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April 25, 2011 10:12 AM

The Internet's Over/Under-Hyped, And Why That Matters

Something's bugged me about how we talk about the Internet and broadband for quite a while, namely the rhetoric that we use to promote the limitless potential of these technologies.

To someone who didn't know what broadband or the Internet was, hearing people talk about it (present company included) you'd think it can cure cancer, walk on water, and save the planet. While some of this may be true, there's really no limit to the hype that's used to talk about the impact that networked technologies have on our lives.

Yet I think this has created a significant problem with perception, namely that the Internet and broadband are now over-hyped. By this I mean that the public has been hearing about the wonders of the Internet for close to 20 years and broadband for 10 (and more broadly the promise of networked computing for the last 50 years) that they've become a bit desensitized to just how exciting this revolution is.

This perception has also been exasperated, in my opinion, by the gap between the rhetoric surrounding broadband and the Internet and the reality of how they are truly impacting people's lives. While there's no doubt many have seen various aspects of their lives revolutionized by the Internet, I argue that this impact is nowhere near what's been promised us in the hype around these technologies.

There's all this talk about being able to watch anything anywhere, and yet the business of content creation and delivery hasn't quite yet lived up to that promise. There are visions of talking to doctors from home through HD video that are still really only happening in pilot projects. There are promises of revolutionizing our educational system, when in reality most of this promise is being realized by individual students on their own while institutional change is just getting started. There's the hope that we increase productivity while helping the environment through being able to work from home, and yet in most industries this is still the exception rather than the norm.

So as a result of decades of the boldest hype combined with what are arguably only modest successes relative to its potential, I think many people have become desensitized to all the wonders that broadband and the Internet make possible.

What this has led us to, unfortunately, is that now while many continue to espouse the hype, I think broadband and the Internet are actually being under-hyped, at least when it comes to consumers truly understanding the full scope of the revolutionary potential of these technologies.

When I talk to people about fiber and next generation apps, they always want to hear about the cutting edge technology that no one's heard of before, but when you start talking about relatively well known capabilities like videoconferencing or webcasting it fails to generate as much excitement.

I'm pointing this out because I think it's very dangerous to have this perception. The reason being is that many of the most exciting applications for broadband and the Internet aren't necessarily applications in terms of new software but rather applications of existing software and hardware in new and novel ways that have a quantifiable impact on people's lives.

The reason why this is important is that we're reaching the stage with broadband and the Internet where what's more significant than the next shiny widget is how do we start reshaping the way our communities work to take fullest advantage of the many broadband and Internet-enabled technologies that already exist.

Videoconferencing is a great example. As a concept its decades old, and yet how much do we really use it in our day-to-day lives? Some may use it for work, others for staying in touch with friends and family, but there are so many use cases that are either only happening in pockets or barely at all that can have a profound impact on how we operate as a society.

Because of this I think we need to find ways to get people excited about broadband and the Internet again, not about the rhetoric of what they can do but about the many real-world case studies where they're already impacting people's lives in significant ways.

Because the only way we're going to achieve the rhetoric of what broadband and the Internet promise is if we can cut through the rhetoric of abstract potential and start getting people excited about the concrete ways in which these technologies can start improving their lives today.

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