Something happened on the 6 August 1991 which transformed the business landscape, reshaped the nature of work, revolutionised the way we interacted with each other, empowered individuals and created an entire generation of entrepreneurs. On this date, Tim Berners-Lee, a hitherto unknown British physicist, posted a short summary on the alt.hypertext newsgroup of a project he had been working on of a ‘large hypertext database with typed links’. The name of the project? The World Wide Web.
Let´s just pause and consider some of the paradigmatic changes the web has triggered.
Searching to find information on the internet is now commonplace. The verb “to google” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006. Facts, locations, health, events, books, articles, news are all searched online on laptops and mobile phones. There has been an increase in online libraries which is also good for the environment (online research significantly decreases aggregate paper consumption). On the darker side, the web is also used by criminals and terrorists and the most popular Google searches are porn related.
People have been able to (re)connect with each another in unprecedented numbers. Friends, family and ex-colleagues connect through social media. 15% of adult Americans have used online dating sites or mobile dating Apps. The networking site LinkedIn has increased its users every quarter. It also brings worrying increases in sexual exploitation.
Redistribution of power
The internet age has empowered consumers to openly comment online on products and services and to initiate consumer boycotts. World changing events such as the Arab Spring arose through online activism. Unprecedented levels of migration are occurring where migrants are using internet technology to their advantage, creating both opportunities and tensions. The power of the media has declined in recent years as more people are blogging and publishing their views directly online – – as much as 50% of Facebook and Twitter users in this Pew Study get their news through social media.
Business and the workplace
Established and new businesses have all been shaped by the internet. The market capitalisation of the largest internet companies is almost 2.2 trillion USD. As of 2013, 41 percent of global internet users had purchased products online. The internet has revolutionised speed to market and customer interface. It has also led to an explosion in freelancers – – 53 million in the US in 2016. The web has also redefined the way we do business. The pre-web office was steeped in industrial-age mindsets of square metres, hierarchical structures, in-trays, defined tasks, paperwork (endless paperwork) and rigid monitored working hours. The internet age workspace is more flexible and mobile where we are not tethered to the office.
The internet has been in the vanguard of the trend toward home entertainment. Through the internet, we can access books, films, music and games. The downside is that there is an entire net generation that have been dubbed slactivists by some.
It is hard to imagine pre-web days where we physically needed to go to libraries and bookshops to get our information, travel agencies to book holidays, queue in railway stations for tickets, travel to town centres to do our shopping, attend employment exchanges to find jobs, queue in banks to check our accounts and transfer money, visit governmental departments to collect forms. The list goes on. We still do these things of course, but so much of everyday transactions are done on online, saving us time and money. On the negative side, this has led to a generation of switched-on users. An Ofcom report published a few days ago reported that one-third of UK internet users have tried digital detoxing.
Did Tim Berners-Lee realise when he pressed the send key, I wonder, that he had publicised a project that would so profoundly impact our lives, an interconnected world that both empowers and endangers?
by Ric Kelly PhD.