Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of the Internet designation ".com." To commemorate the occasion, VeriSign is hosting a conference today in Washington. I'm taking part, along with Bill Clinton, Fareed Zakaria, Aneesh Chopra, Mo Rocca, Fred Wilson, Kara Swisher and many others.
The panel I'm on has been asked to "gaze into the crystal ball" and predict "the next game-changing .com breakthroughs" and what "the next generation of .com might hold in store."
My crystal ball is still a little overheated from filling out my March Madness brackets (I have Kentucky beating Kansas in a tight championship game), but after staring at it for most of my flight east from Los Angeles, I have a few predictions. And since I'm a crystal-ball-half-full kinda gal, I'm going to start by predicting that the Internet of the future will deliver technology that addresses the greatest needs of the present.
At the moment, we are drowning in spin, smokescreens, and lies, so the first need is to cut through to the truth.
So how can the Internet and technology help us find our way? By continuing to grow as a place where people can turn to uncover the truth. The Internet has shown great promise in this regard. YouTube, Twitter, e-mail, and turbo-charged search engines have made it easier to expose the lies our leaders continue to tell.
At the same time, this is a moment of great economic anxiety -- with millions out of work, millions of homes foreclosed, and millions going bankrupt. In times like these, people are more likely to be driven by their lizard brains and react in response to fear rather than facts, making it easier for demagogues to scapegoat and peddle conspiracy theories laced with violent undertones. In this kind of atmosphere, people sometimes refuse to believe their own eyes. And it becomes easier to perpetrate the latest Big Lie (see death panels).
So, to fill this need, I predict that someone is going to create an online tool that makes it possible to instantly fact-check a story as you are reading it -- or watching it on video.
Picture this: It's last summer and you are reading or watching a story about health care, and Sarah Palin or Betsy McCaughey is prattling on about death panels. Instantly, a box pops up with the actual language from the bill or a tape rolls with a factual explanation of what the provision in question really does. And this is a non-partisan tool. So when, in the midst of the legislative debate, President Obama says "I didn't campaign on the public option," the software will fire up and instantly show you where support for the public option appeared in his campaign plan, and clips of all the times he mentioned it in public after he got elected.
A companion tool in service of the truth would instantly provide historical context to a story you are reading or watching, as well as a narrative that helps put the facts we are getting into a larger framework.
In a compelling post, Jay Rosen writes about the need for journalists to revive the art of storytelling. The Internet has been great for putting masses of data at our fingertips but it has too often sacrificed explanation, context, and narrative on the altar of speed because, as Rosen puts it, "all the day-to-day rewards go to breaking news."
So, gazing into my crystal ball, I see a .com innovation that immediately provides a reader or viewer with the background knowledge needed to better understand the data and information being delivered as news. The powers-that-be -- both political and corporate -- have mastered the dark art of making information deliberately convoluted and indecipherable. For them, complexity is not a bug, it's a feature.
Our future tool will also automatically simplify needlessly complicated laws, contracts, and linguistic smoke screens. So when a politician or Wall Street CEO performs the usual verbal gymnastics in an attempt to befuddle and bamboozle us, his words will immediately be translated into clear and precise language. It will be Truth 2.0.
And just as our instant fact-checking, context-providing, and translation tools will bring us more truth, new .com innovations providing greater transparency will deliver a return of trust. Because dealing with the breakdown of trust is the other great need we are facing today.
The institutions that hold our democracy together have taken crippling blows in the last few years -- leaving our country awash in disillusionment, anger, doubt, cynicism and widespread wariness. Indeed, according to a recent Gallup poll, only 19 percent of Americans are satisfied "with the way things are going in the United States at this time."
Though disheartening, given all that has happened over the last decade -- including a war based on lies, an economic crash based on greed, a bank bailout with no strings attached, and a gridlocked legislative process beholden more to special interests than the public interest -- it's hardly surprising. In fact, you have to ask: who are these 19 percent? Are there that many partners at Goldman?
Think about the two biggest policy disasters of the last ten years -- the Iraq war and the financial crisis. The perpetrators of each of these calamities could not have pulled their dirty work off without a lack of transparency.
But addressing the problem is going to require more than just putting up a website for every government agency and posting a lot of public information. A story in Sunday's New York Times shows that even with the best of intentions, promising to make openness and transparency a top-line priority -- as President Obama did on his first day in office -- is easier said than done. Fourteen months later, his administration's record on transparency is a mixed bag.
So I predict that, in the future, software will be created that allows us to pull the curtain back on the corridors of power and see who is really pulling the levers. A great early iteration of this was provided by the Sunlight Foundation during the recent health care summit. During its live streaming of the discussion, the Foundation offered a dose of transparency by showing, as each of our elected officials was speaking, a list of his or her major campaign contributors. It was simple, powerful, and spoke volumes about the extent to which many players in the summit were bought and paid for.
The future version of this kind of tech will allow us to see who is funding who, and who is carrying water for which special interest, in real time and across every imaginable platform. The Sunday shows will be a whole different animal when we are able to effortlessly and instantly follow the money -- and connect the dots.
To many Americans, our political system has become a rigged game (and, thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, it will only become even more rigged). But innovative technology can provide us with a countervailing force and give us the chance to level the playing field.
My final prediction may at first sound counterintuitive, but my crystal ball shows that the future will bring us a .com innovation that allows us to disengage from the 24/7 connectivity the first 25 .com years have led to.
Plotinus was a philosopher in the third century who studied the different sources of knowledge, wisdom, and creativity. "Knowledge has three degrees," he wrote, "opinion, science, illumination. The means or instrument of the first is sense; of the second, dialectic; of the third, intuition."
The Internet has contributed much to the first two kinds of knowledge -- science (in the form of easy access to reams of data and information) and opinion -- but has in many ways taken us further away from illumination and our inner source of wisdom.
Hence the growing need to pull the plug on our hyper-connectivity. To disconnect from all our devices in order to reconnect with ourselves. There are already a plethora of Internet sites, mobile apps, and high-tech tools that make it easier to do just that -- everything from yoga sites that let you take classes via your computer to mobile apps that provide guided meditation to devices that allow you to monitor your stress level.
I predict that, in the future, someone will create a killer app that gauges the state of your mind, body, and spirit and automatically offers the exact steps you need to take to realign all three aspects of your being. Think of it as an internal GPS designed to show you the best route to realigning your mind, body, and soul -- leaving you more able to access your wisdom and creativity. Use it to arrive at optimal living.
The first 25 years of .com have been a time of online miracles. My crystal ball sees more explosive wonder just ahead. The challenge will be to direct that combustible creativity to solving our needs for more truth, more transparency, and more wisdom.