With the Internet being a regular feature of our lives for about 20 years now, what have been the related developments that were hard to pick at the outset? What are the lessons? Five thoughts:
- Communication and personal expression is the main business of the Internet. That was not easy to pick beforehand. The main early surprise was that individuals mainly used it for email. Buying things online and having open flows of information were much later in coming than originally thought. The killer application was people mailing each other.
- League tables. Nowadays, every click goes towards a score. Based on scores your webpages are high or low on the google searchers; our web-visibility is measured in a zillion different ways, ranking from ‘profile views’, to ‘trending hashes, to ‘friend endorsements’. Our life online seems continuously pegging us against everyone else. If a random twitter is shared a million times, the person is interviewed on tv about it, such is now the attention given to online league tables. It was hard to pick that the internet was going to lead to races in everything.
- (corollary of 2) The rise of likes. With the flood of information that the Internet has given rise to, subjective feedback has become the main way in which reputations are made, and both search and purchasing decisions are guided. From being a trusted supplier on eBay to having had a satisfactory experience at a coffee shop. Subjective information is now coming to the fore as one of the few ways a huge amount of information is being organised, and I certainly didn’t see coming that one of my fields of expertise (satisfaction) was going to become completely mainstream as a result of the Internet.
- Increased public prudishness. There was a time when in the Nordic countries and even in Australia, nude swimming or running naked through a campus was a regular occurrence, if only as an initiation rite. No more: with the ubiquitous availability of mobile phones and Internet profiles, the risk of any free or unencumbered moment being photographed and then immortalised\ridiculed on-line forever has become too great, even in the more relaxed countries. Whilst porn is easier to access than ever before, the general culture has arguably become more squeamish about any open nudity because of the Internet.
- Capital has gained relative to low-skilled labour for the Internet has made it easier to move money across borders and re-label it in various ways so as to avoid taxes or others interested in a share, whilst low-skilled labour has seen no such international advantage.
The internet of course has had many more effects. From an economic point of view, it has reduced search costs, giving rise to a huge increase in intermediary services and small-scale trades that previously could only be done within small communities, simply because the trust and the possibility to make small particular trades with strangers was impossible. It has become a new venue for philanthropic activities, and it has allowed people who fit poorly into mainstream society to find the niche in which they are normal. Also some initial hopes have not been realised, but those hopes were a bit naïve. The dreams of the early anarchic internet users that a revolution in participation would ensue has for instance not materialised as the world of officialdom and secrecy has gradually put its own mark on the Internet, using the fundamental fact that electricity moves with the speed of light, but the individual internet user has an address and a tax file number.
Anything that strikes the reader as a surprise of the Internet?