Internet @ 40: The March of Time

How should we advise people who find themselves unemployed while celebrating their 40th birthdays?

An economist might suggest “Advise them to move to North Dakota, the state with the lowest unemployment rate in the nation. And tell them to become data communication analysts, the fastest growing type of job in the state.”

Such advice may be helpful for a jobless communication analyst who lives just over the state border in South Dakota. But a 40 year old unemployed bank teller with a family in Florida, with mortgage debt that exceeds his home’s market value, may find it difficult to follow.

That’s because people tend to settle into fixed habits by their 40th birthdays. Organizations behave that way as well; it’s why old economy organizations like Xerox and Kodak have experienced such difficulties adjusting to the digital age. And entire economic sectors, like the newspaper and airline industries, are similarly struggling for survival.

And don’t look now … another former high growth economic sector has just turned 40! Yes, the internet itself just achieved that milestone of longevity this week.

Industry Life Cycles

Internet industry spokesmen, of course, insist that the medium remains a dynamic industry sector that will continue to transform global society for years to come. But that seldom is true of any 40 year old communication technology; instead, such media usually settle into extended periods of maturity and (eventually) decline.

40 years after Thomas Edison produced the first narrative motion picture The Great Train Robbery in 1903, for instance, national radio networks like CBS and NBC had already overtaken the film industry and had begun producing television programs. And 40 years after the legendary CBS News anchor Edward R. Murrow moved his landmark radio program Hear It Now to television and renamed it See It Now, cable news network CNN overtook CBS with its live onsite coverage of the 1991 Gulf War.

So it would be highly unusual to expect the internet and its World Wide Web to continue to drive  technological progress in global communications as it enters its fifth decade.  In fact, recent events may be signaling that the entire sector may be entering a period of maturity.

Telltale Signs

One sign that the internet (and the hardware that is required to access it) may have jumped the shark is the extent to which fashion and image have supplanted technological progress as a driver of sales revenue. Dell, for instance, is now emphasizing its candy colored designs over its product functionality in its advertising campaigns. And Microsoft’s new Bing search engine has cannily incorporated beautiful background photographs into its web page formats.

Another indicator is the manner in which technology firms are opting to cannibalize each other’s innovations instead of creating truly new products and services. Facebook, for instance, has been busily developing the professional networking capabilities of LinkedIn. And netbooks are often described as low power, low weight, and low cost laptops.

Yet another sign is the extent to which early adopters of new technologies have begun gravitating away from the world wide web and towards more sophisticated software platforms. Virtual reality online communities such as SONY’s PlayStation Network, Disney’s Club Penguin, and Linden Lab’s Second Life only use the internet as an invisible backbone to connect users to each other; they shun web pages and email, and rely on their own closed systems, to maintain their proprietary environments.

Will It Live To See 50?

If the internet may no longer be the prime driver of new communication technologies at age 40, will it live at all to see the age of 50? Or will it join the telegraph and the gramophone in the dustbin of history, an aged grandparent to newer resources that will render it obsolete?

If the past is any guide to the future, we certainly shouldn’t expect the internet to suddenly become obsolete. But we shouldn’t expect it to remain at the epicenter of technological growth, either. Instead, like other systems of communication that have burst onto the scene, we might expect it to lose its most advanced users to other media as it settles into a supporting role of maturity and decline.

Movie theaters, for instance, now primarily exist to create word of mouth “buzz” for new film releases as a means of driving subsequent DVD sales, which Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman and CEO Michael Lynton has called “the most important profit center for the industry.” And the broadcast television networks cling to their fixed evening news and prime time entertainment schedules, focusing on aging audiences who have not yet mastered video on demand services.

On the world wide web, MySpace was once considered a dynamically growing web based service; it is now derided by some as “the ghetto of the digital landscape.” As technology marches relentlessly forward, it is quite possible that the world wide web itself may suffer a similar fate.