Life online: The Web in 2020
A study by the Social Issues Research Centre on behalf of Rackspace Managed Hosting
The Life online report, looking as it does toward a vision of the Web in the year 2020, aims to provide an outline and analysis not only of projected technological developments but also their social, political and economic implications. What will the Web look like in 2020? What will it do? Where will it be? How will we use it?
SIRC’s starting point has been the notion that the Web in 2020 will meet human needs more fully than it does at present, with many resulting social and political implications. It will have come to provide a renewed forum for social cohesion and democracy as well as continuing as a platform for information, entertainment, communication, shopping, etc. But will it, as some predict, provide a digital alternative to ‘real life’, with the distinction between Human and machine becoming ever-more blurred? Or will it, as we believe, be not so indistinguishable from the Web we know today.
The year 2020, despite the sci-fi visions of some tech futurologists and TV programme makers, is only 13 years away. If a Web application, however complex and sophisticated, does not fulfil a timeless human need then it will not succeed. While technology changes, people in general do not. They retain basic needs not only for physical survival and passing their genes to future generations but also for social bonding – a sense of place and knowing who we are in relation to others – and for conviviality and pleasure. In these senses we are today much like our earliest hunter-gatherer ancestors some 10,000 years ago – the first true technologists. Inside our 21st century skulls are essentially Stone Age brains.
Today, the online communities, shops (virtual high streets), VoIP services, libraries, newspapers, social networking sites, corporate homepages and interest groups inhabiting the Web are modern mirrors of our ‘real’ societies — the legacies of the tribal groupings in which we have spent all but a very tiny fraction of our history and evolution. Developed for the most part in North America and Europe, at a time when these societies might be defined as ‘post-industrial’ and even ‘post-modern’, these web applications — particularly the newer forms of ‘social networking’ and ‘online communities’ — have been developed and embraced by the masses because they provide a modern type of ‘social glue’, or at least ‘social lubricant’. They arguably act to counter what the sociologist Durkheim termed ‘anomie’ — the isolation and fragmentation experienced as a result of the loss of the traditional ties that bind in contemporary society. Importantly, their production has also been appropriated by the masses, who in the process have — again arguably — taken technological and cultural production away from the hands of a few arbiters of ‘the next big thing’, ‘taste’ and so on, into the hands of the consumer.
As basic mechanisms for bonding and social cohesion are eroded in the faceless anonymity of modern towns and cities, we re-create new means for satisfying our timeless needs. We reinvent tribal groups in which we find a true sense of belonging, whether they be the familiar youth subcultures — the legacies of Mods and Rockers, Teddy Boys, Skinheads and the like though to modern Goths, Skaters, Gangstas and Moshers — or the more staid and respectable Women’s Institutes, churches, Residents’ Associations and ‘grown-up’ groups with which we are so familiar. In this sense, nothing changes much apart from superficial style.
The Web increasingly serves such needs, allowing us to establish and maintain the same social bonds, only now we no longer have to rely on geographical propinquity – on being able to relate only with those people who happen to be nearby. Consider, by way of comparison, the mobile phone. This now taken-for-granted piece of technology has been seen as both a radical agent of change and the equivalent of the instrument of the Devil. But all it has done in reality is to allow us to return to the equivalent of an earlier form of social communication — simply chatting to one’s neighbour over the garden fence, just to keep in touch and to say “hi”. We are now much more mobile and our friends and family are no longer just next door. The text message or short call on a mobile, however, gives us back the closeness.
The Web does the same, and always will. The most popular Internet application is email, which conveniently replaces what in earlier times was achieved by the phone calls, letters, telegrams and, even further back in history, by the messenger on a horse or on foot. As Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders once sang: “Something is lost but something is found … Some things change, some stay the same.” In the context of modern technological advancement, and the Web in particular, how very true.
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