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- Looking back to predict the future of the Internet
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- One 40-year-old looks back on the Internet, c. 1971
A glance back at the events of 1989 makes it look like the year of foresight. It wasn’t a year of major tech payoffs: it was a year of advances that hinted at things to come. You can look back on those hints with a sense of financial opportunities missed, of technical breakthroughs realized, or of social payoffs still ahead. Which reaction you have to technological innovations past will give you a useful clue about how to relate to technological innovations future. Reviewing past stories of foresight can become a powerful source of insight.
Foresight is a quality you might ascribe to Texas Instruments, which thought to register the domain name “bp.com” back in 1989. By 1993 the Internet Assigned Name and Numbers authority proscribed the registration of 1- and 2-letter domain names out of concern that these domains would be confused with country-specific domains like .ca and .uk, but they grandfathered in pre-existing two-letter domains like bp. That was good news for British Petroleum, which somewhere along the line acquired that incredibly valuable domain name. You might describe that acquisition as BP purchasing Texas Instruments’ foresight, a quality we now recognize is in somewhat short supply at BP itself.
Foresight is what you would have needed in 1989 if you wanted to understand the leap forward represented by hypertext. Tim Berners-Lee came up with the idea of hypertext in March of that year, but it wasn’t until the very end of 1990 that the world got to see what hypertext could create: namely, the World Wide Web. But I’m getting ahead of myself, which is something that hypertext (and foresight) make it all too easy to do.
If you had foresight in 1989, you might have seen that the advent of hypertext and commercial e-mail on the Internet and an online newspaper and a portable Apple computer were signs of a new world in which computers and the Internet were going to pervade every aspect of how we read and communicated and got information. If you were especially clever you might have imagined possibilities like hypertext poetry and problems like inbox overload and business models like newspaper firewalls and sexy objects like a Macbook Pro.
The thing is, not too many people have that kind of foresight, and those who do often lack the equally crucial talent of judging exactly how long those foreseen changes will take. Many visionary companies have been done in by getting out too far ahead of the market, and other companies have failed by jumping on the bandwagon too late. Those of us who survived the dot com boom and bust, or who have been along for the ride on the social media explosion, have often spent quite a bit of time thinking about where we want to be on the innovation curve. And a lot of business analysts are willing to give us an opinion about which part of the curve is most profitable.
But that is not the same as telling you which part of the curve you will enjoying living on yourself. Things like hypertext turn into things like the web because people like Tim Berners-Lee describe themselves as “lucky” to live on one extreme edge of that curve, looking around the corner. Things like an experimental online newspaper give birth to things like the Huffington Post because people like Arianna Huffington enjoy figuring out how to build an actual profitable business around an information revolution that has already occurred.
Knowing whether you like running ahead to the next wave of innovation, or whether you like to hold the hands of the people who are bringing up the rear, is one of the most important things you can figure out about your life online. It’s the difference between finding your bliss in the R&D shop of a large company that funds bleeding-edge research, getting a rush from cracking the monetization nut for a well-established technology, or feeling joy when you get that last group of grannies onto Facebook. It means figuring out not only which part of the curve you want to live on, but exactly what it is that appeals to you about being there: is it the intellectual puzzle? the social impact? the financial upside?
Answering that question requires not foresight, but insight. You may have an extraordinary ability to see around the corner, but if what you most care about is making a lot of money, living at the bleeding edge is probably not for you. Or you may be unable to see what’s around the corner until it’s right on top of you: that doesn’t prevent you from being incredibly useful at helping lots of other people adapt to the change that’s just arrived. Ultimately you are the only person with insight into what place on the innovation curve will be most satisfying to you.
It’s taken me a long time to figure out that I’m happiest when I’m doing what’s next, rather than what’s already here. I uncovered my passion for the bleeding edge not by looking forward, but by looking backward: by looking at the projects, moments and accomplishments that I found most satisfying over the course of 20 years.
Twenty years ago, the Internet’s first wave of innovators did the same thing: they gathered together to look back on the pure joy of looking forward. The passion and poetry they found on the bleeding edge speaks for itself:
We’ve gathered here for two days to examine and debate
And reflect on data networks and as well to celebrate.
To recognize the leaders and recount the path we took.
We’ll begin with how it happened; for it’s time to take a look.
1989 was the moment we could look both ways. Back to see what we had already made, and ahead to what was just becoming.