The Future Medium
by Joseph P. Firmage
May 31, 2005, Updated May 17, 2006
I remember the first time I began to realize the implications of the World Wide Web. It was 1994, and I was working as Vice President of Strategy for Novell's Network Systems Group. I was part of the team creating the next-generation of NetWare, and at that time, NetWare was the software that connected 80% of personal computers together on local area networks. Novell had recently acquired the rights to the operating system which – then and now – powers most of the Internet. We had just begun engineering a merger of the core of UNIX and the capabilities of NetWare into a new server operating system – a platform designed to lead the industry for a decade or more to come.
But that was my day job. The browser I saw some afternoon in 1994 was a skunkworks project called "Ferret". To my recollection, Ferret was essentially a clone of Mosaic, the predecessor of Netscape. But those facts were footnotes to the fire in my imagination. Those of us huddled around the screen glimpsed a new medium in the making, where anyone, anywhere, anytime could reach out to anyone, anywhere, anytime. It was a medium that could give every document an egalitarian press, where every idea could soar or sink on merit. It was a medium that could break through taboo boundaries and open hardened borders.
A year later, helped out by Novell's catastrophic decision to abandon the Internet-capable UNIX as the core of its next-generation NetWare, I was busy founding USWeb with other ex-pats from Novell. We were working to build the world's largest Internet consulting company, and by the end of 1998, we achieved that goal, working for more than half the Fortune 100. But earlier in 1996, I had come to realize more fully the dimensions and possibilities of the Web. It was clear that it held the potential to transform virtually every kind of software application from an isolated process that runs on one computer to a distributed process that runs on millions of computers. It was clear that the Internet would one day carry telephone calls, transforming telecommunications both economically and socially. It became clear that the Internet would even replace radio and television broadcasting, radically expanding the "channel spectrum" for news and entertainment, eventually giving anyone with a keyboard, microphone, or video camera their very own broadcasting station.
As one of the most avid users of the Web back then, I also had the opportunity to explore our world in ways, and at a speed, never before possible. I became far more aware of the challenges society will face in the 21st century: economic inequity, systemic underemployment, rising fundamentalism, devastating terrorism, pollution and disease, incurable poverty, energy exhaustion, environmental decay... social collapse.
The growing awareness of the seriousness of these global problems began to weigh on my mind severely, particularly at a time when so many people were investing – and making – so much money in such vacuous enterprises. Particularly because I could see the opportunities to employ the Internet for its higher purpose: intellectual development, economic enlightenment, environmental stewardship, technological and social transformation... human liberation.
It became clear to me that the resolution of every major crisis faced by humanity depends upon a new kind of information medium dedicated to serve those goals.
So in 1998, sparked by some unique experiences, I decided to change my course in life. Since then, I have held in mind the vision of a future Web, and what it may offer to us all. So let us go there, to 2010, just a few years from now, and imagine what might be...
The Internet is rapidly merging into the fabric of our lives. It is connecting not just our PCs together, but increasingly our cell phones, PDAs, televisions, telephones, radios, automobiles and home appliances. The Internet is a new mind of human society, with electronic neurons proliferating by the hundreds of millions each year.
In 2010, first-grade school children will see a visual history of the Internet and Web. They will see the Internet mapped around the planet, as viewed from space, animated over the past 50 years. They will witness a first spark of light between a handful of locations in the 1960s. Then a slowly growing network of luminant connections appear over the next 20 years of history. In the early nineties, the Web flashes onto the scene, and a dazzling light show explodes around the planet over the next 12 years, as humanity's collective mind awakens.
The children of 2010 will be taught to appreciate how humbling – perhaps even sacred – this newfound power truly is. For after five billion years of evolution of life on Earth, its most intelligent beings have achieved the ability to place access to the sum total of their recorded experience – and a universal communicator – into the palms of their children, through devices that will speak and understand spoken languages.
How often does that happen in the history books of a galaxy?
There will be no place where there is no access. The real-time and recorded happenings of humanity will be no further from you than the screens in every pocket, home, vehicle and street station, no further from you than the closest microphone to pick up your voice.
With Universal Navigation
The emergence of millions of new channels of information available anytime, anywhere has dramatically transformed the "information envelope" surrounding the connected human being. Along with the ability to access the world's information has come a near-deafening, blinding "information noise" – much, perhaps most of which is merely pollution. The explosion of information sources has not been matched by equally powerful means to filter, organize and navigate the online universe, so people have increasing difficulty obtaining high-quality, trustworthy information and services.
By 2010, however, that gap will be closed by a new high-quality Web, the "Future Medium" we glimpsed long ago. The Future Medium will have a "Universal Navigator" dashboard, attached to a side of your browser, mapping dazzling, human-edited portals to the best of the Web.
Unlike robotic search engines, which will continue to serve well as indexes to the billions of documents in the book of the Web, the Universal Navigator will be its table of contents, designed and maintained by thousands of experts, providing you a trustworthy, free directory to the best the Web has to offer.
This table of contents will be organized not by alphabetic listings, not by AOL-like advertising-driven storefronts to everything Wall Street wants you to buy, and not by Yahoo-like pages dense with a cacophony of links similarly selected for profitability.
Instead, the Universal Navigator will provide the way to jump through a "digital replica of Nature" – a map to everything we know, organized just as Nature, our world and society are organized. Without even clicking your mouse, you will simply move your cursor, touch the screen, or speak the name of the place you'd like to go or person you'd like to see, and the Universal Navigator will take you to a portal that presents the very best of the Web – a world-class gateway to that place or domain or person.
What will these portals be like?
To Infinite Destinations
In 2010, the Earth Portal will let you fly over an accurate, photorealistic virtual Earth to explore the contours of the Grand Canyon, swim with the fish of the Great Barrier Reef and soar through the canopy with the birds of the Amazon Rainforest.
Through the Health Portal you will fly through the human body to learn how your heart works, to the brain to explore the infrastructure of a memory, and to the eye to see how we see, with the Web's best links available at each stop in your voyage.
Imagine piloting your browser through millions of stars in our Milky Way galaxy – accurately placed – and learning, reading books, watching television programs, playing dazzling games, and talking in real time with others around the world who share your passion, regardless of language. Imagine building your own world in orbit of Alpha Centauri, and flying off to see worlds imagineered by others.
Imagine that this multimedia Future Medium – from stars to Earth to humans and everything in between – employs an intelligent "edge-caching" technology that enables Xbox-class experiences like these to be fully, rapidly accessible via the Internet on dial-up, DSL, cable and wireless connections. So the Future Medium can be used as far and as wide as humanly possible, even from wireless connections in schools in dusty towns of Africa.
Where Extortion Comes Last
By 2010, we will realize the poverty of quality on the Web of 2006. We will realize the overwhelming dominance of millions of marketing strategies and tactics that smothered the early Web, designed with one single objective in mind: to get you to part with money, the more and faster the better.
In this sense, we will be coming to grips with the larger point about the intersection of capitalism and media: any medium sustained only by advertising or sponsorships ultimately will fail to serve the educational, journalistic and scientific needs of society. By 2010, we will be living the consequences of having failed to realize this truth decades before, as global environmental, social and economic crisis flare around us, crises that could have been addressed long before, had society's media been loyal to relevance and truth over popularity.
In this context, the Future Medium will be valued as an antidote to the impoverished media of yesteryear. It will have been created, maintained and funded in ways different from the portals of 2006. There will be no advertising of any kind in the primary "hub" or "directory" portals in the Future Medium, only on surrounding pages created by people who do not wish to subscribe, and thus not directly pay, for the service. No annoying pop-ups. No kitschy banners. There will be no attempt to sell your attention to others, or to rank destinations by their ability to buy it.
The Future Medium – and all of the organizations who help build and maintain it – will instead be supported by subscribers who value it, people who want to receive the most trustworthy information services on the Web, people who want a secure, private email account for life with protection from spam and spyware, people who would like their monthly online services subscription to help support organizations they care about. Advertising will only appear on the personal pages created by those who don't wish to pay for an ad-free experience, and even then, all revenues will be spread around the ecosystem to support all those involved.
Indeed, the Future Medium will be supported by people who want to democratize the use of the money they pay for online content services, to fund tens of thousands of high quality content producers and open source programmers, rather than fattening the thick wallets of a few giants owned by Wall Street.
Where Reality Comes First
Instead of the commercial wasteland of the Web of '06, the Future Medium will offer every human being a connection to the brightest, most creative, most interesting minds alive, explorable through a navigation system intrinsically designed to rank different pieces of information by their relative quality and importance.
Who defines quality and importance? The Future Medium will be built and maintained by a collaboration between netizens everywhere – through open source code and open content tools built in – and scientists from universities, research organizations and non-profits around the world. These expert "stewards" will design, edit and ensure quality control of portals whose contents come from both experts and the public.
The overriding commitment of everyone who contributes to the Future Medium is to ensure that the digital replica of Nature remains true to, and serves, Nature. To come as close as possible to achieving that outrageously idealistic goal, stewards and contributors pledge respect for scientific truth, holistic perspective, and humane ethics.
A Next-Generation Medium, For Next-Generation Minds
In 2010, the Future Medium will be fulfilling the role of the public broadcasting system of the Internet, a genuinely new, powerful medium built by and for the public, owned and governed by civil society, financially supporting those who get involved.
Impossible to achieve? Sound too good to be true?
After many years and millions of dollars of research and development, the Future Medium will begin to emerge in 2008. It is called the Digital Universe, powered by a Public Internet Media Service called ManyOne.