Don’t misunderstand. I believe in the Internet. It’s deeply embedded in my life. It makes so many things so much easier than they used to be. It’s the source of my paychecks. But the Internet is a bubble. Still.
Most of the people I deal with on a daily basis would laugh at that thought, but hear me out.
The Internet is a bubble in three ways:
1. A lot of people don’t use the Internet much. Most people don’t use it at all.
I rely on numerous web tools and services to get through my week. I use Yelp to decide where to eat, find a plumber, get the phone number of my local pizza place. I use Google Maps to get me from place to place. I use Skype, Yahoo Messenger, Gmail, Dropbox, Confluence, GoToMeeting, and other tools to collaborate with my colleagues and communicate with my clients. I use Twitter and Facebook to speak my mind. I use Flickr to organize my photos. I use LinkedIn to find new projects. This is the tip of the iceberg.
Those of us in “the industry” tend to think we represent the norm, but many of my friends – and most of my family – couldn’t describe what Twitter is, much less Foursquare. I’m not talking about Ted Kaczynski types, holed up in shacks in the woods somewhere. These are professionals who are savvy about stuff. Some even have careers doing Internet stuff. These people use email a couple times a day or less, ditto Google. They’re 50/50 on Facebook. They don’t live and breathe this stuff. They don’t keep their eyes peeled for the next new thing.
When it comes to the third world, we go beyond distorted assumptions. We simply don’t factor these people into the equation. But the World Bank puts the total number of Internet users at 1.8 billion (2009), which means that more than 2/3 of humanity doesn’t use the Internet at all.
We live in a collective “industry” bubble.
2. The Internet encourages us to live in our own isolated bubbles
I’m not saying anything new here, and indeed the same things were said about the telephone, radio, and television, but the Internet isolates us from each other. For example, my wife and I are expecting a baby. We don’t know how to diaper a baby, and in pre-Internet times, we would have turned to a sibling or parent or close friend to teach us. Now our first impulse is to try YouTube. Similarly, I want to learn how to set up a router (the woodworking kind), and in the past I would have gone down the street to my friend Mark’s house and asked him to teach me. But even though he lives just a few houses down, my first inclination is to go to YouTube. There’s no denying that this kind of shift represents diminished community.
We live in our own isolated bubbles.
3. It could actually kind of go away
The entrepreneurial types in the tech industry like to paint a rosy picture of the future, where everything’s connected, everything’s social. They see technology’s upside and plot its trajectory into the next decade or two, but they’re usually myopic. They mostly fail to consider the likelihood of skyrocketing oil prices, climate change, food shortages, etc.
What will our relationship with the Internet be like if we need to worry about food, water, and power? What if power blackouts lasting several days become a regularity?
We live in a temporary bubble.