a brief response re: web squared

Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle recently proposed the term “Web Squared” to describe the next phase of the web, where “web meets world” in a melange of collective intelligence, data utilities, pervasive sensing, real time feedback, visualization, emergent semantic structure, and information infusing the physical world. For what it’s worth, I quite like it. We needed a new handle for the remarkable confluence of technologies we are experiencing, and I think Web Squared nicely captures the exponential expansion of possibilities while reaffirming that the web is the only plausible distributed systems infrastructure to build the new world on.

I was also intrigued by the authors’ conclusion, which moves the discussion beyond the realm of technology and into “the stuff that matters”:

All of this is in many ways a preamble to what may be the most important part of the Web Squared opportunity. The new direction for the Web, its collision course with the physical world, opens enormous new possibilities for business, and enormous new possibilities to make a difference on the world’s most pressing problems.

As a techno-optimist by nature, I’m pretty susceptible to visions of enormous new possibilities. I’ve even generated a few of those lovely consensual hallucinations myself, and they can be very exciting to be in the middle of. And it’s almost certainly true – the potential implications are huge. However, I think we also need to examine this vision more critically as part of the ongoing discussion, for example giving serious attention to Adam Greenfield’s design principles for Everyware, and to John Thackara’s concerns when he writes:

Connected environments…and the Internet of Things as a whole, are not a step forwards if they guzzle matter and energy as profligately as the internet of emails does

and echoes Patricia de Martelaere’s caution against

“wasting our lives by continuously watching images of world-processes, or processes of our own body, and desperately trying to interfere – like a man chasing his own shadow.”

After all, in the era of Web Squared we are not just creating new business opportunities; we are talking about cyberspace seeping out of the very fabric of reality. I’m thinking that we don’t want to screw that up.

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