How the Digital Revolution changed the world

Christopher Sewerd From our Perspective

In the last 20 years the world has changed beyond recognition and much of that change has happened in the latter half of the last two decades. The internet and the uptake in mobile technology has changed our lives to such an extent that the way we exist as a civilization has almost completely altered with very little point in history for comparison.

 

Industrial Revolution v Digital Revolution

 

M-PESAWhile the industrial revolution is held in high esteem as one of the pivotal moments of civilization change, it was mostly concentrated to its birth place of Great Britain and the spread to Western Europe and the United States.

The internet and mobile revolution can be seen as bigger than the industrial revolution and while the latter could not exist without the former, the internet revolution has arguably had a faster and wider spread than any other revolution previously.

Nowhere is this more evident than Africa and other remote regions around the world. While living standards in certain areas of Africa have changed very little in hundreds of years, the introduction of technology and internet enabled devices are penetrating every sector of society. Products such as M-PESA that allow easy mobile money transfer and M-Farm allowing remote farmers to gain current market prices for their crops have changed the way African business is conducted.

 

The Internet Has Arrived

 

Over the last 15 years the internet has surreptitiously encroached on our lives at an unprecedented pace. Yesterday’s revolutions played out over generations. Today’s revolutions require years. Tomorrow’s revolutions may happen over a weekend and it’s all thanks to the internet.

Every facet of life has been influenced by the digital revolution, from our social lives to our entertainment and from our working world to our health. There are very few services and aspects of our life that cannot be controlled online from the comfort of our own homes on a desktop computer, tablet or even mobile phone.

Before the digital revolution there were companies and institutes that have been around for many years, small businesses have always existed such as local shops or local book stores however for major industry there have always been big players, big names that the little guy would never be able to take on. The banking industry for example, many of the banks in operation have been around since Victorian times and some even before. This was a time when any idea was a new idea and in a world where money dictated your social standing, certain companies and organisations flourished and continued to flourish until the digital revolution arrived.

The digital revolution opened the doors to the common man, removing the shackles of bureaucracy somewhat and allowing a direct route to success to be carved. This ability came, but not without some old world money issues beforehand.

 

The Establishment

 

Dot com bubbleThe late 90’s and early 2000’s saw the now infamous dot com bubble which in a fury of investment lead to many companies getting big, to going out of business and losing millions if not billions of dollars.

At a time when everything was fresh and the internet was starting to take off, many of the old world corporations began heavily investing in everything and anything, it was said at the time that just by adding “.com” or “e-” to your company name would invite share prices to rise and cause investors to take note.

Sadly this culminated with the bursting of the bubble and the end of the gold rush. With this burst it brought about a shift in the way that internet companies start up.

 

The American Way

 

After the dot com bubble burst the way in which internet companies started, changed. No longer were huge wads of money thrown at any and every project and less was wasted on advertising and gimmicks previously riding high on the internet craze.

From this point on the world changed and the common man finally had the opportunity to embrace that change. If the internet has done one positive thing it is to open up an online world of opportunity, opportunity for each and every individual with a connection and an idea. Gone are the days of social standing based on money alone and a system that represses individuals if they don’t hark from the right social circles, the internet revolutionised freedom to succeed and partly in thanks to the American dream.

In the old world of the United Kingdom and Europe, centuries of stature, standing and blood lines have dictated the standing of every citizen with very little social mobility. There was never any possibility to rise above your station. The United States has a slightly different ethos to this older world and it is one that the internet revolution can ultimately thank.

The American dream enables individuals to strive to succeed, failure is not seen as a stopping point, but a chance to dust yourself down, get up and try again. When an internet startup failed in the US, within months the “failure” would be working again on something new, bigger and better than before and such failure would be seen as a learning experience, a notch of on the post of ideas that didn’t work reaching skyward towards one that will.

It is this ethos that has slowly spread across the globe with the digital revolution and changed perceptions about failure. No longer in my home nation (the United Kingdom) is a failure time to pack up and go home, but a chance to follow that American way and start again, create something better and continue on the path to success.

 

Who Did What, Where And When

 

Many of the biggest websites today started from individuals or small groups of individuals working from home, in a bedroom, a college dorm or on the move while commuting to work. No longer is a smart office needed or mass investment from venture capitalists.

Facebook is the biggest and likely most well known social networking website on the internet today. Started in a simple dorm room at Harvard University by Mark Zuckerberg it has grown in a short space of time to be the second most visited website in the world.
Google, the search engine of choice that now boasts their own browser, mobile operating system, laptop and more started off as a small project in a garage in California, United States. It has grown to become a household name that even has an entry in the Oxford English dictionary as a way to “Search for information about (someone or something)
Bebo, at one point the third largest social networking site in the world, started by a husband and wife team in their home. The site was launched in 2005 and just 3 years later sold for a massive US$850 million. The story turned sour for AOL who purchased the site and the founders ended up buying the site back 5 years later for a paltry US$1 million.

While the US has undoubtedly provided many of the websites that we take for granted these days there are also a huge host of other countries who have developed globally successful sites from bedrooms, homes and small offices.

The digital revolution is often criticised for killing small brick and mortar businesses. The case of Amazon which within a short time frame went from practically nothing to the biggest online book selling business the world has ever seen. It has since progressed to a massive online site where nearly any product is possible to purchase. The downside of this is small independent book stores placed the blame of their failure on sites such as Amazon.

So while the digital revolution has created many jobs, it has also taken some in the process. In my current and previous work related ventures I have contacts from all over the world from the US to Europe and from India to Russia, each and every individual in this network of associates works in some way with the internet and without it, where would each of these individuals, businesses or even myself be? Without the internet, what would we be doing? The internet has enabled users worldwide to take an idea and make it a business with little more than a basic computer and internet access.

 

The Negatives

 

For all the growth, entrepreneurial development and opportunity the internet has offered individuals, there is a negative side, not necessarily from the internet itself, although there are plenty of negatives such as crime, scams and paedophilia.

These negatives come from the old world and big corporations, businesses who at one point have started off small somewhere down the line themselves, either in the early days of the developing world or when the internet and tech companies first arrived. Such companies who for no other reason but to protect their own profit share are prepared to stifle innovation and restrict the ability for individuals to muscle in on their well oiled money making machine.

Large corporations have held a monopoly on many industries for years, a position with which they exude great influence and power and ultimately are rewarded with great profit. This is a position that many corporations work hard to hold on to and for this very reason is why they have a vested interest to kill innovation before it has a chance to develop in to competition.

The most recent example of this is the Net Neutrality debacle facing the United States that would have a knock on effect worldwide. A group of greedy corporations who wish to extract extra funds from a system that was never intended to be split in to “those that can pay” and “those that can’t”. The implications of net neutrality being damaged, at the very least would mean less innovation. The majority of tech companies who are huge today would never have been able to grow had net neutrality not existed, this is in essence the biggest threat to online innovation that the digital revolution has ever experienced.

MegaUpload FBIThere are countless other stories of innovation being censored such as MegaUpload which although was a basic storage system found itself closed by the US government after added pressure no doubt from the entertainment industry.

When new technologies emerge it goes without saying that there will always be a criminal element who make use of them. In the case of MegaUpload it was a totally legitimate service that was somewhat used for storing illegitimate files. Could this of been prevented by better communications between the interested industries and MegaUpload themselves, or was it a case of stifle any innovation which threatened the traditional models as quickly as possible?

It goes without saying that the recent P2P movie app phenomenon that is Popcorn Time is one of the biggest game changers in terms of quality movie distribution. While wholly illegal in most countries the opportunity to turn such a service in to a monetized system could potentially change how online entertainment is streamed around the world. The chances of this happening however are zero and the old model distribution which is out of touch with the modern consumer will continue to prevail as the status quo is maintained.

 

The Past And The Future

 

Printing pressThe printing press was a revolution in book and scripture production which allowed the mass spread and production of printed books, before it the availability of books to the public was extremely limited.

Centuries later public libraries became widespread throughout the 1800’s in the United States and United Kingdom as well as elsewhere in the world, these before the internet would be the reference point for any individual from any background to gain information and further themselves.

Up until the advent of the internet, the cheap availability of books, such as their tax free status in the United Kingdom plus the ability to borrow books freely from public libraries broadened the intellect of anyone who chose to reference books for learning.

The internet is the library of the modern age with a wealth of information available on all topics. While there are some sinister sides to the internet, the ability to learn about any topic for newer generations has greatly improved the ability for overall knowledge to increase. No longer are children pigeon holed in to set areas but with a free and open internet they have the ability at their fingertips and within the click of a mouse to research anything that holds their interest. This isn’t just restricted to the western or first world, this is available on a global scale.

It is for this reason alone that the purity of the internet must be upheld and why there are so many organisations, protests and pressure groups regularly keeping the flow of information free and the internet safe in its purest form. The digital revolution has moulded the internet into a service that would be considered beyond the wildest dreams of the inventors of the systems and protocols that make up its core. The magic of that system should be kept alive not just for our own generation but the generations to come who can benefit from such a magnificent invention.

Countries such as China and Iran heavily restrict internet access. Certain Arab countries scour the usage of their users to detect homosexual use and punish those it detects. Even our own countries are spying on our own citizens, or each other’s and exchanging that information. The internet is under attack even for those of us who live in the free world and even more so for those that live under repressive regimes, this is a darker side to the internet, a use by government that was never intended to exist.

A restricted internet is the equivalent of a library only for the rich or schools only for those with a certain social standing. It is imperative that we continue to strive to keep innovation flowing and entrepreneurism alive.

Without a free internet and those who campaign tirelessly to ensure it stays free, we will be turned back in time to a Victorian era and become second class citizens in a world controlled by the rich, a world in which we will be locked in place, never having the ability to move forward or having the chance of social mobility.

Image courtesy of jannoon028 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net