Perhaps one of my biggest concerns about working in the Internet industry and website development in particular is my participation in a cultural shift whereby people are now not only just able but clearly expected to look for and find online the information they need to live their lives. Where as it used to be the case that referring someone to your website was a way to complement information you were already giving them, or was just one method of contacting you, the display of a web address is now often the only way that many businesses and organizations make their products and services available. The unfortunate reality is that this is no longer confined to promoting the luxuries and accessories of an upper- or middle-class lifestyle, and it's part of a larger trend of an increasing dependence on highly complex infrastructure to perform basic tasks, fulfill basic human needs.
As pay phones become all but extinct, we're encouraged to use our cell phones, or to just log on to the Internet and chat with the person we need to reach. As it takes a small fortune to fill up a gas tank, it becomes easier to carry around credit cards that have lower rates if you open and manage them online, and harder to pay cash. As small businesses are taught the playing-field-leveling effects of the Internet, they shift time and energy resources into maintaining their online presence, detracting from the time they spend maintaining their store front, or even having one at all. Apparently high school kids don't need healthy and safe places to hang out after school any more because they're just going home and instant messaging one another as they browse each other's Myspace pages.
Government registration forms, social services, accurate weather updates, financial filings, interactions with our representatives in Congress, the ability to watch political debates -- all of these things are slowly (or sometimes quickly) moving toward a mode where if you don't have good Internet access, you're going to have to work a lot harder to get the information you want. For a significant population of people in the world who are almost always overlooked, this is a real problem, and one that is growing every day.
And it's not just about the "digital divide." I can't figure out whether it's a privilege or a curse that I'm often no more than a few minutes away from being able to look something up on the Internet. As I wrote in 2005, I also maintain some confidence that if the Internet went away today, things would be okay. But how long will that be true for most people? At what point will the inability to quickly and easily refer someone to your website for more information mean the total breakdown of society as we know it? Are we already there?
I still believe that websites and the Internet in general have a significant role to play in making our lives better, easier, and more about the things that matter. The way that information can be exchanged and displayed is unlike anything else available, and it's a tool we can use for much good. But it's so easy to forget what enormous resources it takes to make that possible - and what significant relative wealth one must have to take advantage of it.