A few events have got me thinking about the direction of the Web over the next twenty years or so. The first was a conversation I had with Matthew Buckland about whether Facebook, or something like it, would become a type of operating system in the future, and the second was Google’s announcement of OpenSocial – Mark Andreesen has a great post about it and how Ning and other social networks will use it.

Being away from the office I had what seemed like a moment of clarity that I am going to try translate into some predictive anthropology here. I think that there will be another three distinct phases to the trajectory of the Web between now and 2030, to which I have given those irritating version numbers just for the sake of consistency.

The future of the Web

Web 1.0
We all know about this, it was the Web of Documents , a massive global network of human–readable but unstructured data accessible through the browser.

Web 2.0
This phase, as far as I am concerned, is a transitional phase marked by the beginning of the Web of Applications but buoyed by premature hype in anticipation of something not yet realised — a Web of functional applications. The reason I say premature is simply a recognition of the one critical and missing element, a medium through which to “surf” applications on a meta level. This is why the discussion about Facebook as an operating system is relevant.

Web 3.0
Though some, including me, have predicted this will be the Semantic Web, it will turn out to be the period in which we see the rise of application aggregators – Facebook, OpenSocial and other applications that don’t exist yet that will act as application indexes and repositories. During this phase elements of the Semantic Web will begin to go mainstream and the latter quarter will be suffused with talk of the coming phase — the Web of Information.

Web 4.0
This phase will be the Semantic Web proper, where the underlying building blocks of the Web will shift from largely privately held data and proprietary semantic relations to publicly held data and public semantic relations. Aggregation agents will act as proxies for users but the conversion of this information to knowledge will still largely be the responsibility of the user. As an example, browsers and applications will be able to discern the meaning of individual units of information but not process them collectively within context.

Web 5.0
In this phase applications will use algorithmic intelligence as their building blocks and do the conversion from information to knowledge before presentation to the user. These applications will be able to string complex units of information together and relate them to the user’s context. This is the dream of automatic vacation bookings where everything happens as if by magic based on the psychographic profile of the user.

As I mentioned, each phase will end significantly after the hype begins for the phase to follow. This is closely tied to the culture of “always moving west” and technological progress imbued within Silicon Valley culture and modernism as a social descriptor. As post–modernism takes hold, this hype will become less and less meaningful despite the reality of seismic shifts in the technological/cultural firmament. The cultural impact of these changes is impossible to predict but I suspect we will be living in a very different society to the one we live in today, in terms of its deeper underpinnings, even though things may seem fairly similar on the surface.

This post was originally published in on vincentmaher.com


Vincent Maher

Vincent Maher

Vincent Maher was the Mail & Guardian Online's digital strategist. He has worked in the web industry for 12 years, was the head of the New Media Lab at the Rhodes University School of Journalism and...

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