One of the living legends of the internet age, Dr Vinton Cerf, Vice-president & Chief Internet Evangelists, Google, spoke on the topic of "Tracking the Internet into the 21st Century". This was the final presentation of the WCIT and the entire hall was absolutely crowded, people were standing on the aisles waiting to hear that great man.
He talked about the future of the internet. Said that the internet penetration around the world is strange. Asia, Middle East and Africa are bad or low or both. Only 20% of the world is connected. He used the World Population Reports from the UN about the 2300 figures and displayed them, some interesting rises and dips. I presume he is talking about this report. See the graph on page 19 of the report. High scenario shows a horrifying 36 billion people on the planet, with a medium one of less than 10 billion. Bloody interesting report but this is not the place to go into it.
He talked about how only 20% are connected to the internet and more will grow. Incidentally, I found it much easier to observe him up on the main screen rather than watch him on the far left. Which begs the question, if this was webcast, then I wouldn't have traveled to Malaysia.... (theoretical question...). Which made me go off into a different train of thought.
My facebook, orkut, myspace, etc. accounts are nothing but very primitive clones of myself. I cannot be everywhere, so my primitive clones operate on my behalf. Just like my email system does and my voicemail system does. As a matter of fact, my home is also a sort of a clone. It has an address which is independent of me. People can communicate with me on an asynchronous basis and I can get back to them whenever. So when people are writing something on my facebook wall, are they communicating with me? or with my clone?
Say I have an active Second Life account. Is that me or is that my clone? Or both? I feed those clones with information and they act/react based upon my preferences. So I can be in another place via my robot/clone and get back information to me when it is convenient to me. I do not have to be face to face with you to get information. You can email/voicemail me and I can pick it up at my convenience.
If I communicate with my son online in Second Life via both our avatars while we are both across the world, am I still his father? to what extent? How about love? Can I show my love to him? via that medium? How does he know that it is me? Or if I was seeing Dr. Cerf across the world on a webcast, how would I know it is him? Just because somebody said so? identity problems galore. Does this mean that more friends you have, more your identify is confirmed? Like an amazon or ebay seller, more positive recommendations, the better is the identity and better is the trust. What do I do when I am dealing with a financial institution? Curiously, microcredit or microfinance rests on this premise, it lends money to people on the basis of guarantors from their community. So a person has to be social and know people and be trusted by them in order to get money. Bit different from my neural network Kohonen map based credit scoring model, eh? But I digress.
He talked about IPv6 (a network address for every device on this planet and then some, even some for your socks..), better search engines. He said something that I will come back to, he said that the monetisation and earning potential online will be less and the current business models will have to change.
He also talked about BIT rot, how on earth will you manage to open a Powerpoint 1997 file in Windows 3000? Forget about that old a problem, here is my problem. I wanted to dig out some research that I had done way back in 1990. I did not have the files here in London so had to wait till I got back to home and went to poked through my old cupboard. Besides the nostalgic kick, I finally found the floppy disks. 5 1/4 inch floppy disks to be precise. I have also operated the 8 inch floppy disk but well, the data that I had was in two formats, Lotus 1-2-3 and dbase. I remember sitting back on my haunches, looking at the dusty pile of floppies, and thinking back to those hours and days that I spent in typing in the financial data of the companies and did the basic analysis. Do you know, I even managed to calculate multiple regression on the damn things in there? Anyway, for all purposes, that data is now lost to me. I do not have a floppy drive anywhere near me, none of the 4 home pc's have it. I have an old laptop which has a floppy drive but it is 531/2 inch drive, not the older 5 1/4th inch drive. So I am stiffed.
Fast forward today. Financial institutions are supposed to keep data for up to 10 years. So your transactions and your records are supposed to be kept nicely and carefully within the firm for 10 years. Now the transactions are processed, on an average, via 10 odd applications. There can be many more depending upon the country and product but just think about it, 10 applications, multiple operating systems, multiple upgrades, multiple hardware requirements, multiple network systems, multiple servers, so many different types of technology stacks, and we have to maintain a record of this. Within 5 years, it becomes a major issue to keep up to date with technology, we are talking about 100's of years? No bloody way.
Museums are now struggling with electronic art. I could have taken those disks to a museum but they are also facing problems. Here's a great paper written in 2001 and the problem has become even worse now.
He also talked about the inter-planetary internet. That just blew my mind away but it needs much more thought before I can write more about it, its not fully comprehended yet. Anyway, he got a standing ovation at the end. I ran to attend his Q&A after getting distracted by an email, but still managed to get to the hall to ask him a question. I asked him, you have talked so much about what will happen in 2035 and 2300, the physical shape of the internet, the devices, the penetration rates, and and and. What do you think would be the value system, the monetary framework, the price formation or who will pay for it all? It was obvious that I had asked a wrong question immediately because it did not go anywhere fast. I did ask some follow up questions, but he is a great man, he had to rush off to meet somebody else.
This is my problem. I am supposed to think about what's going to happen in 5 years time in the financial world. This is what I am seeing currently. People who are in the 15-25 years of age category, the great unwashed herd who will be our future employees and customers, are not that well versed in value creation online. And why would they be? Look at what kids do online these days. He watches movies, plays songs, plays games, chats with people, participates in joint coding, and so on and so forth. Almost all of this is free or stolen. His email is free, his programming language is free, songs and movies are free, his video is from YouTube, his chatting is free via text and messenger, his voice is free over VoIP. So all these assets that these kids are using, they are all free at this moment.
So I am most certainly not surprised that they do not know the value of online assets. So when you ask them, how much are you worth? or how much will you work for? or how much do you wish to charge for your ideas? or how much funding will you need for your great online idea? no idea. And that is the issue that I am struggling with. In 5 or 10 years, the link between physical work, money and online assets will be inextricably broken. So how much would I pay a coder? How much would Microsoft pay a programmer when most online assets are free?
My son said something to me today that completely blew me away. He said that he will go create some online jewels and armour in World of Warcraft as birthday gifts for his friend who lives 5 houses down. No money, no nothing, just pure and simple virtual asset formation, entertainment and happiness increased but with no reference to money at all. Deeply worrying.
So to go back to Dr. Cerf, on what basis will anybody pay for a book in 2300? or a share in the company making Windows 3000? or the ability to write code? Or to create a powerpoint presentation? I do not have an answer, but I didn't get one either. I will be struggling with this as part of my job as well, but I am seriously not sure what the answer is. We saw some amazing valuation modeling during the internet boom. But they did put a value on an intangible asset, no? It was a bad value, but a value none the less. Also goes to the heart of what Mark to Market is all about. If this is all too philosophical, think about this, my son is happier getting a World of Warcraft spell rather than an intricately carved wooden box which I got for him.....Should I have gone to the local electronic fair in Kuala Lumpur and bought a user-id/password for him instead? How would I judge what is a fair amount to pay? I have no idea whatsoever. No reference points at all.
That brought me to the end of the conference. The last day, Thursday, was a trip to Cyberjaya and Putrajaya, the IT and administrative hubs of the country, but that is for the next post.