Next generation web raises job numbers, hope - and concern
By Andy Goldberg Nov 2, 2005, 2:48 GMT
A file photograph showing a magnifying glass enlarging the logo of the internet search engine company Google. EPA/JENS BUETTNER
San Francisco - Put your ear to the ground in Silicon Valley these days, or hook up your laptop to one of the thousands of wi-fi networks that criss-cross the hi-tech heartland, and you're sure to hear an interesting sound.
For those with a memory of tech history, the sound is reminiscent of the buzz around the first Internet bubble, when companies with barely-baked business visions about the web revolution were worth billions of dollars - until they crashed spectacularly in 2000.
This time of course, investors are smarter, entrepreneurs are savvier, the technology is more mature, and oh yeah, it even has a new name.
Some call it Web2.0, others call it simply the world network.
The big five web companies - Microsoft, Google, eBay, Yahoo and Amazon - are scrambling for deals and positions to dominate this next wave, while venture capitalists are funding new companies as if they are going out of fashion.
The buzz is so loud that despite the mushrooming availability of cheap tech workers in places like Bangalore and Moscow, Silicon Valley is now adding jobs again after five years of losses.
'Silicon Valley is humming again,' noted the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday. 'There's a feeling of ebullience. The buzz is humming, the money is flowing, the deals are happening.'
The hype sounds suspiciously familiar. Proponents like Kevin Kelly, the unofficial high priest of the Internet religion, talk about the new system in quasi-religious terms, predicting that the increasingly shared intelligence between humans and machines will give rise to nothing less than a new level of consciousness.
Writing in the geek bible, Wired Magazine, Kelly says that the Web is becoming the OS - computer lingo for operating system - 'for a megacomputer that encompasses the Internet, all its services, all peripheral chips and affiliated devices from scanners to satellites, and the billions of human minds entangled in this global network'.
'In the coming decade, it will evolve into an integral extension not only of our senses and bodies but our minds ... (creating) a new mind for an old species,' Kelly wrote.
The underpinnings are already there. Wireless technologies and broadband Internet access have erased the old lines between TV, telephones and computers. A pervasive network allows information to follow us on myriad devices, and to be manipulated by brilliant software that provides services of unprecedented value, convenience and intelligence.
Google's algorithms instantly organize information in truly meaningful ways and generations of young people are growing up fully immersed in the Internet lifestyle.
So what will the world look like when all these developments come together? You'll have even better video games of course and watch any movie you want, whenever you want, wherever you are. Digital butlers will anticipate your wants and needs. If bad traffic makes you miss a plane, it will reschedule your flight, call your home and office, and reprogramme your automatically driven car to pick you up later.
Social software that will likely evolve from such sites as MySpace and photo-sharing group Flickr will open channels to new friends, trends and information at the touch of a button. You'll communicate with friends and colleagues across the world as though they are sitting next door.
Maybe you will even delight in the long predicted but hopelessly overdue paperless office.
But there could be a high price to pay, some warn. Those who are less sanguine than Kelly worry about the Big Brother aspect, where radio frequency chips will allow every product, from passport to grocery purchases, to be tracked over the Internet.
They also worry about the dangers of content sharing, blogs, maps and opinions - where the source of information isn't clear and rumours are bandied around like facts. The traditional gatekeepers of the informed public - reporters and correspondents who check and double check their facts in order to discount and quash rumours - will become an endangered species, they worry. <!--page-->
'The idea of an age of participation in which content is taken over by individual citizens and amateurs will erode the economic foundations of traditional media,' says Nick Carr, a tech pundit and blogger who is one of the lone online voices of concern.
He predicts that companies will fire journalists and close news bureaus as they rely on the blogs and phone-cams of amateurs to provide the news.
He warns of devastating security snafus and Internet vandalism fed by increasing amounts of online databases of personal banking and other information.
'In addition to the security question, there's the question of who controls the information, who controls our access and who makes money from it and how - there are a lot of conflicts,' Carr says.
Anyone who has ever found themselves trapped in an automated phone tree, had their identity stolen by online scammers or pulled their hair out after falling victim to a computer virus, understands Carr's lament all to well.
What's more, it could be that Web2.0 investors have a few glitches in their sums.
That's what The Economist magazine thought of eBay's 2.6 billion dollar purchase of online phone company Skype. The outfit was hailed as the future of communications, but it never earned a dime.
The headline said it all: 'Bubble 2.0.'© dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur