The Internet’s profound impact on the way we live

The average age for Nobel Peace Prize winners is 63, but earlier this year it was decided by popular US tech culture magazine Wired that the most deserving recipient was only 33-years old.

That’s quite young in Nobel terms, but when one considers the “accomplishments” of the Internet, it is perhaps not such an unreasonable nomination.

In a very short period of time the Internet has had a profound impact on the way we live. I have no doubt that its social repercussions will take decades to be fully understood, but it has already produced much benefit to the world. It has provided access to information on a scale never before achievable. It has lowered the barriers to creative expression. It has challenged old business models and enabled new ones. It has lowered the financial and environmental costs of communication.

The Internet has succeeded because we designed it to be both flexible and open. These two features have allowed it to accommodate innovation without massive changes to its infrastructure. An open, borderless platform means that barriers to entry are low, competition is high, and innovation is rapid.

The beauty of an open platform is that there are no gatekeepers. For centuries, access to and creation of information was controlled by the few. The Internet has changed that — and is rapidly becoming the platform for everyone, by everyone.

Of course, it still has some way to go. Today there are only about 1.8-billion Internet users, representing roughly 25% of the world’s population. Much of the world that they access online is in English, and yet we know that the vast majority of the world’s population is not English speaking. For example, while there are 300-million Arabic speakers in the world, Arabic content represents less than 1% of content on the web; same thing for Thai — despite the fact that Thailand is the 21st largest country in the world.

The World Wide Web design makes use of the Unicode character set, capable of representing most of the world’s written languages. The Domain Name System that allows us to create signposts in cyberspace is just now opening up to the use of Unicode rather than a small set of Latin characters. These features facilitate creating, finding and using content in most of the world’s written languages.

As more and more diverse content comes on line, so does the need for tools that allow us to jump over language barriers that separate us. This is why I’m excited about the progress of automatic language translation tools — and in particular the field that we call machine learning. One target is to allow a search for terms expressed in one language that finds, displays and translates results in all 50 languages supported by Google.

The technology isn’t perfect yet, but it’s rapidly improving, and it’s not difficult to imagine a day when automatic translation will allow two people in the world to speak or IM to each other in real time, each experiencing the conversation in his or her mother tongue. The main driver of this increase in multilingual content will be increased access to the Internet itself. And one key to that access will be mobiles.

A few years ago everyone speculated about the promises mobiles would bring; today, just look at Korea — where people search by voice or pay bills on their mobile — the future has arrived. Moreover, we are already seeing the differences mobile Internet connectivity has made in Africa, Latin America, and the Indian subcontinent. In developing economies people are already finding innovative ways to use mobile technology, from Grameen’s microfinance and village phone programmes in Bangladesh to innovative SMS services providing farmers with crop and weather updates. The combining power of the Internet with mobile, wireless and broadband services is producing an information cornucopia.

The technological progress of the Internet has also set social change in motion. As with other enabling inventions before it, from the telegraph to television, some will worry about the effects of broader access to information — the printing press and the rise in literacy that it effected were, after all, long seen as destabilising. Similar concerns about the Internet are occasionally raised, but if we take a long view, I’m confident that its benefits far outweigh the discomforts of learning to integrate it into our lives. The Internet and the World Wide Web are what they are because literally millions of people have made it so. It is a grand collaboration.

It would be foolish not to acknowledge that the openness of the Internet has had a price. Security is an increasingly important issue and cannot be ignored. If there is an area of vital research and development for the Internet, this is one of them. I am increasingly confident, however, that techniques and practices exist to make the Internet more secure while retaining its essentially open quality.

After working on the Internet for over three decades, I’m more optimistic about its promise than I have ever been. We are all free to innovate on the net every day — the Internet is in effect, a tool built by the people for the people.

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