WWW: Hope, doubt and debate for the next 25 Years

Over the past 25 years we have seen the World Wide Web grow into the world’s most powerful medium for communication and information. It has driven change in all parts of society on an unimagined scale. The Web has changed everything from...

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Over the past 25 years we have seen the World Wide Web grow into the world’s most powerful medium for communication and information. It has driven change in all parts of society on an unimagined scale. The Web has changed everything from how we buy, sell and distribute products to how we teach, learn, discover and share information.

As one of the developers of the Internet’s MIME* Protocol, I first heard of the Web when one of the project members from CERN emailed me. The WWW team was just beginning to discuss adding multimedia to the then text-only Web, and they had heard about our work on MIME and were pleased to learn that it could work for the Web as well. I’m happy to say that the MIME team played a small part in enabling the colourful, multimedia landscape that is the WWW today.

Some 25 years later, the possibilities still seem limitless. The Internet and Web is still largely free of borders, rules or even a single directed purpose or governing body. In the UK alone, the ONS has found that in 2013, 36 million adults (73% of the UK’s population) use the Internet each and every day of the year. Access to the Internet from a mobile phone more than doubled in just three years too to 53%.

The growth of Internet use will continue, particularly as more developing nations get online wholesale. Every day, every minute, more and more of us are turning to the Web on a desktop, laptop, tablet, mobile and an ever growing range of other devices.

However, while the Internet continues to expand, it is worth taking the time today to consider what the next 25 years might have in store for us.

  • Healthcare: Implantable, Web-enabled, nano health devices could become the norm in the next decade. These devices will help save lives by alerting medical professionals of vitamin deficiencies, heart attacks, high blood pressure, irregular cell counts or even degrading organ function. While miraculous in their capabilities, these devices would also need to be protected from external influences - if control of these devices fell into the wrong hands, the results could be literally fatal.
  • Technology & Manufacturing: 3D printing will be cheap and widespread, allowing people to print everyday household items that would otherwise require experts and specialist machinery. Not only is this hugely convenient and time-saving, it could also result in a flowering of home invention. But while the possibilities here are exciting, it stands to reason that traditional manufacturing would take a considerable hit from these developments. In January an Oxford University study stated 47% of all jobs could be automated by 2034 - so we can expect our economy to shift further from one based on the production, supply and demand of physical objects, to one focused on digital or virtual ones.
  • Crime Prevention: The regulation and use of surveillance technology is generating hot debate. Who should use it? Who can they use it on? When is it acceptable? Should it be permissible at all? Today’s concerns may seem hopelessly naïve in a couple of decades. Increasingly microscopic technology will mean that effectively invisible cameras capable of recording our every moment will be widespread, perhaps even embedded in our clothing. The round-the-clock surveillance this makes possible may result in intrusive snooping from government agencies, corporations, and anyone wealthy enough to purchase the ever less expensive technology. However, on the flip-side, this global, ‘available to all’ monitoring should cause a significant decrease in crime. Criminals will be all too aware that they are being continuously watched. Every moment of our lives will be recorded and usually admissible in court if needed.

In 1989, I’ll admit I had no idea of all the ways the Internet and the Web would change the world. We have seen staggering innovation and unprecedented change as a direct result of that invention. But while I, like many of you, have been privileged to witness the awe-inspiring transformations that have taken place since the first Web page appeared, I believe it will be the next 25 years that will have the greatest impact.

Given the changes we will see in our world, I believe we need to match our capacity for invention with a resolve to openly discuss the challenges we face. We need to match our technical creativity with the best public policy, tools and protection to open up the full potential of the opportunities we see for all, and to mitigate, or at least prepare ourselves, for the challenges that will surely follow.

Posted by Nathaniel Borenstein, chief scientist, Mimecast

* MIME (Multi-Purpose Internet Mail Extension), is an extension of the original Internet email protocol - it allows people to exchange different kinds of data files on the Internet such as audio, video, images, etc. It also allows email that uses non-ASCII characters, which enables the interchange of email in languages other than English.