Schmidt: Internet won't go away; Gates: It won't be omnipotent, either

Google's Schmidt didn't say the Internet would go away; it will become Everything. Even the most glorious Internet still won't cure malaria, however, according to Bill Gates.

Internet will embed itself into everything else, not disappear entirely, Schmidt said.
Credit: World Economic Forum

In case you've seen the headlines saying Google chief Eric Schmidt is predicting the Internet is about to go away, didn't believe it but didn't bother to read the story: you were right. He didn't say that.

What he did say, at the annual World Economics Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Thursday, is that the Internet will "disappear" – as in, become invisible because it will have seeped into everything we use, everything we do and everything we make.

"There will be so many IP addresses…so many devices, sensors, things that you are wearing, things that you are interacting with that you won’t even sense it," according to The Hollywood Reporter, whose headline quoted Schmidt accurately but left a misleading impression.

The Internet, Schmidt said, "will be part of your presence all the time."

It's not a new idea. A study published in March by the Pew Internet Project and Elon University said that as we infuse intelligence into wearables, portables, implantables, Things and sometimes even computers, the infrastructure of the Internet will become so vital to our day-to-day lives that we won't think about using "the Internet" as a separate process any more than we currently think about dialing up AOL using a phone line and modem to get our email.

The chance that the central point would be misunderstood was so obvious as to justify a little extra effort to explain that "invisible" doesn't mean "nonexistent."

Even people who probably understood the actual point tried to take advantage of the misperception to make dumb jokes based on the assumption that the Internet is a fad whose minor annoyances make everyone hate it or, even less constructively, to say Schmidt was declaring the intention of a Global Oligarchy to take the Internet away in order to advance global control over peons and conspiracy theorists.

Schmidt's point – and that of the Pew study, any number of books, academic articles, technical analyses, dedicated publications and a slew of predictions or marketing campaigns from networking- and smart-device-focused IT vendors going back at least to the early '90s – is that, ideally, networked technology should be where it can help us, not someplace we have to go specifically to use it.

Our interface to the Internet, increasingly, should come through online services we particularly like or apps on devices we have with us anyway, like our phones, or on TVs, car dashboards, microwave ovens or anything else we spend any time looking at. It might be easier, though, to simply embed the interface in contact lenses or glasses and just "use" the Internet by saying or thinking what we want to find on it.

The infrastructure of the Internet, increasingly, will become as vital and as invisible as the massive civil-works projects that provide water and electricity on demand into the homes and businesses of consumers who never have to give the incredible logistics of the thing a second thought.

None of that is newsworthy in any way. Schmidt may have been using the image of an invisible Internet as an oratorical trick to get the attention of the audience of international economic movers and shakers at Davos. The real point Schmidt and other tech-industry honchos tried to make during a panel labeled The Future of the Digital Economy was that the Internet has become so important – and will become even more important – that the best way to ensure global economic balance, education and social justice is to invest in a stable, fast, open, secure Internet.

"The Internet is the greatest empowerment of citizens … in many years," Schmidt said. "Think about learning and education with all the new tools that are being built. We are on the cusp of the acceleration of that and it’s almost overwhelmingly good…Everyone gets smarter because of this technology… and the empowerment of people is the secret to technological progress."

"Social media has created a historical shift form the historically powerful to the historically powerless. Now everyone has a voice," added Sheryl Sandberg, COO and member of the board of Facebook.

The Internet as it stands is "just the beginning of a great story," according to Vodafone CEO Vittorio Colao. "We are at the beginning of something amazing. In Turkey, we have farmers who are using our technology and 50 per cent of them are women. Then there is education of teachers in Africa."

The worldwide expansion of the Internet won't play out for another 10 or 15 years, Colao said, but both governments and corporations have to cooperate to make sure the expansion reaches everyone, not just the rich and well connected. "We need to see the benefit of technology and make sure that this movie gets a happy ending.… I see the freeing up, not just of productivity and money, but also positive energy which can bring a more equal world…the Internet is oxygen, it’s water."

There have been a lot of fights over water, however, just as there are over the Internet.

Disagreements over freedom of information, freedom of access, privacy, government supervision and other major political issues could cause the global Internet to split off into myriad, balkanized national Internets with rules and technologies different enough to make both communication and commerce difficult, warned Gunther Oettinger, a German politician serving as the European Commission's commissioner for digital economy and society.

Nearly every problem caused by, carried by, or impacting the Internet, however, can be solved by the same solution – more Internet, more communication and more access, according to Schmidt.

"Almost all of the problems we debate can be solved by more broadband connectivity," Schmidt said.

Enticing as that sounds to the rabidly pro-Internet among us, the world's most surprisingly effective philanthropist, Microsoft founder and former anti-christ Bill Gates, it takes a lot more than access to make the Internet do more than flash pictures at starving or sick people, he said in a recent interview on Medium's Backchannel.

"The key is not Internet connectivity. There's plenty of places where you have Internet connectivity," he said. "It doesn’t in itself stop childhood mortality, or help farmers know what to plant. But the fact that all the good knowledge can get out in this digital world is very, very exciting. If it wasn’t for the digital revolution, we could not be so ambitious. But if you just stood back and watched those things take place, the children would still be dying of malaria and the poor would still have no banking."

So: nine points out of 10 for Schmidt and the Barons of the Internet for defining a pervasive, universally connected Internet as a good thing. One point off for assuming too much about its powers, along with a suggestion that they add to their plans for global connectivity tools that would allow the Internet -- or assist the people that make up the Internet community -- to do something more effective about disasters than download Wikipedia articles explaining to people in famine- or disease-stricken areas why they're dying. Like letting them know the Internet has not actually disappeared.

In case they were worried.

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