Exactly a decade ago, Walt Mossberg and I declared the end of Web 2.0 and the beginning of its next iteration: Web 3.0.
There was a recession messing badly with the tech sector at the time, which we dubbed the Econalypse. But we decided to make a loud prediction right before our seventh All Things Digital conference anyway, because we saw that the digital tidal wave sweeping the world just wasn’t stopping.
And we said so:
[W]hat’s the seminal development that’s ushering in the era of Web 3.0? It’s the real arrival, after years of false predictions, of the thin client, running clean, simple software, against cloud-based data and services. The poster children for this new era have been the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch, which have sold 37 million units in less than two years and attracted 35,000 apps and one billion app downloads in just nine months.
The excitement and energy around the iPhone and the Touch — and the software and services being written for them — remind us of the formative years of the PC and PC software, in the early 1980s, or the early days of the Web in the mid-1990s.
It’s a big deal.
But this is not just about one company, one platform or even one form factor. No, this new phenomenon is about handheld computers from many companies, with software platforms and distribution mechanisms tightly tied to cloud-based services, whether they are multi-player games, e-commerce offerings or corporate databases.
Some of these handheld computers will make phone calls, but others won’t. Some will fit in a pocket, but others will be tablets or even laptop-type clamshells. But, like the iPhone, all will be fusions of clever new hardware, innovative client software and powerful server-based components.
Pretty prescient, right? Smartphones and the app universe — spawned by the Apple iPhone release in June 2007 — bore a new era of innovation, heralding in a spate of companies dependent on mobile. It was, as I have written before, a Cambrian explosion. Would there be Uber, Lyft, Tinder, and so many others without the mobile phone? Would companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Slack have grown so large in its absence?
Now, I must declare that revolution officially over. After a very long run, Web 3.0 is on its last legs and needs to get out of the way for what’s next.
And what’s that? Well, as it turns out, a lot of things that include tech, politics, social mores, and more that have gained traction over the past few years and that are mashing together in ways that are still sorting themselves out.
That’s why I did a PowerPoint — and trust me when I tell you, I hate PowerPoints — to try to get my own head around it. I edit it almost constantly, as new ideas pop into my head, and am always trying to make new connections between and among the key trends.
Let’s start with the title that I first put on it: “It’s not just Amazon (well, you need to be scared of them too).” Sure, it could be catchier, but it’s that for a good reason. Over the past few years, there has been a big focus on individual companies — especially Amazon, Facebook, and Google — rather than the overall trends they represent around the toxic impacts of tech. While each has grown into a powerful and sometimes troublesome entity, the changes that are happening now across tech are much bigger than any one company. We’re talking about pervasive ecosystem changes.
That’s because tech companies come and go, even the titans, and the natural instinct is to name the company rather than see the bigger ideas that their actions are shaping — and that are shaping them.
Let’s start with the most important trend: artificial intelligence. The others include robotics and automation; self-driving; endless choice; privacy under assault, when data is gold; continuous partial hacking; continuous partial attention; and political and social unrest.
Starting with AI, there’s a line that I think pretty much encapsulates the one thing you absolutely need to know about the future of machine learning that I have used again and again: Everything that can be digitized will be digitized.
What do I mean by that? Computing as we know it is being changed by AI and machine learning. It is already everywhere — from when you talk to Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa or see your list of movies on Netflix or interact with a chatbot. Its use, both generally and for highly specific things, has and will continue to impact innumerable fields, resulting in massive job disruption.
Economists and consulting firms have long predicted that AI will change workplaces and the workforce, but I think they’ve been underselling it. For example, when a Google deep learning program can quickly study a super-complex multiplayer strategy game and then kick the crap out of the best human players on the planet, perhaps we should think hard about where it will go next.
Whether it kills jobs or adds them, a matter of much debate, it will lead to things like multi-careers, more gig-oriented work, and a need for reeducation.
On the downside, which jobs will be impacted? It’s not just factory workers, burger flippers, and long-haul truckers. Highly paid lawyers, skilled doctors (don’t let your daughter be a radiologist), and, yes, even lowly journalists will need to find new lines of work. And those tectonic workplace realignments will only become more profound as the AI becomes inevitably — and exponentially — better.
To thrive in this environment will require being in a profession that is creative, where analog interactions are critical — one that cannot be easily made digital. Think art, think the caring professions, think anything in which being human trumps cyborg. And since AI becomes ever smarter, it will make sense to allow it to do more and more as we become ever less so.
It is a path humanity is already on, of course: When was the last time you ever read a map rather than got directions from Google? Or cracked a book to find an errant fact? It’ll be like that for so many things we do, as normal practices change to reflect and take advantage of the convenience and precision of AI.
We’ll also soon see the effects of radical advances in robotics and automation, which will probably be more behind the scenes than having a robot maid in our home (though we will get to that). Yes, the way we wage war is changing dramatically, but it’s not the killer robots we think of when we envision a world in which the Terminator movies become a reality. As Elon Musk told Walt and me in an interview several years ago, these AI-powered robots and platforms will think of us more like house cats than enemies. So I guess that’s a plus.
If advances in sentience and responsiveness are as dramatic as I think they might be, the implications will be even more interesting — and problematic. Will we someday have to contemplate their rights? It’s been a constant in science fiction, but now we seem to be really on the doorstep of rethinking what it means to be human in an era when biotechnology — whether implanting chips that could enhance intelligence, altering genetic code to eliminate disease, or wearing exoskeletons that enhance human strength — is on the cutting edge.
Currently, companies like the FDA-approved ReWalk are focused on using these devices to allow those with spinal cord injuries to walk again, but there are many military and factory experiments ongoing. These “exo suits” and other mechanized clothing are only the vanguard of a body-enhancing movement that is likely to get even larger in the coming decades. Where this innovation emerges is also a consideration, since tech’s increasingly dominant player — China — is making strong moves in the sector.
The next trend will be around transportation, especially the use of cars and trucks. I recently called them the “horses of tomorrow” in a New York Times column, noting that I would never buy and likely never own another car as long as I live.
While many reacted to the piece by proclaiming that Americans will never give up car ownership, especially in rural areas, I am confident that a combination of ride-sharing, autonomous vehicles, and breakthroughs in other modes of transport will lead to profound changes that will impact the entire ecosystem and economy, especially as much of the human race lives near major metropolitan areas. We will need to build smarter cities as this shift happens.
While regulatory and technical issues are still complex, such obstacles are most certainly not impossible as we rethink our relationship with the entire transportation system and are forced to make changes as the planet becomes more congested and more impacted by climate change. To me, the change in this sector will have reverberations far beyond any others, despite what will seem like a slow rollout.
What is moving a lot faster is the concept of everything-on-demand, from instant delivery of goods to the perfect anticipation of needs thanks to AI-enhanced computing. That’s already here in many ways, seen most clearly by the leaps of services like Amazon Prime. Again, here the impact is massive, fundamentally changing the way we shop and consume. Hunting and gathering is dead: Large-footprint stores will be gone, to be replaced by those that can differentiate themselves from the commodity-based goods. I’d bet in a decade your favorite little boutique will be there long after a giant Target will be.
(Of course, all this does not mean there will not be a backlash over these changes, since they increase consumerism and emissions and, you know, your box pile at home.)
This will be true across all sectors, including media. The old and failed concept of push — in which information was thrown at you, clogging the early internet’s pipes — will return. In that paradigm, you will not pick but be picked for; you will not seek, but it will be found. This is already happening, but it will intensify. Obviously, this has great societal implications, and we are already seeing the downside of screen addiction that is bringing social unrest, depression, and a kind of ennui about human interaction.
That trend has been and will be fueled by the end of any true semblance of privacy, a process that is already well on its way. I do not mean to belabor an issue that has gotten a lot of attention already, except to repeat what former Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy said two decades ago: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” Yep. You and your data have been the fuel of the internet age, and that will not abate.
Can regulation save us? There has been some pushback to this grim state of affairs, especially in Europe with its General Data Protection Rules — but also in Silicon Valley’s backyard, with California’s Consumer Privacy Act set to go into effect next year. But there is no national privacy bill in the US — and don’t get your hopes up, either, Bernie Bros. Meanwhile, countries like China push the envelope further by building what are essentially surveillance economies using facial recognition and intense monitoring of its citizens’ every move and keystroke.
That, of course, leaves us deeply vulnerable to even more hacking as we are jacked into the system in ways that were heretofore impossible. And this hacking will not be hard to pull off — just ask any systems engineer or coder — as an increasingly interconnected Internet of Things brings porous platforms into our kitchens, cars, and wallets. The system was built for access and connectivity; malevolent players can simply use the tools on offer. In this fight, companies like Facebook are now battling nation-states, even if they themselves have become the digital equivalent of that.
The will to win this fight — even define its terms — has been weak on the consumer side, but incursions in the 2016 election have shown us the real goal of some of these hackers: to disrupt our society and create discord. The Russians lost the Cold War, but they have proven to be quite a bit better at the Cyber War. Increasingly, as even more nefarious players ramp up, that could mean more attacks on basic infrastructure, from electric grids to phone systems. And as our devices are ever more connected, battling it will be like pushing back the ocean.
Ten years ago, when Walt and I wrote our Web 3.0 missive, the iPhone was just a couple of years old, a novelty for rich people that barely could make a call. Think how quaint that all sounds now. But that one device unleashed a never-ending revolution of change, each cycle accelerating faster than the last. These technologies have unmoored people from their communities and removed once-sacred societal strictures. This is the first time that humanity has been allowed to talk to each other without gatekeepers or any other mechanisms of control.
It is not going well. And we now are surprised when we realize, for example, how so many have been radicalized by videos on YouTube or 8chan message boards. But with new and more immersive technologies just around the corner, you haven’t seen anything yet.
If it appears as if the forces of evil are winning here, it is because they are.
That might seem dire. Well, it is. While it is critical that we now put in some guardrails to make these profound developments less unsettling, having not done so at the start — the original sin of pushing growth over everything else — presents humanity with a massive challenge. If change is the constant, ever morphing as we move to control it, how can we manage what we have invented?
There’s only one way as far as I can tell. Long ago, Steve Jobs launched a marketing campaign that urged people to “Think Different.” That has never been more true, except I would adjust it slightly. To face the modern age — and the future we have created but don’t yet understand — we not only have to think different as all these new technologies roll out ever more quickly. We have to be different.
If that is a cliffhanger, so be it, because a cliff is exactly where we are.
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