The Information Revolution in 10 years

I had the pleasure of participating in the excellent Legal Futures Conference sponsored by CIS and Google last month, where I was on a panel of “lightning talkers” tasked with answering the following question in under five minutes: “What single fact or data point about the current world of content and technology tells us most about where the Information Revolution will stand in ten years?”

Fellow panelists Paul Cappuccio, KC Claffy, Joi Ito, Jeff Toobin and Stephen Venuto all offered provocative comments, and I thought I’d kick off my CIS blog by posting my answer to the question.

As I start this blog, please note that I write it in my capacity as a Fellow at CIS. Any opinions I may express in the blog are mine and not necessarily those of my employer (Microsoft). With that said, here’s my answer:

The Information Revolution will rise or fall on the strength of its nexus, namely the incredibly complex ecosystem that is the Internet. So to me the question being asked boils down to: what can we measure today to tell us what the health of that ecosystem will be a decade from now. Answering the question is no easy task. Do we have a good predictive measure of the health of the Internet?

Well, if we were asked to predict the future of the offline world, we could find many predictive measures of health. The Index of Leading Economic Indicators, gene markers and even carbon footprints are just three examples. Those measures are valuable because they carefully extract data today to tell us where we may be tomorrow. And if we don’t like the forecast, we know that we need to make adjustments in today’s world to maximize the likelihood that we’ll achieve the results we’re striving for tomorrow: a strong economy, a long life and a healthy environment.

So what are the analogues to those measures in the online world? What data should we be studying to determine whether the Information Revolution will fulfill its breathtaking promise to enlighten and empower citizens and creators around the world?

The most important measure we could make – the key to the future – is the sustainability of the Internet ecosystem, the vitality and health of the organism itself. Yet we rarely focus on the whole. Instead, we tend to fixate on fleeting measures of parochial success – data like a company’s monthly page views, downloads, click-through rates and CPMs. As a result, we often lose sight of the broader goal that we’re seeking to achieve. And we tend to neglect the importance of measuring how well the members of the community are furthering our shared ideals, ideals such as transparency, empowerment, safety and diversity.

So focusing on the whole, I don’t believe that any one piece of data is a predictor of how close we’ll come to our goal in ten years. Both the Internet and our goal are too complex to be measured so simply. That’s not to say that the health of the Internet can’t be measured; just that a single data point isn’t a sufficient measurement or diagnostic. Still, we need to be able to identify the early warning signs to ensure that we’re not suffering from the Internet’s equivalent of global warming. If the ecosystem is in trouble, would we even know it?

Just as scientists are honing the ability to predict our future environment and health, I’d submit that we can create a predictive “Internet Health Index”. As long as we have a shared understanding of where we want to go, we can create an algorithm to assess whether we’re on the right path to achieving that goal. In my remaining time I can’t complete this task, but I can start the process by discussing some of the ideals we should be aiming for and some of the hallmarks of healthy ecosystems that should be reflected in that algorithm. I hope this spurs discussion of the ideals and metrics that might be useful in creating such an index.

As I mentioned, a healthy Internet ecosystem would have at least four characteristics: transparency, empowerment, safety and diversity.

By transparency, I mean that all participants have access to information that allows them to make informed choices. This would apply at every layer of the stack – infrastructure, platforms, applications and content – and to all stakeholders – creators, publishers, advertisers, technology providers and of course consumers. Ecosystems stagnate or malfunction when accurate information isn’t available to those who need it.

By empowerment, I mean that individual participants have a platform on which they can build and capitalize independently, free of interference. Web 2.0 is all about the democratization of the web, but is that what we’re seeing? There have been notable successes like Creative Commons. But can we say that the ecosystem also supports creators who want to commercialize their works? We’re starting to see a few new ventures that are directly investing in online content and taking risks on turning talent into revenue, but that remains the exception.

By safety, I’m referring to ensuring that all participants have a sense of security and reliability when they engage with others in the ecosystem. This includes some obvious things, like being vigilant about protecting privacy and sensitive information. It also includes some not so obvious things, like freedom from piracy and other activities that undermine dealings between honest participants. This is a measure we have to get right, because an unreliable system will be spurned by both creators and consumers.

And by diversity, I mean fostering a wide range of perspectives and business models. The issues that the Internet ecosystem faces are huge, and potential solutions are so numerous that no one viewpoint or company should address them alone. We must experiment with and promote a variety of approaches and not rest comfortably on monolithic solutions. Just as Microsoft has learned from the open source community, all participants in the Internet ecosystem must recognize the value that diversity and competition can bring.

So in conclusion, I leave you with this thought and challenge: that in addition to focusing on traditional measures of business success, we also value and promote accountability towards the Internet as a whole. If we starting measuring progress toward achieving our ideals of transparency, empowerment, safety and diversity, we can hasten the day when the great promise of the Information Revolution is realized.

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