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1999’s “Musings on the Future of Information,” Revisited in 2021

Over 20 years ago in 1999, I wrote an essay called “Musings on the Future of Information.” The essay was published in a collection edited by Alison Scammell, i in the Sky: Visions of the Information Future. On the cusp of a new millennium, I contemplated 20 years into the future to a time where the web would have brought us prosperity unequaled in the history of the world. Here’s where those predictions stand today.

All human knowledge accessible in one place.

Musings from 1999:

“From time to time while on a Star Trek mission, Captain Picard or Captain Janeway will speak into the air, address the ever-present Computer, and ask it a question about science, history, or culture. The Computer always has the requested information and never responds, ‘Which database would you like me to search?’ The Computer in Star Trek has all human knowledge at its disposal. […] It will not be long before it is technically feasible to put all human knowledge on a computer network accessible to everyone on the planet. Frankly, I think it already is.”

Where things stand:

Star Trek debuted in 1966, the same year HP released the HP 2116A, its first general computer. At a time when an HP computer was nearly three feet tall and weighed a whopping 230 pounds, Captain Kirk was essentially posing queries to the same technology as Siri or Alexa, the voice-activated virtual assistants we wouldn’t be introduced to until 2011 and 2013, respectively.

By 1999, we were using laptop computers, web browsers, search engines, and cell phones, but not smart phones or voice assistants.  At the time I made the prediction, there were 17 million websites.  The internet has become our means for finding answers to our questions, watching and reading the news, defining words and concepts, finding jobs, seeking medical diagnoses, shopping, and social interaction. The internet is how we navigate our own Starship Enterprise.

Today there are 1.3 billion websites and Google indexes around six billion pages of information.  By itself, those are impressive numbers and a 76x increase from 1999.  But is it all human knowledge?  Well, sort of.

The issue is the so-called “Deep Web.”  This is content that is connected to the web but protected by paywalls, database search front ends, and the business necessity to generate a living for the content creators that collectively prevent web search engines from indexing and linking to the content.  Virtually any item of knowledge is available – if you have the right to view it.   The technology, which is what I was talking about in 1999, can handle the task of making all human knowledge available.  We solved the scale problem, the connectivity problem, the bandwidth problem, and the search performance problem.  But like always, the technology ran ahead our human ability to cope with the difficulties introduced by the new capability.

So, if I were keeping score (and anything worth doing is worth keeping score for), I would give myself half a point for this prediction.  We can technically now make “all human knowledge accessible to everyone on the planet,”  we just haven’t decided to.

User-generated content.

Musings from 1999:

“With the web, virtual communities, and email, the work required to author, assemble, and disseminate content is inconsequential. Suddenly, it is possible for users of any specific content to band together and share their great depth of knowledge. Databases of user generated content are starting to appear; in a few years there will be tens of thousands of them. This changes what it means to be a publisher. Publishers in the future will be creators of content for users; they will be aggregators of user generated content.”

Where things stand:

Wow, nailed it.  Give me a full point for this one.   Remember that in 1999 we didn’t have Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, Goodreads, Quora, or Wikipedia.  Even social media pioneer MySpace did not yet exist in 1999.  No one knew the phrase “Web 2.0” until five years later when in 2004 Tim O’Reilly popularized the phrase at the first O’Reilly Media Web 2.0 Conference.

Okay, it has been over 20 years.  Time to admit a secret.  Back in 1999 I was using a website called AcidPlanet.com.  It was an inspiration of Sony Creative Media and on it one could upload music created with Sony Acid Studio and share it with hundreds of thousands of would-be music creators.  The potential for user generated content seemed obvious to me.  (The first song I created with Sony Acid Music Studio was the Northern Light theme song.  Give it a listen, I tried to create a piece of music that combined the elegance of a search engine with the high technology of a clipper ship.)

While the innovators like MySpace and AcidPlanet are long gone, the second wave of social user created content sites has become a dominant part of our daily lives.  Companies like Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn keep us in contact with family, friends, and colleagues.  We voraciously consume user-generated content on YouTube, Reddit, Quora, and Wikipedia.  The list is seemingly endless and the amount of time we can fritter away limitless.  But isn’t all social interaction, whether in person or online, in some sense time frittered away?  And interacting with friends and acquaintances is also one of the great pleasures of human life.  So I for one am not disdainful of the time we all spend on user content generated websites.

Multimedia data types.

Musings from 1999:

“Storage costs are dropping by orders of magnitude every few years. The appetite for bandwidth on the part of the public is inexhaustible and the telecommunications industry is organizing to supply it. The widespread adoption of closed captioning for the hearing impaired provides a searchable text stream for indexing purposes, at least in the news arena. The first indicator that the future has arrived will be the deployment of an online, on-demand movie library (entertainment applications seem to always drive new technology in the PC industry). When this happens, know that the future has arrived and the online information industry had better get on board.”

Where things stand:

Nailed it.  Give me another full point for this one.   As predicted, storage costs have continued to plunge.  In 1994, the year the web was invented, a terabyte of storage cost $1 million.  By 1999 when I was predicting the next 20 years, at terabyte of storage only cost $15,000, a reduction of 98.5%.  Today the cost of a terabyte of enterprise-grade storage is only $700, another 99.5% reduction.  Transmission speeds have greatly improved. The FCC benchmark in 1999 for “high-speed” data transport was 200 kbps. The current FCC benchmark is 25 Mbps for download speed. The FCC reports that the 2019 median speed is 10 Mbps download over a cell phone connection.

And, by my 1999 standard of measure (on-demand video libraries), the future has definitely arrived!  In 2020, within one minute’s time on the internet, 404,444 hours of Netflix content was streamed worldwide; 147,000 photos were uploaded to Facebook; and 1,388,889 voice or video calls were placed.

In 1999, we were still watching movies on DVDs.  Today, half the population can’t even spell D-V-D.  It is all online media now.  Can’t get much more accurate than this as a prognosticator.

Research skills become paramount for everyone.

Musings from 1999:

“[…] important search skills include the ability to frame queries, scan results list, and identify high quality information sources. Once the exclusive domain of professional librarians, everyone has to develop these skills now. […] If a professional or manager cannot use the web to efficiently access information, he or she will never be well informed and will not be making the best decisions for his or her business.”

Where things stand:

Give me another point for this one.  Remember that in 1999, most office workers did not have access to the Internet from their desks.  There were few if any business research collections of even internal content that could be accessed over the fledgling intranets of the day.

By contrast, most jobs today require some level of computer literacy or digital skill. A 2020 study by the World Economic Forum found that 9 out of 10 jobs will require digital skills within the next 10 years.  Not only have the digital responsibilities of workers changed, but the mindset of marketers has changed to accommodate a different level of online experience in the absence of face-to-face sales.  Every part of life now demands we search for information efficiently and my guess would be the average person conducts more than two dozen searches a day.  Now more than even in 1999, better get good at it.

Everyone knows everything about you.

Musings from 1999:

“There is a lot of concern about the loss of personal privacy as a result of the web. What most people are worrying about is that commercial enterprises will be able to track the behavior of individuals, usually for the purpose of targeting some sales pitch. Also, people worry that governments will be able to keep us under some sort of surveillance by tracking our every keystroke. […] I think everyone is missing the real loss of privacy that comes with the web, and that is the complete transparency that our lives will have to the casual acquaintance, the merely curious, and to the entertainment-seeking surfer.”

Where things stand:

Spot on.  Give me a full point for this prediction with maybe a bonus.  It won’t take another 20 years for thinking about personal privacy to evoke nostalgia. Remember when you could opt-out from having your address listed in the phone book? Today, sure, you can opt-out from whitepages.com and other sites only to discover the tax record from the sale of your home is a public record available online.

When it comes to personal information, nothing is sacred anymore   Google filed a patent application a few years ago on a personal dossier generator.  Using content in their web index, they were able to generate a dossier on any person that identified the person’s address, birthday, employment history, marital history, current and former spouse’s names and much more.  Google has another patent on a system to predict changes in an individual’s marital status based on an analysis of social media posts so that advertising relevant to that change can be served up.  (I shudder to think of what that advertising might be in some cases.)   It is all there on the web.

As for my musing in 1999 that e-commerce sellers would exploit the loss of personal privacy, it seems clear that this has happened in spades.  Every day we go on the web and see ads on every site we surf to for what we searched only a few minutes ago on the first site we visited that day.  Our web browsers place a cookie every time you visit any site that associates a unique user ID with each of us and records what products we looked at in an online database available to online sellers to ping in real time.  Any other website can read the cookie, look up our user ID in the online database, and know what we currently care about.  It is that simple.

And how often do you skip the fine print in the user agreement?  100% of the time if you are like me.  And how often does that mean you are unaware of your consent to have your private data sold to third parties?  100% of the time is the probably correct answer.

And it may be getting worse with voice-enabled devices lurking in our homes, offices, and hands.  A 2019 study by Panda Security found that 48% of Americans believe that their phone is secretly eavesdropping on conversations in the room and that they have been targeted by ads for something that they have talked about but never researched online.

Lastly, there is the issue of my prediction that the casual acquaintance, the merely curious, and the entertainment-seeking surfer would be able to learn details of our private lives.  It is certainly different than when I was in high school and the mother of a girl I asked to attend a church social event called the librarian at the town’s public library to check out my reading habits before granting permission for her daughter to go out with me.  (I got the date!)  Now days, it is standard procedure for potential social partners to review your online posts, and for potential employers to do so, too.  References are not limited to just the ones you provide because hiring managers can find people you have worked with previously with a short glance at your LinkedIn profile.  More than one person has lost a job because their company learned of a social media post they made.  And your neighbors will know in real time exactly what your kids think of your parenting skills if their kids are friends with your kids on Snapchat or Instagram.

The long boom.

Musings from 1999:

“The World Wide Web has wrought a revolution in the economics of production by changing the fundamental costs underlying the processing of transactions. […] We are on the threshold of a greater and faster surge in economic growth than the Industrial Revolution brought about. Because of the web, the next two decades will see a doubling, then tripling of per capita income for everyone on the planet.”

Where things stand:

Nailed it.  Give me another point.  Since 1999, low-cost data storage, ubiquitous wide-area high-speed data transport, e-commerce, and, most profoundly, a software-driven business culture have improved business efficiency and individuals’ lives. In constant dollars, the gross national income (GNI) per capita of the United States in 1999 was $33,670. By 2019, that amount had risen to $65,850. Internationally, GNI per capita was $7,495 in 1999 and $17,718 in 2019. So, the long boom has been a reality.

Marc Andreessen is more responsible for the web than anyone, being the founder of Netscape, the company that enabled the web to be used by the general population.  He was also an early investor in Facebook, Twitter, and Skype.  Andreessen famously said “software is eating the world” in a frequently quoted 2011 blog post.  As he wrote (emphasis added):

“More and more major businesses and industries are being run on software and delivered as online services — from movies to agriculture to national defense… Why is this happening now?  Six decades into the computer revolution…all of the technology required to transform industries through software finally works and can be widely delivered at global scale.”

The Internet changed the underlying economics of business and unleashed unprecedented economic growth. Prior to the internet, transaction overhead could absorb 30% of the value of a transaction.  When that drops to almost zero by making it an online transaction, tremendous value is released back into the economy, which can fuel lower prices and greater investment.  So the next time you pause to think about your life’s good fortunes, find the wireless router in your basement or closet that is your Internet access point, give the router an encouraging little pat, and thank the web for your prosperity.

Summary of my skills as a forecaster.

So if we are keeping score, how did I do in 1999 looking 20 years out?  Here is the summary:

  1. All human knowledge accessible in one place: half-right.
  2. User-generated content: nailed-it.
  3. Research skills are paramount for everyone: nailed-it.
  4. Everyone knows everything about you: nailed it.
  5. The long boom: nailed-it.

So not bad overall — 4.5 correct out of a possible 5.0.

Still though, before I get carried away and put on my prophet robe and hat, there were some things I missed.  I didn’t see smart phones coming.  Cloud computing eluded by gaze.  And I missed the AI springtime that started around 2016.

“But David,” you say, “what you predicted when dinosaurs still roamed the earth back in 1999 is ancient history.  Tell us about the next 20 years.”

Well, dear reader, the editor of this newsletter says I am 238% over my word-count allotment, so you will have to tune in next month for that one.

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