The internet has to be the biggest disappointment of our lifetime

I know, that’s an ironic statement from a guy who writes a blog, has a couple of web sites and makes his living developing web applications, but just hear me out.

The other day I saw a young lady crossing the street, nervously carrying a big birthday cake. I’ve always envied waiters who effortlessly carry 7 plates, I’m kind of a klutz, I probably would’ve been nervous carrying a big cake like that as well. However, despite her obvious nervousness this young lady was carrying the cake with just her left hand and part of her right forearm, wedged firmly in her right hand was her smartphone.

Crossing the street in any major Peruvian city is dangerous even for a careful, healthy adult but there she was, in the middle of the street, eyes fixed on her phone, cake wobbling on her hand, her mind blissfully lost in a virtual world.

This had me thinking about the promise the internet once held. The median age in Peru is about 26, many Peruvians don’t remember a world before the internet and few know much about the first internet stock boom of the 1990s, the days of Henry Blodget’s infamous $400 Amazon.com target. There were so many lofty promises in those days, the internet was about to change the world. For sure the internet has changed the world but the noble promise academics and business leaders envisioned back then is nowhere to be found today.

There would be no more hunger

The thinking was, if we are able to freely share enough information about crop status, weather patterns, warehouse inventories, market prices, household incomes and the like we could solve world hunger. If the internet allowed us to see or predict where there is food and and where there is hunger, with that information we could take measures so there would be no more hunger.

According to the World Food Program about 1 out of every 9 people goes hungry in the world today.

Democracies would flourish

The internet would enable free and open discussion. No longer would voters have to rely on media or other intermediaries to know a candidate’s thoughts or track record. Constituents would be able to share their experiences and views of elected officials. With so much information available to everyone in real time, voters would know candidates better than ever. We would elect our representatives based on merit, experience and vision.

It’s hard to find an objective measure of this, you could argue that today’s populist sentiment shows this is happening but I would counter that when more than $1 Billion flows into a single US election cycle, we are far removed from the promise of democracies based on open sharing of information.

We would be able to solve the most complex problems

In the old days of the original Napster, you could often see or hear your computer “wake up” to share a file over the P2P network. This was an easy way to visualize all the dormant computing power sitting around homes worldwide. The thinking was, if Napster could access idle computers around the world, surely major computer companies would similarly be able to apply all this unused computing power to solve some of the world’s most complex problems in fields such as genetics, cancer research, environmental research, etc.

Instead, cancer rates are up, Greenhouse Gas emissions are up and we still can’t accurately predict earthquakes.

Everyone would get their fair share

The internet was supposed to be the great equalizer. If you needed a new job, surely the internet could match your skills with the right opening. Online education, work from home, the internet was supposed to open up opportunities everywhere. If anybody could sell their products or services over the internet, big corporations would no longer rule the world. Outsourcing meant small businesses didn’t need big factories or warehouses, just a great idea for a product or service and a web site.

While the internet has certainly changed the economic landscape, income inequality has become a defining issue of our time, in the industrialized world the middle class is shrinking and the global middle class is still only a promise. As for the internet itself, while there are perhaps billions of web pages by now, the internet is dominated by a few large, mostly US based, multi-nationals.

There would be no more wars

If information about governance around the world was openly available and citizens could express their concerns to any audience worldwide, there would be no more wars. All of the pretenses that were ever used to compel people to go to war would be easily debunked before any war ever started. The internet would reveal any threat of conflict and global powers would be able to act accordingly to prevent any wars.

Instead, perpetual overseas war has become the new normal in the industrialized world, accepted even by so called progressives.

You might say these are all highfalutin ideas that won’t ever come true but even on a smaller scale, you wonder where all the promise of the internet has gone? For example, my own developers and I could easily make a geocoded database of all traffic fatalities in Peru and local infrastructure engineers could take corrective measures to reduce traffic fatalities. We could build the database and deploy the application to every police station, insurance agency and transportation department in the country within 12 months. You could probably reduce traffic fatalities by 50% in 10 years but it won’t happen. There’s no will to do it.