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The Web's Enormous Potential for Evolution

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The Internet is the most mutable, plastic medium we have had for 400 years, and it has barely begun to start," announced futurist Paul Saffo at the beginning of the conference's second day.


The article below is a report on a recent conference at Stanford that examined some near-future uses of the Internet. It is from the Stanford Report, Volume XXXIV, No. 11, December 12, 2001, page 7 and is reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Stanford Report, December 12, 2001

Web still has enormous potential for evolution, scholars at SLAC conference say



Technologies like mobile computing, peer-to-peer networking, ubiquitous wireless access and intelligent software agents dramatically will change the way we interact with the web -- as long as big business doesn't strangle innovation for the sake of its own profits.

That was the message of a group of futurists, entrepreneurs, academics and computer pioneers that gathered Dec. 3-4, 2001, at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) to discuss the web's past and future. The conference took place one week before the 10th anniversary of the first U.S. website, a three-line page that went online at SLAC on Dec. 12, 1991.

"The Internet is the most mutable, plastic medium we have had for 400 years, and it has barely begun to start," announced futurist Paul Saffo at the beginning of the conference's second day.

Given that the aftershocks of the dot-com crash continue to rumble through Silicon Valley -- and the Sand Hill Road venture capital firms that are Stanford's next-door neighbors -- conference speakers were surprisingly optimistic.

A host of new technologies promise to make the web easier to use, more powerful and ubiquitous, according to the conference speakers, who included Simon Phipps, chief software evangelist at Sun Microsystems, and Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future.

The speakers singled out peer-to-peer (P2P) networking as the web's next major paradigm. In P2P networks, individual users' machines connect directly to each other; a personal digital assistant (PDA) can download a phone book directly from a next-generation cell phone instead of connecting through a server.

File-sharing applications like Napster and Gnutella are early examples of peer-to-peer technology, but P2P has the potential to be used for much more than sharing MP3 files. "Peer-to-peer is about the observation that everything is a server now," said Phipps.

Another major change in the Internet will be the shift from today's human-driven applications -- sending e-mail, watching the news on streaming video or collaborating with business partners via videophones -- to applications where humans play little or no role.

"The future of communication is not about people talking to people," said Saffo. "The future is machines talking to other machines on people's behalf."

Armando Fox, an assistant professor of computer science at Stanford, agreed: "Most of what we think of as 'surfing' will be done by machines." Instead of searching the web for an Italian restaurant in San Francisco with a table available before 8 p.m., he said, you might be able to ask your software agent to do the job for you. If it finds a match, your agent could even -- with your approval -- make reservations and print out a map telling you how to get there.

Not everyone at the conference focused on the technological advances that will define the net of the future. Internet entrepreneur Jim Fruchterman, web guru Nathaniel Borenstein and Stanford law Professor Lawrence Lessig instead spoke about the web's potential for social change -- and the threats that could undermine that potential.

"The web is a bridge across many of the gaps we have in today's global society between what's possible and what's profitable, between the rich and poor," said Fruchterman, the co-founder of a project to provide reading machines for the disabled.

But exactly whether and how those bridges will get built is not always clear; much depends on who controls the Internet itself, said Borenstein. "We're way behind on understanding how the Internet does and doesn't affect our society," he added.

Lawrence Lessig, whose books Code and The Future of Ideas have made him one of the most well-known voices in cyberlaw, talked about the forces that are shaping the "digital spaces" of the future -- often for the worse.

Lessig said that cable giants like AOL TimeWarner are using their control over high-speed Internet access to put the brakes on innovation and shut down the "commons" -- a shared community resource -- that made the Internet revolution possible.

New technologies, such as streaming video, cut into the core business of cable companies, said Lessig. Because the cable companies own the infrastructure -- the fundamental physical connections that make the network possible -- they can strangle the newborn technologies that threaten their dominance before they learn to walk. As Lessig put it, "This is giving the dinosaurs the power to veto mammals."

Lessig also is concerned about the role of copyright in shaping the net of the future. The ability of creators to use the work of others -- whether the creator is a DJ sampling a piece of digital music or a programmer adapting a piece of computer code for his or her own use -- has been crippled, in Lessig's view, by increasingly restrictive copyright laws. Those laws have been periodically strengthened over the past 100 years under the influence of corporations with strong financial interests in protecting intellectual property, said Lessig.

Only if copyright protection is balanced by a healthy respect for innovation, Lessig concluded, will the kind of creativity that gave birth to the Internet revolution continue.

How accurate are the predictions -- both optimistic and pessimistic -- that the speakers offered? As the past two years have shown, predicting the future of the Internet isn't easy.

Saffo, the conference's only professional futurist, put some of the day's predictions in perspective. "A forecast needs to be believable, plausible and internally consistent," he said. "Reality, of course, labors under no such constraints."