Vinton Cerf on Where the Internet Will Take Us

Google’s “Chief Internet Evangelist” talks about the direction of online connectivity and communication

Google Vinton Cerf
Vinton Cerf, Internet pioneer, sees a need to separate Web fact from Web misinformation. Murdo MacLeod

In the late 1960s, when Vinton Cerf was a UCLA graduate student in computer science, he helped design ARPAnet, a predecessor of the Internet. He’s now a vice president of engineering at Google, the search engine giant that owns YouTube and is extending its reach to mobile devices, publishing and journalism. He spoke with associate Web editor Brian Wolly about how the Web will evolve.

Ten or more years from now, how will we communicate with one another?
It’s very possible we will be more continuously connected. Even today, people have Bluetooth things hanging in their ears. There’s no reason they won’t have a video camera located in a buttonhole, maybe even a video projector. And there’ll be no need to carry a laptop or [computer] notebook, because any flat surface with reasonable visibility could become a display.

Virtually any appliance is going to be online. Appliances will talk to each other and to the power-generation system. Our appliances will pay attention to our preferences.

One of the real hard questions is, how will we keep up with all [the new applications]? Maybe our [computer] systems will be more aware of what our daily lives are like, what things we want to accomplish in the course of a day, and if that could be built into the software, maybe some of this stuff won’t even require our explicit interaction.

How will today’s young people benefit?
How old is YouTube? Four or five years, right? And it has become an enormous phenomenon. At Google we see 23 hours of video being uploaded to YouTube per minute, and I’m sure that will increase over time. So trying to project what tools will be available over the next 40 years is really daunting.

Henry Kissinger once told me he was very concerned about the Internet’s impact on people’s ability to absorb information in a concentrated way, because we’ve become accustomed to looking up something, getting a snippet and being satisfied with that—as opposed to reading through and considering a weighty tome that goes into great depth.

I am reminded of the apocryphal story of someone complaining about the invention of writing because it would cause us to stop remembering things. Nonetheless, writing turned out to be pretty important. [Kissinger’s] complaint may or may not be a materially serious issue.

I’m not sure we know enough at this stage to justify a conclusion about the benefits of the kind of interactive, fast exchanges that take place in multi-user games [on the Web]. Are we solving problems, learning how to multitask? Is that a good thing? I don’t know. It’s a little bit like television. When it arrived there were many expectations that it would improve education and everything else. But what we discovered is there’s a finite amount of quality in the universe, and when there are more channels it has to be cut up into smaller and smaller amounts until finally, every channel delivers close to zero quality, and that’s where we are today, with a few exceptions.

One thing we know for sure is that the Web is a collaborative medium unlike any we’ve ever had before. We see people working together, playing together, interacting in social settings using these media. We hope that will emerge as the new tool for education.

The problem is—and this is true of books and every other medium—we don’t know whether the information we find [on the Web] is accurate or not. We don’t necessarily know what its provenance is. So we have to teach people how to assess what they’ve found. That’s a skill, a critical-thinking capacity, which is important no matter what the medium. It’s just more dramatic in the World Wide Web, where there’s so much juxtaposition of the good stuff and not-so-good stuff and flat-out-wrong stuff or deliberate misinformation or plain ignorance.

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