5G and 6G are supposed to make humans connected to one another and to the digital world in unforeseen ways. We see people talking about virtual reality videos, deeply immersive games, machines talking to each other, and other scientific-fiction stuff riding on this anytime-everywhere-connected world.
Out of the humongous expanse of emerging technologies, let us pick up a small and more grounded area for today’s discussion: the World Wide Web. And we can relate with it all the time, because we now draw all our information from it.
For the sake of clarity, let me define the World Wide Web before we discuss its future prospects. The World Wide Web or ‘the web’ is nothing but the collection of information that the online technologies can create and access using web technologies.
The buzz in this area is that a new type of web, Web 3.0, is coming soon. People who hate the big tech giants are also excited about the possibility of social media in the hands of the people. The integration of the web with other technologies such as artificial intelligence is also fascinating.
Web 1.0, Web 2.0 and the social media
When the World Wide Web started taking shape three decades back, it consisted of simple web pages – pages that contained information mostly for use by fellow technologists. The information was in the form of plain text written in the language called HTML. But soon the web pages started containing a great deal of information – text, images, audio, video, complex data – and it could be presented in numerous ways. Yet, this was a static web – the information contained in web pages did not change dynamically. It was also a dumb web – you could only read it, not speak to it. That was the first generation of the World Wide Web, or Web 1.0.
While the World Wide Web was evolving and maturing, multiple-way communication of information through digital means too was evolving. Forums and bulletin boards were popular during its early days. In this form of communication, users could participate and generate information as much as the platform owners. So, unlike the traditional print and electronic media and Web 1.0, these were participative forms of mass communication.
In less than a decade, technology allowed people to use the web also, in a participative manner. This took various shapes (e.g. blogs, web forums, wikis, social networking platforms, social sharing sites, bookmarking sites), and was collectively called Web 2.0.
In the early years of the present century, social media – as it is understood today – took birth with platforms such as Six Degrees, MySpace and Hi5. Mainstream blogging peaked in a few years, and then gave way to blogging on social media platforms. New social media entities (eg Facebook) wiped out the older ones (eg Orkut), and successively became more and more powerful. Technology allowed them to use logical formulas (called algorithms) to assess people’s likes, and exploit them for commercial, and even political, gains. Technology also gave them the capacity to integrate social media with ecommerce. So, the present day Web 2.0 is dominated by a few technology giants, which have become extremely powerful.
Talking of the level of participation by users, much of the World Wide Web of today is participative, mostly due to social media but also due to other technological tools, though a great deal of its legacy content happens to be static and non-participative.
Beyond Web 2.0
Technology dictates that the World Wide Web of today must evolve into a new type of web in which today’s anomalies and constraints are addressed. This new web, called Web 3.0 to differentiate it from the present World Wide Web (participative but dominated by tech giants), is, indeed, taking shape in different ways.
One – Machines are reading data and making decisions – but are not efficient enough.
The present World Wide Web is full of documents and data that is primarily created for humans to read, but it cannot be efficiently picked by machines for their calculations. Even if there is information in the form of machine-readable data, the data formats are different, and one set of data does not speak to the other.
However, in the days to come, programming and data-keeping for the web will become such that data will be integrated, and will be accessible to all programs and systems in a uniform way. Machines will be able to seamlessly pick the data and make inferences based on it.
What this will lead to is instant linking of different types of data, and presenting it in many ways, customized according to the need.
Let me give a rather simplistic example. My bio-data on the web currently is in the form of a page of information about my personal, educational and professional details – contained in my personal blog. However, these individual aspects of my existence and achievements cannot be easily picked by Google for linking my data with databases of different kinds such as those of professionals, of people in my location, of people of my age, etc. Even if I keep each entry of the bio-data in a machine-readable format, it will not be uniformly accessible using the present technologies of sharing documents on the web.
Enormous progress in data exchange, mining and interpretation has been made since the early days of the web. Especially notable development in data interpretation is machine learning. Machines are now able to read the intent or purpose of the data by looking at the context. This is how the algorithms of search engines, ecommerce sites and social media platforms try to present relevant information to the user. This is also how they manipulate habits and behaviour of the consumer [includes anyone who consumes that information, not just the consumer of a product].
Web 3.0 talks of this all (web in the form of data, data being in integrated formats, and machines being able to understand data and make decisions based on it), which is expected to become a norm in the future.
If and when the web becomes fully semantic (the web becoming a set of data, and machines being able to understand data and intent behind it), it might lead to much greater manipulation of data by those in control of technology. Besides the tech giants, criminals and oppressive rulers can play with the data in unseen ways, putting individuals and the society in jeopardy. This might also facilitate artificial intelligence taking over more and more human functions. Whatever may the cost-benefit balance of this advancement be to the human race, this is a clear direction the World Wide Web is taking.
Two – New realities, new worlds!
If you have already experienced Augmented Reality (AR) through AR devices, seen Virtual Reality (VR) shows, or played immersive computer games, you are already into a new reality. A reality that claims to be as real as our table-chair, and relatives and friends.
If this virtualization becomes pervasive, as social media has become at present, you can imagine a human life dominated by realities that are not real. Be sure that in this reality, people will care more about their assumed lives than their worldly self.
If this scenario looks scientific-fiction stuff to you, think of the present techno-social reality from the point of view of a great-grandpa when he sees his great-grandchild playing virtual games, a digital assistant (such as Alexa) responding to her calls, her being glued to the mobile phone even while taking meals or walking in the street, equipment being controlled remotely… That near we are from the onslaught of new realities.
In fact, it is being conceptualized that a new universe – metaverse – would develop, which will allow people to do almost everything there what they can do in their physical world: entertainment, socialization, ecommerce, and so on. With a view to capture people’s mind space when metaverse becomes a reality, the tech giant Facebook has renamed itself as Meta. Shows, how much the stakes of tech giants are in making this reality a reality!
Three – Can the commoner control her social life?
This is for you if you are of the liberal type who hates Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and Google.
The good news is that you are not alone in being concerned about the exploitative control of technology by a few. In the face of the technology giants controlling Web 2.0 to the extent that they do not listen even to major governments and parliaments of the world, many pioneering technologists have been thinking of a World Wide Web in which people have much more control over what they want to consume.
But the bad news is that the prospects of a more humane technological scenario are not rosy here.
Social media technologists see a ray of hope in the recent advances in blockchain technology – a technology in which data travels anonymously in blocks that are tied to their previous and next blocks like rings in a chain. This technology has made cryptocurrencies possible, and is likely to be adopted by financial and other companies for secure online record-keeping and transactions. If this technology gives rise to platforms that provide users a greater say – and rid them of the control the tech giants have on them – that might lead to a new type of World Wide Web: a decentralised web in which information is not controlled by tech giants or governments.
Another associated technology is the peer-to-peer sharing of data. In this type of technology, people share data through the internet in a way that it is not mediated by a third party – a big company. This tech has been in use for a long time for sharing big chunks of data, but lost appeal social media years back when internet costs came down drastically and bandwidth increased manifold.
The main problem with these technologies (which promise decentralization, or control of information in the hands of the user) is that these are not growing beyond social media niches. Unless these develop fast and cross a minimum threshold, they will not be in a position to dethrone the tech biggies or other controllers of technologies.
The other issue is that such technologies also do not guarantee that, if they succeed, the control will not pass on to a new set of players. Such players – even if not big – will become powerful enough to dictate terms.
In addition, information technologies are not like air and water – created by nature and [generally speaking] available to all. There will always be the need for a technology provider. After all, even for peer-to-peer transfer of files, we need social media intermediary, don’t we? What if thousands of crooks take advantage of lack of central control – like they have done in the dark web? This is possible even in the open web: social media intermediaries tried to control Bitcoin by forming a cartel; it did not succeed only because if that happened, everybody including the cartel would lose their money.
So, here we are: the picture is hazy; what we see beyond the haze could be a rose or burning coal. My job is to put things under the lens, make you gaze at the haze, and move out of the way. So, bye, till we meet again!
PS: There is social media confusion relating to the term Web 3.0. Let me try to clear that.
It looks logical that after Web 1.0 and Web 2.0, the next generation of World Wide Web should be called Web 3.0. However, a number of technologists reserve this term for the semantic web. They call the decentralization of the World Wide Web, particularly the social media, as Web3. Let us go by the common logic, and call the next generation of World Wide Web as Web 3.0, which includes all new significant developments that lead to a generational change.
- The Manual of Social Media [disclosure: This book is written by the columnist.]
- W3C Semantic Web
- Web 3.0 Is Being Hyped To The Skies But Where Are All The Patents?
*Manoj Pandey is a former civil servant. He does not like to call himself a rationalist, but insists on scrutiny of apparent myths as well as what are supposed to be immutable scientific facts. He maintains a personal blog, Th_ink
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal opinion of the author and do not reflect the views of raagdelhi.com which does not assume any responsibility for the same.