Living in the wired world

[As ever, you can read a slightly shorter version of this on the BBC News website]

Anyone who has been online for some years, as I have been, should have felt remarkably smug this year as the Internet and all of its associated technologies, services, protocols and applications went mainstream.
The change was clear in the media, where stories about Web 2.0 startups, Google’s machinations, the imminent consumer launch of Vista and the importance of Wikipedia made the main news pages of the papers, featured in magazines and were covered extensively on radio and television.
Instead of being consigned to the cul-de-sac of the technology supplement or programme, or covered grudgingly as business news, these stories were part of the news agenda, to be covered along with crime, scandal, politics and heartwarming stories of everday people.
And the coverage itself was not just about the money being made, as it was the last time network matters dominated the news agenda, just before the dotcom crash in 2000, but about the technologies, the social networks and the impact on all aspects of our daily life.
Yet despite the interest, and even though the numbers of people online in the developed world continued to grow rapidly, the actual technologies themselves were not that innovative or exciting.
Networks got faster, processors speeded up in line with Moore’s law, and a significant number of people now have a terabyte – a thousand gigabytes – of storage capacity in their homes.
We spent more time online, and did more online, but the sorts of things we are doing were not really that different from what was on offer in 2005, or even 2004. Email, photos, file sharing, online communities and even virtual worlds are nothing new.
Of course this is not surprising. There is little truly innovative in computing and even the Web itself was little more than an effective way to do hypertext, reinventing something that had been around for at least twenty years before Tim Berners-Lee picked it up.
I’ve got a degree in computing, and the fundamentals of computer science haven’t changed at all since I was at university so I rarely find it hard to understand the technical aspects of new products of services.
But as I get older I increasingly find myself looking at some new development and, instead of gazing in wonder, wondering ‘what is the point of that’?
Although I’ve been a member of online communities of various sorts since I first started reading internet newsgroups while working for Acorn Computers back in 1986, I found it hard to get excited about the new generation of social network sites like MySpace, and I couldn’t see the point of Digg or Delicious until I’d been using them for months.
And I’m only just getting to see that the quality of interaction possible in Second Life is better than IM or even video calling can offer, although I know I’m far behind the curve here, and think it’s because I didn’t spend enough time gaming.
The real innovation this year has been in the ways we use the technologies, in their availability and ease of use, and in the manner in which the services and applications are embedded in all aspects of daily life, whether at home or work.
We are building our lives around the network and the things it makes possible, and 2006 marks the year in which this became a sensible and indeed rather normal thing to do rather than something that marked you out as a geek or a leading edge afficionado of the new.
In the next year we’re going to see smartphones and mobile access finally come into their own, as the devices live up to the earlier promise and the networks finally realise that treating handsets as network nodes makes a lot more sense than acting like they are mobile phones with added data services.
The single coolest thing I saw last year was a demonstration of Slingbox on a Symbian smartphone, watching a TV signal from California, sent over the internet and controlled from the handset.

However that was just a clever bit of integration, however disruptive it will prove to be to the television industry.
In the longer term, when we can put 2006 in a broader perspective, there will be one project that stands out above all others.
It will not be Second Life, which will soon be a historical footnote in the development of virtual environments. Nor will MySpace or Flickr or Wikipedia appear as anything other than small steps on the path to the networked world, however large they may seem to us today.
The really significant change this year was the successful development of the Children’s Machine, which started life as the ‘$100 laptop’, a project to create a low-cost computer that governments can give to children around the world.
I saw the prototype at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia in November 2005, and in less than a year the One Laptop per Child team behind the project have managed to solve the major design challenges and reach the point where physical computers are being manufactured in China. These are only test machines, and more work is needed, but the plan is to start full production in spring 2007.
This is an astonishing achievement, and a lot of the credit has to go to OLPC’s chief technology officer, Mary Lou Jepsen, who has pushed through innovations in the screen design, energy consumption and user interface to give us a computer that will transform the relationship of the world’s poorest children to the networked economy that is currently owned and controlled by the rich nations and their affluent citizens.
The project is often criticised by those who worry about diverting resources into laptops and away from other development goals, or who fear that the computers are not a good educational tool, or that corrupt governments or greedy parents will keep the machines away from the kids.
These fears are valid, and we need to do everything possible to make sure that they are not realised, but they should not detract from the majestic vision which drives the project.
If we can succeed in getting wireless laptops into the hands of hundreds of millions of children outside the developed world then we will have bridged the digital divide and opened up the network to the poor, the disadvantaged and the exploited. They will want things from it that we cannot yet imagine, and they will finally be in a position to shape the world for themselves instead of relying on what we are willing to offer them.
That, surely, is worth taking risks for?
Bill’s Links
Diploma in Computer Science:
One Laptop per Child:
One Laptop news: