I'm off to take part in the biggest growth sector of the tech/media/Internet world: conferences about the tech/media/Internet world. I'm kidding -- in fact, I do go to a lot of these conferences, but the thing is, they're actually all incredibly fascinating. And the reason why is an idea that I've been thinking a lot about lately and which I'm going to make the centerpiece of my speech there: the maturation of the Internet to the point at which our online and our offline lives have merged.
And this is why any well-curated conference about the Internet, or technology, or media, or social engagement is interesting: because it's not technology we're talking about it, it's our lives. You can't talk about one without the other.
This particular conference, called the Lions Festival of Creativity, is in
And that's because the Internet has grown up.
Think about it: all the qualities we care most about offline -- connection, engagement, community, authenticity, empathy -- are being increasingly reflected in our experience online. And the companies that succeed in the coming years will be those that most take advantage of the fact that there is increasingly little distinction between "virtual reality" and, well, reality. People don't want to give up their humanity when they go online. The Internet is no longer a "virtual" public space where we have the semblance of connection -- it's a real public space where we connect.
Remember all those scary movies about how humans were going to become machines in the future? Well, as it turned out, the machines ended up enabling us to be more human instead.
The long prelude to this moment has been a time of amazing change. We have watched the Web evolve to meet our hunger for connection and community. But it hasn't always been easy. As the professor and new media thinker Clay Shirky recently noted, history shows that changes in the way we relate to information are inevitably accompanied by resistance. "Every increase in freedom to create or consume media," he wrote, "from paperback books to YouTube, alarms people accustomed to the restrictions of the old system, convincing them that the new media will make young people stupid." It was predicted that the printing press, as Shirky pointed out, would lead to the "chaos and the dismemberment of European intellectual life."
And yes, along with our increased freedom comes the freedom to create what Shirky calls "throwaway material." And the Internet is certainly no slouch at producing throwaway material. And that will no doubt continue. But now something else is being added. The Internet had a great adolescence -- we stayed up late, ate a lot of junk food, played video games and listened to loud music.
But the online experience is entering adulthood. We are more careful about how we spend our time. We're thoughtful and deliberate about choosing our friends and with whom we decide to spend our time. Adulthood is a time in which there's too much to do, there are too many possibilities, and there's never enough time -- so our lives become about curating, selecting, saying no more often than we say yes, being forced to decide what we really value, realizing what's really important to us. Increasingly, as our offline lives merge with our online lives, that's exactly how people are using the Internet as well.
To be sure, the adolescent Internet isn't going away. But now there's a choice -- not just for individuals but for companies as well. One way forward is to continue down the path where noise and half-truths trump facts and wisdom. The other way is to stake out a place in this new world of community, connections and engagement.
The Internet of the future, the grown up Internet, has the potential to take what's best about the human experience -- our passion, our knowledge, our desire to connect -- and channel them into an online experience that truly resonates with how people live.
So now that the Internet has arrived at adulthood, the next stage will be what we euphemistically call -- and which I'm not so euphemistically entering -- the golden years. That Internet won't have the drawbacks of our old age, but I'm hoping it will have its main benefit: wisdom.
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Copyright © 2011 Arianna Huffington. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc