Predicting how the Internet will shape our lives in twenty years is a fascinating exercise. With smart phones increasingly becoming an extension of one’s body and mind, I can’t help but wonder where we plan to collectively draw the line. The risk of misinterpreting the role of the internet in our lives as we move forward in the 21st century is a great one. It’s also something that we tend to shy away from discussing in public.
Call me crazy, but I think we’ll figure it out. In twenty years, Google might own our beaches and Amazon might order me groceries while I sleep, but the internet’s greatest claims — to educate, unite, and entertain the masses, and to shoulder the burdens of economic innovation, will remain. For a sociologist like me, there is also the temptation to look towards a more advanced internet as one of the greatest tools for understanding and categorizing society. From this view, the internet might be able to play a pivotal role in identifying and even diagnosing some of society’s greatest problems.
Imagine if we figure out a way to truly categorize the internet. Yes, that was the basis of Google’s revolutionary search engine, but it is also the first mass-aggregator of it’s kind. The web is made up of a series of mathematical equations that I won’t even purport to understand. There are people out there, however — scientists of the internet — whom I trust to guide us in the right direction.
Why am I so optimistic? In short, because these people are predominantly my peers. As a young professional in my mid-twenties, my generation was the first and only generation to grow up with the internet. Slowly creeping its way into our lives as teenagers, we are the only group of young people to have a familial relationship with websites and AIM. We also have the context and historical perspective to remember a world without such technology, giving us a unique vantage point and higher stake in the direction it’s going. Like a big brother to answer all of our annoying “why? why?” questions or a non-judgmental wing-man to help us chat with the cutie from 8th grade English after school, the internet introduced itself to us an unprecedented social crutch. Now that it has helped us write college essays and find a job, the internet seems more like an aging parent, who we must nurture in its old age.
Seeing a 9-year-old with an iPhone can be a disturbing experience. There may even be feelings of generational resentment against those who’ve grown up with these technologies as a given. Overall, the sense of responsibility and entitlement we feel toward the internet may just be the motivating factor that encourages the future technocrats of America to ensure the internet continues to help us, as a society, rather than do us harm.
Are there also risks of losing? Certainly, money will always threaten these dreams of mine. The internet could shackle us to a capitalistic adherence to authority and routine if we allow certain people in power to craft it’s landscape. A few very big, very important battles are likely to be fought over ownership of the internet in the next two decades. I don’t know who will start this war or how it will be fought, but I don’t doubt the power of those who bring the most cash to the table. We just have to hope that the internet can stand for something more than profitability.
In my ideal world, we would have the internet categorized to a tee. If everything that goes onto the internet could somehow be instantly and specifically categorized, the ability to learn about each other, to identify the human experience within the context of modern society, will be one of the most important social tools of all time. Having the anecdotal, statistical, or demographic research to back these findings would be a sociologist’s dream. The ability to use the internet in this way does, however, pose one of the greatest threats the “ruling” class has ever seen.
In twenty or thirty years, though, it will be people from my generation who hold powerful positions as CEOs of companies and Presidents of tech start-ups. These peers of mine, I truly believe, have a heightened sensitivity to the problems of inequality and (in)justice in today’s society. I believe that they know how much work we still have to do and are inspired in this way to maintain the freedom and accessibility of the web. It is my hope that they will use their unique positions as sons and daughters of the internet and as innovators of our technological world not just to make money, but to shape the web into a tool for the greater good of humanity. The risk of doing otherwise would be far too much to bare.