Having said that the web, even now, is in its infancy. However, its ability to engender collaboration could see it being used to help manage the planet someday. Even so, like with most tools, the web too can be used to more nefarious ends and needs to be regulated and firmly controlled in order to maximise its potential.
In the 20 years since Sir Tim invented the web, it has been an accidental miracle, growing without much direction from governments or corporations. The first web users in the mid-1990s were thrilled merely at being able to send email messages containing simple text, visiting the odd, very basic websites and reading the occasional news article. But the web quickly shed its esoteric reputation and became more user-friendly even as more sophisticated manoeuvres such as listening to audio files, attaching pictures and eventually, watching and posting videos became possible in a short span of time. The video-viewing website YouTube came along, followed by Wikipedia and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. In time, professionals worldwide began using LinkedIn to remain connected and crucially, businesses realised that they could make money out of their websites.
But for the web to continue to grow in a structured, positive way certain safeguards need to be put in place and more people need to be able to access it, and for longer periods. This brings us to a crucial question — who’s in charge of the web and its future? So far it has grown on principles of openness and mutually agreed standards. But there are those who fear that a corporate web may emerge, shackling innovation and free expression. There are no guarantees that the web will continue to evolve the way it has until now — free, open and with certain universal standards. If this freedom and openness come under threat or are manipulated or if the standards are taken over and re-set by large corporations and vested interests, the web could change drastically from what we know it as today.
Even more worrying than the question of who is wielding the power of the web, and to what end, is the matter of knowledge distribution. It is widely believed that information traditionally imparts power and the web is the only medium where everyone can make his or her voice heard. But, crucially, if you want to take part, you need access to the Internet.
The web needs to reach those countries where Internet use is low and one way of achieving this is by getting the web into mobile phones. Clearly, the web’s future is mobile — and for a majority of the millions who will join it over the next few years, their first experience will be via a mobile phone, especially in poorer, less-developed regions where the cost of a computer is a deterrent. Mobile phones are set to become a key part of the web’s future and are bound to make us even more dependent on the web. But considering we usually carry a mobile with us all the time and it is now an essential part of how we function, perhaps this is no bad thing. Like in the real world, danger lurks everywhere in the virtual world, too. Viruses, pornography, scams, spammers and stalkers abound. But more sinister is the emergence of systems that can automatically track a web user’s habits and create a detailed profile of the person. To add a further Orwellian touch, the web can also be used to spread disinformation, sometimes unwittingly, as when users don’t bother to check the facts before rushing to post some ‘news’ online that quickly goes viral, without authentication.
There is also the threat of censorship, but this is gradually diminishing as the web brings together more and more people in cyberspace, transcending geographical and political barriers and even firewalls, enabling them to engage in constructive debate and usher in real change, as has happened in Tunisia recently.
Like in real life, the presence of threats and problems online helps us better appreciate what one man’s accidental invention has helped make available for us. And it is not just social media enthusiasts, web surfers and ‘techies’ who have benefitted from this.
Businesses around the world have been quick to use the web to engage with their customers and constantly innovate, with an eye on profitability.
So, what does the future hold for the web? Expect even more rapid changes and constant innovations. Users can expect further improvements on the all-singing, all-dancing multimedia experience that websites throw up nowadays. Businesses will interact with customers more closely than before to tailor products according to their requirements. There is going to be even more user-controlled — as distinct from user-generated — content than previously, with the world’s information literally at our fingertips. We will be free to mix, match and filter this information, getting what we want, when we want it and from wherever we can get it. There is no going back.
Where do you think the web is headed?
Vikas Roy is Khaleej Times Web Editor. Write to him at email@example.com
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