Michael Nelson Lectures on Preparing for the Next Digital Revolution

In partnership with ictQatar, on April 12, 2010, CIRS organized a Distinguished Lecture featuring Michael Nelson, Visiting Professor of Internet Studies in Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture, and Technology Program. Nelson, an expert in the areas of business, culture, and technology, lectured to an audience of 450 people on “The Cloud, the Exaflood, and the Internet of Things--Preparing for the Next Digital Revolution.” Nelson gave an overview of the future of the internet by delving into the policy, technology, and business decisions that are shaping how the technology will be used.

Nelson drew on his experiences working for the United States government, and his contribution to the Obama campaign specifically, by highlighting the strategic use of words in order to make or break certain initiatives. Language, he said, can be used tactically to shape policy decisions. In order to think about the future of computing and the internet, Nelson shared with the audience, eleven key words that sum up the discourse. The first word that he offered was “people,” and this, he said, “is the most important word because it is what defines how technology develops.” The development of new hardware and software used in computing is growing at an accelerated rate and is surpassing the pace at which people are learning to use these technologies. Currently, there is a growing gap between the progress of new technologies and the people able to operate them.

The second word Nelson offered was “vision,” and this referred to what kind of future people foresee for technology. He argued that “we are entering the third phase in the development of the internet, and this phase is as profound, revolutionary, and transformational as the World Wide Web was ten or fifteen years ago.” This next phase is only just now being defined; “over the next two or three years, we are going to make critical decisions about how the internet evolves and how it is used,” Nelson argued. Importantly, decisions made in the business sector will either open up new possibilities or curtail existing ones.

Through the third word, “Cloud,” the cost of technologies has been lowered significantly. “The ‘cloud,’” Nelson said, “is really a different way of doing computing” that developed out of academia and research institutions that needed to store large quantities of data remotely. Cloud computing involves outsourcing to a third party or provider. Organizations like Microsoft, Google, and Amazon are at the leading edge of the development of this technology.

Nelson’s fourth word was “game changer,” which emphasizes how these new cloud computing services will radically change the way computing is done. The first phase of computing was based on the notion of individual computers working independently of others based on software and data, the second phase developed when computers were plugged into the web giving access to the world, and the third and current phase is the cloud, which means that individual computers do not have to be tied down to their own software and data, but can operate remotely by accessing data from other computers. This new mode of operation is defined by Nelson’s fifth word: “Many-to-many.”

Nelson’s sixth offering was the word “things,” which referred to the sharp increase in technological applications and gadgets. He said that “it’s not just about computers and people anymore; it’s about a hundred billion devices.” Indeed, Nelson said “today, about one and a half million PCs and a few hundred million smart phones plug into the internet.” Because of these tools, we are now dealing with an “exaflood.” This is the seventh prominent word in Nelson’s lecture, and refers to the huge increase in the amount of data available on the internet. “We all know what a megabyte is, and a gigabyte, but if you take a billion gigabytes, you get an ‘exabyte,’ Nelson remarked.

This increase in the amount of raw data led to Nelson’s eighth word “collaboration,” which refers to how people can work together to make sense of it. “Social media is, of course, one of the leading edge applications for enabling new types of collaboration. For a lot of people in their teenage years, Twitter and Facebook are actually replacing e-mail,” he said. This is inspiring ‘crowd sourcing,’ which is a means of rallying people from all over the world to sort data. “In the last twenty years, we have gone from having a scarcity of data to having an overwhelming amount of data,” Nelson explained. In fact, “the reason President Obama is in the White House is because of these technologies and because of the ‘cloud’ […] The campaign used social media to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people to get them involved in the campaign and to get millions of people to give money,” he said.

“Consumerization” was Nelson’s ninth word, and defines the upgrade of digital technologies in the workplace as people begin to blend their work and home technologies. “This is the trend we see now where people are bringing into the workplace incredibly sophisticated tools and software applications that they use at home,” such as social media capabilities, he said.

The tenth word was “predictions,” and refers to a vision of what the internet will make possible in the near future. One of the predictions that Nelson offered was that “within five years, 80% of all computing and storage done worldwide could happen ‘in the cloud,’” but it is more likely that it will take a decade. Another prediction he suggested was that “within five years, 100 billion devices and sensors could be connected to the net,” but this too will most probably happen within ten years’ time. For these changes to happen there needs to be substantial changes in technological usage, cultural shifts, and policy implementations.

These necessary changes led to Nelson’s eleventh, and final, word, “policy.” He argued that “policy is often fifteen to twenty years behind the technology, and if that policy is not well designed, it can hold everything back. So, governments have a critically important role to play and I am very glad that Qatar, and the Qatari government, is focused on this.”

Concluding the lecture, Nelson gave three possible scenarios for the future of computing. The first of these is the ‘clouds scenario’ wherein a variety of organizations operate different forms of ‘clouds,’ using different technologies that are purposefully incompatible. The second is the ‘cloudy skies’ scenario where different organizations operate different technologies, but agree upon methods of interoperability. The third, and most desirable, possibility is the ‘blue skies’ scenario where different clouds, run by different organizations, all use common standards that make flexibility and interoperability the norm. Finally, Nelson said that “we are now less than 15% of the way through this incredible change” and so it is up to the users to demand the changes that they would like to see happen in the future. 

Article by Suzi Mirgani. Mirgani is the CIRS Publications Coordinator.