Can Anyone Predict the Long-term Future of the Internet?

Here’s a trend I’ve noticed: when discussing internet technologies, people talk about the next 1-5 years.  When discussing hardware, people talk in the next 200.

Take a look at these magazine covers.  Or these, or these.  They typically feature hardware or tough sciences that won’t be developed commercially for 5-50 years, or web products that are out right now.  I had a club called Future Tech in college where we would discuss future technology, and we would typically do the same thing.  All cool “future tech” was either hardware or A.I.

The weirdest thing is that the internet companies are the ones getting funded.  They’re the ones doing ridiculously well, and they’ve only been around for the last 20 years.

The main explanation I have for that is that no one really understands the internet.  Compared to nanobots and hydrogen energy, the internet feels very confusing and unpredictable.  Lectures can discuss long term advances in hardware can present cool looking graphics with relatable visions.  But the few discussions I’ve seen on the long term vision of the internet is far more esoteric.  The internet utopian movement seems long dead and forgotten, as well the movement behind the semantic web, which to my knowledge, only about 50 people understand.  Yet everyone knows about electric cars.

The lean startup grew from the internet.  Unlike hardware and scientific tech, where breakthroughs come through optimizations and numeric improvements (this car is more efficient, this drug is far more effective), recent internet companies often create completely new value propositions.

One common assumption is that because we can’t see the future of the internet, there won’t be one.  I have many incredibly intelligent friends who consider the internet to be fairly complete, with the major future advances to be expected in fields like medicine, robotics, etc.  And with the current discussion of the internets’ future, this makes a lot of sense.  Yet I don’t see any numeric proof of this or anything.  Very few people predicted any of the existing web companies (Facebook, Google, Twitter, Groupon, etc).  Internet business incubators are growing (they are about all of the incubators that exist, really).  Unlike clean tech or biotech VCs, internet VC firms are doing well and are staying bullish.

Yet the real evidence for me has come from my ideas.  When I consider the future of hardware, I typically wind myself coming up with ideas that would either help a small subset of the population or take forever to create and require technology that doesn’t exist yet.  When I consider the future of the internet, I come up with things that could be made today and possibly help billions of people.

In addition, I’m quite sure that many of the next big fields will happen inside the internet.  In the same way that the electric industry was an unexpected creation using the byproducts of the steel industry, and the computer industry was an unexpected creation using the byproducts of the electric industry, and the internet industry came from the computer industry, I bet things will come from the internet.