I couldn’t quite put it in words, but there was something that nagged me as I re-emerged from two days at LeWeb ’10 in Paris (videos here). A feeling that, as we collectively build the Internet, we’re building a better and better toy for a digital elite, much like the audience in the room. And why not? Even when we innovate outside the online domain, we get excited at brain-wave exploration, solar-powered planes, and iPhone-controlled drones. We’re geeks, we like geeky stuff, and some of us like it so much that we become entrepreneurs and build it.
Then we wash our collective conscience by contributing to a children’s hospital via Facebook Causes, donating to the Homeless World Cup, or funding some third-world entrepreneurs on Kiva.
And yes, the very best of us apply their geek skills to big problems and come up with big solutions that do realistically, in the long run, have a shot at changing the world: I am thinking of Shai Agassi and Better Place. They should be applauded. The rest of us seem to be too busy making money with gaming, or coupons, or whatever the flavor of the day is.
But we still have a digital divide to deal with, it’s in our own backyard, and it’s not getting any smaller. While we live more and more digitally enriched lives each day, our next-door neighbors don’t know how to deal with their Facebook privacy settings, and don’t care. For us, the future of information in a post-WikiLeaks world is a crucial matter of civic engagement worth getting intensely preoccupied with; for the less digitally literate, it’s one more headline among the gossip in the evening newscast. Did we think that the Internet would educate and inspire people, empower the downtrodden, lift millions out of poverty and disease? While we certainly enjoy our digital toys, I’m sorry to say that very little of this has happened. The Internet hasn’t yet made a difference.
And here’s the paradox: as Umberto Eco said in a recent interview, fifty years ago the television educated the poor and entertained the rich. Today, the Internet is educating the rich and entertaining the poor.
I have always believed in the Internet as a force for societal change. But we’re not yet building the Internet we want.