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The Internet’s Adolescence: Predicting Its Future From Its Childhood

Aristotle made prodigious contributions to Western philosophy; he also sowed the seeds of modern psychology.

The Greek philosopher was the first to describe how we reconcile new and extant knowledge. He posited three laws of association — those of contiguity, similarity, and contrast — that he believed guide how we assimilate unfamiliar ideas.

Back in 1995, Aristotle’s laws of association were helping us grapple with the internet’s significance. Instead of seeing its potential to supercharge education, business, and practically everything else, we viewed this strange technology with skepticism, even cynicism:

“This will become a toy.” “Reminds me of the next CB radio.” “Sure, it’s free now. But it won’t be for long.”

Thankfully, people like Louis Monier, founder of AltaVista, an early search engine, saw much more.

Almost immediately, Monier recognized important differences between the internet and television or radio. Perhaps before anyone else, he saw the internet for what it was: an overgrown garden of webpages just waiting to be tamed into a useful, multidirectional, individualized information utility.

AltaVista may be gone, but Monier’s impact on the internet is still very much alive, and he’s got some big ideas about where the web will go next. First, though, we need to understand how it got to where it is now.

The Internet’s Coming of Age

Today’s internet didn’t simply show up on our doorstep; it was built in phases, beginning with its infrastructure.

Granted, the internet’s infrastructure in 1995 looked far different than it does today. To find a webpage, you either needed to know its URL or find it in an index. Horoscopes and weather pages were hot hubs; some quaintly saw them as the end game.

Phase two of the internet — intent-based search — was brought about by AltaVista, Yahoo, Google, and many smaller competitors. Before high-potency search engines, every dot-com company was vying to become the go-to web portal.

Monier recalls discussing Yahoo’s portal strategy with former CTO Farzad Nazem, better known as “Zod.” “He was very hot on personalization,” Monier says. “He thought that was the way to do the portal thing properly.”

Zod, it turned out, was half-right: Personalization was (and probably always will be) what people want in an online experience, but the right venue wasn’t portals. What users wanted, as Google proved in the late ’90s, was intent-based search.

Over the next few years, the web reorganized around search engines. Google dominated its competitors, and for a few years, search, too, seemed like the end game. Then came phase three.

The internet had already become “the” place to go for information; counterintuitively, it was also about to become “the” place to go for social activity. MySpace, imperfect as it was, started the shift.

Had MySpace never happened, Mark Zuckerberg might be just another Harvard grad toiling in anonymity. Because it did, he discovered the perfect balance of personalization and constraint. By founding Facebook, Zuckerberg solidified the internet as a social tool.

Then came the latest, and arguably most significant, phase of the internet’s growth: the smartphone — the pocket-sized rectangular prism that ushered in the “always on” internet. Suddenly, everyone from Alaskan truckers to African farmers could connect with the world.

With the smartphone, we’re connected enough to dream about a one-to-one sharing economy, yet we’re not connected enough to truly make it happen. We’re connected enough to consume, create, and share media worldwide, yet we’re not connected enough to reliably parse fake news from real. We’re connected enough to serve ads to ultra-precise audiences, yet we’re not connected enough to stop bots from gaming the system.

The smartphone is not the end game. It’s not even the half-time show. It’s but a stepping stone, as web portals were, to a future internet we can only imagine.

What’s Yet to Come

Monier readily admits how uncertain the internet’s future is. Still, Aristotle’s law of contiguity can help us predict what its next phase might hold.

  • True peer-to-peer networking

    We’re on our way toward what Monier calls a “citizen-level” network: a maturation of today’s governed sharing economy. Services like Airbnb, Uber, and even Craigslist connect supply and demand, but they’re not true one-to-one experiences. “The dream of the sharing economy is not quite there,” Monier admits.With true peer-to-peer exchanges, the need for netiquette will grow. Monier sums it up well when he muses about real-life decorum: “The old thing was don’t talk about politics or religion at dinner because you’ll pick a fight. People are having one big dinner and talking about everything they shouldn’t be talking about.” Monier’s answer? Try the peas and potatoes, but pass on the pejoratives.
  • Proactive, prescriptive, and personalized recommendations

    Personalization has been a long time coming, and it’s not done yet. Today, when you search, Google uses past results and your location to customize outputs. Monier believes this is but a small glimpse of what a truly personalized, proactive web will look like. He commends Facebook for personalizing feeds but argues it can’t yet surprise users in an interesting manner — an important milestone for personalization.To get there, we’ll need artificial intelligence and plenty of trial-and-error prototyping. Data crawlers will pull information from across the web and natural language-processing software will infer relationships. Through successive trainings, machine learning algorithms will connect the dots between people and pages in a reliable, thorough manner.Don’t web crawlers, natural language processing programs, and machine learning algorithms exist today? Yes, they do. The trick is combining them in the right ways. We’re still figuring out whether AI should be one gigantic neural network or a collection of smaller networks. Regardless, next-level AI must operate like the human brain, rerouting effortlessly to “think” in the elegantly chaotic way we ourselves do.

Here we are, trying to understand through Aristotle’s law of similarity what the internet might be tomorrow. Chances are good that 2039’s web will be even more inconceivably different than today’s is from 1995’s.

We live in the internet’s awkward adolescence. Ultimately, we don’t know what it will grow up to be — only that it’s changing faster and more unpredictably than ever before.

I’m an ex-Googler and the CEO of Node, the account-based intelligence platform making the 1:1 sales-marketing dream a reality and driving tomorrow’s contextual web.

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