The Software, Standards and Society in 2020 Series: 1. The Internet changed everything

The Internet changed everything. Much like Television changed one viewer at the time—at the same time—the Internet changed societies in one go, although one could equally say that society shaped the Internet. After all, what is it in the end, apart from the digital version of ourselves? Both TV and the Internet in the early stages were the new way that everything was expressed. Clearly, they were more than alternative channels. They were the thing. The medium is the message, said media scholar McLuhan (1964). We live in a network society, sociologist Manuel Castells (1996) declared, even before the Internet had taken off.

However, 68 years after commercial Black & White Television began broadcasting in United States (1941), a contrarian view would be that much remains the same. The programs might have changed a bit, they might have changed us a bit, but we are still passively looking into a screen. Despite the possibility to store programming options until we come home and get stuff on demand, the message is a passive one. Push the button and we will push content upon you. We are asked to consider other people and situations, be aware of it, but not to touch, not to interact. And, no, voting in reality shows will not qualify, even if you end up using your remote control to do so. Clicking on widgets similar to on your iPhone comes closer, but is still just an extension of other media. In fact, the moment TV replaces real interaction, it is not a TV anymore, but something else. The Internet, perhaps?

The Internet is different, most people would say today. It is tangible. It asks for a reply. It wants us to put ourselves out there. On Facebook. On LinkedIn. On Twitter. Our digital identities are on the line, and on line. We willingly risk exposure to all kinds of feedback, especially if we belong to the net generation. As a caveat, contrary to Don Tapscott in his book Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World (McGraw-Hill, 2008), I believe the net generation includes people of any age, not only youngsters. Many IT professionals, for instance, belong to this group. The net generation are those who have the attitudes that enable them to take the lead, but who don't care too much about positions and hierarchies. Or, at least, those of us who not care so much that they feel limited by not being formally in charge. The net generation includes those who have the knowledge and skills needed to maximize their influence in society. Those who embrace leadership from below will affect changes as they see fit, in the work place and in the the work life regardless where it occurs. In fact, the net generation has very little to do with age, although it is very present in Generation Y (1972-2000), those who are 9-37 years of age today. And, while they may not be in power yet, their parents are, or so they think, anyway.

The Internet, therefore, becomes an important vehicle. Not as a technology but as an enabler. The technology may come to be considered quite trivial. It is the things you can do that are fascinating. Because we want to be participating. We don't want to be alone. No man is an island, and no woman is an islet. We are all connected, or try to be. Many would even argue that the Internet is invincible. It is the new, new thing (although it is getting old already, which is an aspect to consider as well).

But in all technological change, some aspects remain the same. Those are hard to see until we have some historical perspective. While we will not concern ourselves with those aspects here, suffice to say there are things that the Net can't do, such as convincing people in the work place or elsewhere, providing an efficient venue for arguing with your spouse, or for handling any kind of great outpour of emotion.

Let's let the matter of what the Internet can and cannot do rest for the while. What we will do instead, is to take a look at one of the key invisible engines of globalization, that of the self-regulation provided through standardization. But in order to do that, we first need to have in mind a quick primer on the logic of the Internet. It goes as follows: The Internet requires interoperability. It runs on standard interfaces and protocols. Its network effects are key for standards. Let's' consider network effects a given, and proceed. (more tomorrow)


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Trond Undheim, Ph.D, Director of Standards Strategy and Policy at the Oracle Corporation, speaker, entrepreneur, blogger, and author, is one of the world’s leading experts on technology and society. LinkedIn profile


« June 2016