The Power of the Web

My friend Kevin, who spends as much time traveling to California as I spend not traveling to California, recently reported on attending the TechCrunch50 – 2008. I haven’t really looked at what great or not so great ideas were presented there. But it reminded me of a post he had a while back and my follow-up on what the web could do to make the world a better place. It often puzzles me that the world faces such grave technological challenges, i.e. energy, environment, but people spend their time creating new web browsers, ipods, cell phones. It’s not that I am against software development and research or entertainment. I think the web is as powerful and empowering as Gutenberg’s printing press. In fact it may be more empowering and liberating for mankind than abolition, revolution, fossil fuel, and space travel… catch my breath here. But I think it’s also true that there is huge potential for improvement of how we live, communciate, produce, you name it. We’ve only dipped a toe into the pool of opportunity.

My favorite word when the web is concerned is ‘viral’. I admit it sounds awful. But it’s powerful. Think of how the super-fast spread of information has changed our lives. Not always for the better. But I see huge potential (I know I am repeating myself here) for tackling future challenges by connecting people and splitting a global problem up into little chunks that can be handled by individuals.

I remember when I was a kid, someone said that if all the Chinese jumped up in the air at the same moment, the earth would crack in half. No, I wasn’t scared. I don’t think I believed it. But I am reminded of that now. Because the effort of one to hop is negligent. But the power of all those hops is probably worth a few gigatons of TNT. So think of this (ludicrously hypothetical): if someone comes up with an innovative way of saving 1 W at the click of a button on your keyboard, and then starts a viral clicking frenzy, for every million clicks, we save 1 MW of energy…. I know this is a stupid example. Here is a better one:

I read a few days ago that the energy needed to power the internet is on the scale of that of a medium size city. We know that turning off your computer when you don’t use it, can save energy. Yet, most people never turn of their computers. So what if you could let computers communicate through the web so that they would always be productive rather than waste energy. I know science has used large numbers of computers through the web to tackle large computational challenges. But what if you could use all that downtiem and idle time the average user’s computer has to be productive !? After all, 1/3 of the globe, at any given time, is in bed. Their computers are just sitting there. What if they could be productive while not in use !?

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