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The Internet Beyond the Internet

In its earliest days, the Internet and the Web did not pretend to be the ultimate global information platform for all time. Its raison-d’être was more idiosyncratic and less glorious than that, though it was clearly a remarkable innovation. The bit, the byte, and later the packet made the Internet a reality. Until the world agreed upon these basic concepts, it was not possible to move forward. The extensible, technology-neutral nature of the Internet has allowed it to scale dramatically and gracefully integrate diverse technologies with minimal central administration.

Just like the evolution from ARPANET to the World Wide Web to the mobile Internet, we are on the cusp of another important cycle of innovation. Coined “Web3,” this next wave of Internet innovations brings together multiple technologies including blockchain, AI, NFTs and AR/VR to deliver a truly borderless experience.

This insight is inspired by a recent conversation with Lee Feldman, senior strategist for Microsoft’s venture arm M12, on the growth opportunities investors and technologists should be paying attention to. Listen to it in full here:

Several years ago [1998], we were trying to come up with a new term to describe what others ended up calling machine-to-machine communications and later the Internet of Things. We first decided to characterize this evolutionary stage of the Internet as the “Embedded Internet” and later decided that we should call it the “Pervasive Internet.”

What we were struggling to characterize was the convergence of pervasive or embedded computing with the packet-switching “network of networks” called the Internet. I think we were desperately trying to capture and characterize the profound enormity of the phenomenon: the world on the Internet, the Internet in the world.

The Future of Information

In its earliest days, the Internet (and the Web) did not pretend to be the ultimate global information platform for all time. Its raison-d’être was more idiosyncratic and less glorious than that, though it was clearly a remarkable innovation.

The Internet has continued to evolve connecting billions if not trillions of individuals, organizations, things and data, facilitating what feels like nearly infinite interactions. The  Internet’s innovations are blurring the boundaries of today’s business and social systems and radically changing the way we live, work, learn and innovate. The phenomenon we call the Internet is easily the biggest technical achievement in the history of humanity. Its closest predecessor is the global financial economy—with which, in fact, shares many vital characteristics.

“The Internet” really means the future of information, and that means the future of civilization. It is a remarkably resilient global network that can comfortably scale to trillions of nodes—some of them people, some hardware, some software, some purely data, many of them coming into and out of existence or changing their state constantly. Obviously, such a network cannot be “designed” in any ordinary sense. Certainly, it cannot be designed “top-down.”

And yet, as the Internet has evolved, it has been “designed” in some sense according to a logic uniquely its own — basic design principles that guided the growth and organization of this vast distributed technological organism.

Technology Evolution and Smart Systems

The Decentralization of Everything

As we continue into the third decade of the 21st century, many of our biggest challenges in society and business still originate directly from our inability to creatively collaborate to solve many significant and very threatening cross-border problems (pandemics, climate change, availability of water and food, and many more).

We’ve experienced hundreds of years of volatility around the cycle of centralization and de-centralization of systems, relationships, organizations, institutions and decision making. In recent years, it seems a long wave of centralization has reached its peak in social, industrial, financial, technological and geopolitical spheres. We can now see the influence of centralization and scale in new digital businesses that collect and sell data on behaviors. (Consider how large, powerful, and intractably indivisible businesses like Google and Facebook have become.)

But just as tides shift according to the gravitational pull of the moon, we also are seeing the emergence of a cycle of de-centralization and distribution of resources. Powerful distributed technologies such as IoT, edge computing, blockchain, AI/ML and more are once again demonstrating the power of decentralized systems, relationships and interactions, and potentially setting the stage for a new era of large-scale collaboration and problem solving.

Just as the extensible, technology-neutral nature of the Internet has allowed it to scale so dramatically and gracefully with minimal central administration, we are once again seeing a similar evolution occurring with the Internet that has the potential to enable problem solving at scale for some of our most intractable problems.

The bit, the byte, and later the packet made possible the entire enterprise of digital computing and global networking. Until the world agreed upon these basic concepts, it was not possible to move forward. The next great step for the Internet—completely fluid information and fully distributed interoperating data and information—requires an equally simple, flexible, and universal abstraction schema that will make information itself truly portable in both physical and information space, and among any conceivable information device.

Web3: The Combinatorial Innovations Driving the Internet Beyond the Internet

In his book, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves, Brian Arthur introduced the idea of combinatorial evolution. Very simply, each of our technologies is a system assembled from earlier technologies. For example, the GPS and navigation systems we take for granted in smartphones combine the predecessor technologies of satellites, computing, radio receivers, transmitters and atomic clocks into a new unified and infinitely more valuable technology.

Today, multiple parallel technology developments appear to be increasingly reinforcing and accelerating one another. We are now at the intersection of a whole new generation of diverse innovations including blockchain, NFTs, augmented and virtual reality, digital twins, crypto, AI and more. Web3 promises to revolutionize the way we interact with computers and networks utilizing decentralized architectures, identities and interactions that promise far more than digital art sales. Web3 appears to be setting the stage for full-scale digital economies and some facsimile or variation on what many describe as the Metaverse.

We recently sat down with Lee Feldman, senior strategist for Microsoft’s venture arm M12, to discuss Web3, digital transformation and all its implications for enterprises, investors and technologists.

“If I were to put a single definition on it, I would say Web3 is the next generation of a decentralized internet, which is open source and centered around identity,” explains Lee. “[It is] a culmination of a lot of mature technologies – hardware, graphics cards, networking, compute. You need all these different things to come together. Now with the acceptance of crypto and blockchain and NFTs, you can create economies in the Metaverse. This is an incredible opportunity that really democratizes access to a decentralized economy that’s borderless.”

Listen to the full conversation with Lee Feldman, senior strategist for Microsoft’s venture arm M12, on the growth opportunities investors and technologists should be paying attention to below. ◆

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