' she says.) Consequently, just a
half-dozen sunsets are currently linked to the global map on the site.
Stewart says she's not sure if her demand for a release form to accompany
each photo could be responsible for the underwhelming response. ''I feel
that giving me the rights to the photos is fair trade for my putting them
on the Web site,'' she says. If you agree, perhaps you'll consider sharing
a sunset from your neck of the woods.
In other millennial miscellany, there's this question of a name. Unless
there's a last-minute U.N. resolution I don't know about, it seems that the
name of the first decade of the new century will be decided in the court of
public opinion. If you care at all about such silliness, take a gander at
www.namethedecade.com. You can nominate your own name for the years
2000-2009 (or is it 2010?) or choose from a vast selection of likely
- the Millies
- the nillies
- the millie-nillies
- the zeros
- the aughts
- the naughts
- the Two-K's
- the double-o's
- the zippies
- the zeds
- the double-aughts
- the deuces
- the zips
The Deuces? The Zips? Imagine telling our grandchildren we lived through
a decade that sounded like a second-string gang from ''West Side Story.''