This month’s Wired has what is likely not just the best article I’ve seen come out of Wired in a long time, but the best piece I’ve seen in ages on the Web, where it’s been, and where it may be headed in the future.

Not only did we fail to imagine what the Web would become, we still don’t see it today! We are blind to the miracle it has blossomed into. And as a result of ignoring what the Web really is, we are likely to miss what it will grow into over the next 10 years. Any hope of discerning the state of the Web in 2015 requires that we own up to how wrong we were 10 years ago.

On the web’s humble — and belittled — beginnings:

The memories of an early enthusiast like myself can be unreliable, so I recently spent a few weeks reading stacks of old magazines and newspapers. Any promising new invention will have its naysayers, and the bigger the promises, the louder the nays. It’s not hard to find smart people saying stupid things about the Internet on the morning of its birth. In late 1994, Time magazine explained why the Internet would never go mainstream: “It was not designed for doing commerce, and it does not gracefully accommodate new arrivals.” Newsweek put the doubts more bluntly in a February 1995 headline: “THE INTERNET? BAH!” The article was written by astrophysicist and Net maven Cliff Stoll, who captured the prevailing skepticism of virtual communities and online shopping with one word: “baloney.”

This dismissive attitude pervaded a meeting I had with the top leaders of ABC in 1989. I was there to make a presentation to the corner office crowd about this “Internet stuff.” To their credit, they realized something was happening. Still, nothing I could tell them would convince them that the Internet was not marginal, not just typing, and, most emphatically, not just teenage boys. Stephen Weiswasser, a senior VP, delivered the ultimate putdown: “The Internet will be the CB radio of the ’90s,” he told me, a charge he later repeated to the press. Weiswasser summed up ABC’s argument for ignoring the new medium: “You aren’t going to turn passive consumers into active trollers on the Internet.”

On where we are today:

The accretion of tiny marvels can numb us to the arrival of the stupendous. Today, at any Net terminal, you can get: an amazing variety of music and video, an evolving encyclopedia, weather forecasts, help wanted ads, satellite images of anyplace on Earth, up-to-the-minute news from around the globe, tax forms, TV guides, road maps with driving directions, real-time stock quotes, telephone numbers, real estate listings with virtual walk-throughs, pictures of just about anything, sports scores, places to buy almost anything, records of political contributions, library catalogs, appliance manuals, live traffic reports, archives to major newspapers – all wrapped up in an interactive index that really works.

This view is spookily godlike. You can switch your gaze of a spot in the world from map to satellite to 3-D just by clicking. Recall the past? It’s there. Or listen to the daily complaints and travails of almost anyone who blogs (and doesn’t everyone?). I doubt angels have a better view of humanity.

Why aren’t we more amazed by this fullness? Kings of old would have gone to war to win such abilities. Only small children would have dreamed such a magic window could be real. I have reviewed the expectations of waking adults and wise experts, and I can affirm that this comprehensive wealth of material, available on demand and free of charge, was not in anyone’s scenario. Ten years ago, anyone silly enough to trumpet the above list as a vision of the near future would have been confronted by the evidence: There wasn’t enough money in all the investment firms in the entire world to fund such a cornucopia. The success of the Web at this scale was impossible.

On where we may be heading in the future:

Today, the Machine acts like a very large computer with top-level functions that operate at approximately the clock speed of an early PC. It processes 1 million emails each second, which essentially means network email runs at 1 megahertz. Same with Web searches. Instant messaging runs at 100 kilohertz, SMS at 1 kilohertz. The Machine’s total external RAM is about 200 terabytes. In any one second, 10 terabits can be coursing through its backbone, and each year it generates nearly 20 exabytes of data. Its distributed “chip” spans 1 billion active PCs, which is approximately the number of transistors in one PC.

This planet-sized computer is comparable in complexity to a human brain. Both the brain and the Web have hundreds of billions of neurons (or Web pages). Each biological neuron sprouts synaptic links to thousands of other neurons, while each Web page branches into dozens of hyperlinks. That adds up to a trillion “synapses” between the static pages on the Web. The human brain has about 100 times that number – but brains are not doubling in size every few years. The Machine is.

The whole article is worth reading and pondering. The ‘net’s reached a point where it’s all to easy to be blasé about its existence in our lives…but there’s still a lot of change coming up in the years ahead. Change that may be more mind-boggling from today’s perspective than we’re able to comprehend. I’m excited.

There is only one time in the history of each planet when its inhabitants first wire up its innumerable parts to make one large Machine. Later that Machine may run faster, but there is only one time when it is born.

You and I are alive at this moment.

We should marvel, but people alive at such times usually don’t. Every few centuries, the steady march of change meets a discontinuity, and history hinges on that moment. We look back on those pivotal eras and wonder what it would have been like to be alive then. Confucius, Zoroaster, Buddha, and the latter Jewish patriarchs lived in the same historical era, an inflection point known as the axial age of religion. Few world religions were born after this time. Similarly, the great personalities converging upon the American Revolution and the geniuses who commingled during the invention of modern science in the 17th century mark additional axial phases in the short history of our civilization.

Three thousand years from now, when keen minds review the past, I believe that our ancient time, here at the cusp of the third millennium, will be seen as another such era. In the years roughly coincidental with the Netscape IPO, humans began animating inert objects with tiny slivers of intelligence, connecting them into a global field, and linking their own minds into a single thing. This will be recognized as the largest, most complex, and most surprising event on the planet. Weaving nerves out of glass and radio waves, our species began wiring up all regions, all processes, all facts and notions into a grand network. From this embryonic neural net was born a collaborative interface for our civilization, a sensing, cognitive device with power that exceeded any previous invention. The Machine provided a new way of thinking (perfect search, total recall) and a new mind for an old species. It was the Beginning.

In retrospect, the Netscape IPO was a puny rocket to herald such a moment. The product and the company quickly withered into irrelevance, and the excessive exuberance of its IPO was downright tame compared with the dotcoms that followed. First moments are often like that. After the hysteria has died down, after the millions of dollars have been gained and lost, after the strands of mind, once achingly isolated, have started to come together – the only thing we can say is: Our Machine is born. It’s on.

iTunesOne Love (Edit)” by Prodigy, The from the album Music for the Jilted Generation (1995, 3:53).

3 thoughts on “We Are the Web

  1. Thank-you for putting this all in perspective. I’ve been talking to a lot of “naysayers” recently, and it’s refreshing to see your summary of how far we’ve come.

    We should all start dreaming again about the future of the magic window as if we were small children.

  2. Maybe it’s just me, but I read this with awe at first, and then increasing fear – the writer fails to spot that a shift takes place as his argument moves into the future. He celebrates users taking control of the Net from the corporations that expected to be managing it… but he fails to spot his projection into the future involved users surrendering that power up to his Machine. Surely that can’t be good?

  3. Kevin Kelly’s original article doesn’t claim the machine to be a seperate God-like creature that will become our master, but rather a symbiotic entity which connects all humanity–WE ARE THE MACHINE.

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