“Predicting the Next 5000 Days of the Web”

Recently, a friend of mine sent me a link to a video on TED.com. In this video (which, if you have 20 minutes to spare, is highly worth checking out), the presenter, Kevin Kelly, traces the Web’s development over the last 5000 days of its existence. Calling it humanity’s most reliable machine, Kelly compares the Web, in its size and complexity, to the human brain – with the notable difference being, of course, that the former, and not the latter, is doubling in power every two years. As he sees it, this machine is going to “exceed humanity in processing power” by 2040.

Not only does Kelly look back on the last 5000 days, he also projects forward, and considers what the next 5000 days will bring in the Web’s evolution. What he envisions is that the Web will become a single global construct – “the One” he calls it, for lack of a better term – and that all devices – cell phones, iPods, computers, etc. – will look into the One, will be portals into this single Machine.

The Web, Kelly states (pretty calmly, I might add), will own everything; no bits will reside outside of it. Everything will be connected to it because everything will have some aspect of the digital built into it that will allow it to be “machine-readable.” “Every item and artifact,” he envisions, “will have embedded in it some little sliver of webness and connection.” So a pair of shoes, for instance, might be thought of as “a chip with heels” and a car as “a chip with wheels.” No longer a virtual environment of linked pages, the Web, in Kelly’s conception, will become a space in which actual items, physical things, can be linked to and will find their representation on the Web. He calls this entity the Internet of Things.

We’re not, of course, quite at that stage yet, but we are, according to Kelly, entering into the era of linked data, where not only web pages are being linked, but specific information, ideas, words, nouns even, are being connected. One example is the social site which allows a person to construct an elaborate social network online. From Kelly’s perspective, all this data – the social connections and relationships that we each have – should not have to be re-entered from one site to the next; you should just have to convey it once. The Web, he says, should know you and who all your friends are – “that’s what you want” he states (again, quite matter-of-factly) – and that is where he sees things moving: that the Web should know and remember all this data about each of us, at a personal level.

In this new world of shared data and linked things, where (as I have pondered in a previous post) the line between the virtual and the physical is no longer an identifiable line, Kelly sees one important implication: co-dependency.

The Web, he says, will be ubiquitous, and, in fact, for him, “the closer it is, the better.” Of course, in knowing us personally, in anticipating our needs, the Web exacts a price: “Total personalization in this new world,” Kelly concedes, “will require total transparency.” But this is not a hefty price for Kelly, who, it seems, would prefer to ask Google to tell him vital information (like his phone number for instance) rather than try to remember such things himself.

This sheer dependency on the web is not a frightening prospect for Kelly; he compares it to our dependency on the alphabet, something we cannot imagine ourselves without. In the same way, he argues, we won’t be able to imagine ourselves without this Machine, a machine which is at once going to be smarter than any one of us, but is going to (somehow) be a reflection of all of us.

Kelly ends his talk with a “to do” list, which, for its tone alone, needs to be repeated:

There is only One machine.
The Web is its OS.
All screens look into the One.
No bits will live outside the web.
To share is to gain.
Let the One read it.
The One is us.

I will confess that when I finished watching the video, I shuddered a little. I found Kelly’s predictions to be fascinating but also pretty unsettling. (And I’ll admit: it made me think of The Matrix and 1984 at various points.) My reaction, I suppose, stems from a discomfort with anything that smacks of…centralization, of one big global entity, so the concept of One Machine that owns everything and connects everyone, One Machine which is both us, and yet a bigger and smarter and better us, is simply disconcerting.

I can admit my own biases. As a History student, I’ve examined enough regimes over the years to be wary of certain rhetoric and have noticed how, at times, things framed in terms of unity and community and sharing (in this case, of data, networks, knowledge, etc.) can devolve into something that becomes a cultural hegemony of sorts, or worse, a system of pervasive surveillance. (Kelly did, after all, mention shoes as “a chip with heels” and cars as a “chip with wheels,” developments which can certainly aid individuals in staying connected to one another, for instance, but can also aid the State in staying connected to individuals.)

The embedding of the digital into everything in the material world, including people, so that it can be read by one machine, is an unsettling notion. I guess I don’t prefer to have everything personalized, to have a single, networked, global machine that reads me and knows everything and everyone connected to me. It may be convenient – and it seems that convenience, along with speed, are the two guiding principles behind technological developments – but I’d rather not be so transparent in cyberspace, to be so utterly “Machine-readable.”

Putting aside my own personal reaction to Kelly’s predictions, what are the implications of his thoughts concerning the Web’s evolution on the discipline of history? If realized, the new world of linked things will certainly demand, as some digital historians have already noted, a re-thinking of how history is researched and presented. The possibilities for new connections to be made – not only between data and ideas, but between actual things, artifacts – are, I’m sure, going to change and open up the ways in which history is understood, communicated, and taught, especially by and to the public.

I can imagine already, down the road, that someone interested, say, in the history and development of the camera, might be able to pull up, in a split-second search, every single camera made in the 20th century that is owned and catalogued by all the museums that have taken the trouble to embed digital info into these objects, which then makes them linkable, “machine-friendly”. Artifacts made in the 21st century that already contain that “sliver of webness and connection” will be even more easy to search for and pull up (for the 22nd century historian let’s say), existing, as it were, already as digital-physical hybrids. The ease with which actual things can be connected and thus compared, regardless of their geographical location, is going to make for some interesting comparative histories.

So, the possibility for new engagements with history is there (as it ever is, I think, with the emergence of new technologies). I only wonder how one is going to possibly keep up with all the changes, with the Web and its continual evolution.