I was at a swanky dinner party a couple of weeks ago talking to a stranger about the ripple effects of the internet. By swanky, I mean someone else was paying for the tacos I was eating, which in my world is pretty swanky. I turned to my wife and said, “This is a free dinner.” She replied, “We must be on a date.” Since before we were married, we’ve always tried to get something for free when we go out, which we both think is romantic, so it signifies that we’re on a date. TMI?
My new friend made a fascinating observation. He noted that the codex, the modern book, was first printed in 1450. It was the Gutenberg Bible. We’re still feeling the ripple effects of that invention. In a sense, Amazon is a ripple effect of it, because Amazon initially started out as a bookstore. It became the one that put Borders Books out of business. It looks to be becoming the one that will put Macy’s, Sears, JCPenny, and Kohl’s out of business. Eventually, maybe it will put printed books out of business. But in any case, it’s a manifestation of the effects of an invention that is over 560 years old.
He then pointed to the internet. He said if we think of the chain of dominoes that will be knocked down as a result of the internet, we are only now at the point of the first domino hitting the second one. There will be hundreds of dominoes down the line, effects we haven’t even imagined yet. We should resist the temptation to take for granted that the use of the internet is settled. It’s not just for word processing and for Facebook. So now is the time to think about what it’s really for and what dominoes might fall next.
Malls are going to go out of business. I mean entirely. The anchor stores are being shut down by online shopping. Most other shopping will go too. One day what’s left of shopping malls will be giant food courts. People still like to go out, eat, drink, and stare at other people. That’s where malls are going. The Westfield Santa Anita mall in Arcadia, CA is remarkably successful, and increasing, what it is is a series of restaurants, many of which have bars. In an online world, people need places to be social face-to-face.
Universities are going out of business. I was in Seattle talking to the President of a small university, and I asked him when his school was going online. He said that that was something they just weren’t going to do. I looked quizzical and told him I thought that that was where university education was going. He was notably defensive and told me he didn’t think it would work. I told him about a university down here in Southern California where I thought it was working. Two weeks later I happened to be talking to a Vice President of that Southern California University, and he happened to mention that the President of a little University in Seattle had called him to ask him how to do what they were doing with online education. There will still be university education of course, but 90% of it will be online. Yale uploading classes to Youtube for free is just the tip of the iceberg. All professors of note will be recorded. For a fraction of the cost of their salaries, they will be given royalties on recorded lectures. PhD candidates will be paid to learn to manage tech services and proctor online exams. Education will no longer be concentrated in wealthy nations, because everyone will have access.
Now here’s the big one. Central banking is up for grabs. Bitcoin was invented in 2009. 8 years later, it is trading at over $10,000 per coin. This is an unregulated system of currency in which people trade $USD for online tokens. They can be used to purchase everything from computers to a cold beer at over 100,000 retailers. More importantly, they are an investment that can be bought or sold. And given the vast expansion, it serves as a potential threat to traditional banking. Picture an utter and entire revisioning of economics. Banking as we know it might just be done completely differently in the future. We might have the option to choose between a nationally regulated currency and an international, unregulated currency that connects nations together the way the euro has connected Europe. Think about the implications. The first bank, which, in the midst of economic crisis, chooses to invest in bitcoin instead of depending on the rate set by the Fed will usher in an economic Copernican revolution. I’m not fantasizing. This is probably going to happen.
Now imagine sitting in your living room, each wall a floor-to-ceiling video monitor, with the capacity to talk to anyone in the world about any subject, both of you capable of accessing resources to answer any question either of you might have. The inventors, entrepreneurs, and creatives will no longer face a lack of resources. Any idea can quickly become reality.
It’s going to get bigger than that.
Imagine you can talk for 5 minutes to someone whose family is starving in a small, faraway nation. Wouldn’t you give them money? Online charity will revolutionize world geography. You are no longer constrained to poverty by geographic necessity. Poverty will be roaming, as will wealth.
And that will then create the final impact of the internet. International boundaries will become irrelevant, and countries, governed by power structures and legal systems, will no longer unite people. Think about how people used to be tied together by a geographic neighborhood, and now they have online networks of people who don’t necessarily live nearby. That will turn into international alliances of people governed by social contract committed to a shared belief system irregardless of geography. Right now I can move to France and be a citizen of France if I want to. What if I could change citizenship without leaving my living room?
Call it crazy if you want to. Or be creative and imagine your own future. But what’s most important is to realize that the effects of the internet have only just begun, and it is, if nothing else, a tool for boundary breaking.