The first memory I have of using the Internet is really also the first memory of myself using a computer at home. The first time I used the Internet, I was around five, and I Googled a question (surprise!). And I still remember everything vividly. I used the Internet to search for the answer to what was an existential question at the time – finding the tallest dinosaur in the world – and I still remember being amazed by the fact that the mysterious light-box of a machine gave me an answer (or, more likely, a string of blue, underlined texts to answers) to a burning question. But since the string-of-blue-links, Facebook-with-a-million-users age of the web, the Internet's really grown and matured into something whose level of complexity and humanness delivers everything from heartbreaking, lifesaving stories to university-quality education to hours and hours of entertainment on demand. It's granted every individual with an Internet connection the practical equivalent of the informational power of a small, pre-Internet university or research facility. It's democratized knowledge, and that completely changed the very meaning of being human today.
But we all knew that; I talk about the transformative power of Internet's democratization all the time. Now here's the punchline. What if I submit to you that nearby, perhaps even on your street – maybe even in your hands – is the next Internet? What if I made a case that what seems like a single-purpose, low-power tool today could blow minds and become the next democratizing, transformative idea – the Internet 2.0? That would be an upgrade. And here's how it goes.
Drones. The word probably brings several different things to mind, and while some of you might be thinking about one kind of a drone – a military tool and technology frequently linked with the current administration of the US government – that's not exactly the kind of drones I'm concerned about. I'm more interested in the commercial technology – drones used to film aerial footage, lead and supervise construction, and automate thousands of other tasks from the air. Yes, they're technically technologies of the same breed, but it's also the difference between an unsuspecting iPhone and the NSA's surveillance computers. Today, we're just going to stick to the “iPhone” side of the drone technology, and how it just may change your life, twenty years down the road.
Unless you're a professional filmmaker, a high-tech farmer, or a truly hardcore aerial vehicles enthusiast, you probably don't own a drone. They're mainly tools for the professionals, with pro-class price tags, anywhere from a grand to tens of thousands of dollars. And there's the first similarity between the Internet and drone technology. The roots of the Internet had nothing to do with wireless networking, sharing photos and videos online, or even E-mails. (I mean, “online” wasn't even a word. Shocking, right?) The first few incarnations of the “Internet” was simply a way for scientific research facilities around the world to share information and documents more easily by creating a standardized way for computers to communicate with each other.* In essence, an insanely high-end, expensive, and very limited-use-case tool for hardcore professionals. Is it just me, or is there a striking similarity developing?
The commonalities don't end there. The Internet was met with government and international regulations on use and permits as the public reception grew, and from the looks of it, we're right in the center of that stage of the technology as we speak. Amazon's developing drones for delivery, filmmakers are using them to capture footage, and journalists use them for reporting from new angles. And throughout that technological landscape, governments both here in the US and around the world are working to establish a common ground set of regulations for drone usage to allow free and innovative uses within a safe environment – the same way the Internet's usage is free, but regulated for security and integrity. And thirdly, drone technology is slowly being distributed down to comsumer levels, and the pace is increasing rapidly. Unlike many technologies that remain in the privileged hands of the few in the tech sector, drone tech is coming down to the technological bottom of the funnel, the consumers. And that means as the technology develops, the potential for impact and creativity increases dramatically, the same way the Internet reached its impact.
But there is one glaring difference between the Internet and drones, and it's the difference that'll put drones over the top when the technology finally comes of age. The Internet operates within the walls of the “virtual”. Yes, it has undubitably profound and significant real-world impacts, but fundamentally, the Internet is a string of ones and zeroes traveling across copper wires and fiber-optic cables, moving around other pieces of information in ones and zeroes. In stark contrast, drones are physical, tangible things, capable of moving other physical, tangible things around. So while the Internet transformed the distribution of data and information, drones’ potential is far greater – delivering and distributing physical goods, and doing so in the revolutionary way of the Internet's disruption.
In short, I think drones may just be the next great democratizing technology to reach the same level of impact and real-world significance as the Internet. Not to downplay what the Internet has made possible, but if the possibility of easily and freely distributing information can do so much to change the world, imagine what could be if we take some of that distributive and disruptive power to the meatspace – that's the potential of drones. As I jokingly jot down in the rough draft of this post, when drones’ distribution finally reach the Internet's extent, it's going to be a party.
Even after all this talk, it's reasonable that you remain unconvinced. You might not think much of the drones today – maybe they don't quite have the support to really do what they might be capable of. Who knows? But as just a friendly reminder, when the first versions of the Internet came up, it was literally just a few nerds in research labs connecting wires between computers to exchange files. And, well, I don't have to tell you too much about where that went.
The beauty of the future is precisely in the fact that we can't predict it, and in that might just lie the future of democratizing technology – the Internet 2.0.
* I talked more about the first Internet in Evolution of Communication.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, The Facebook birthday effect.
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