You’re doubtlessly reading this article on your computer, either at home or at work, and you’re even more likely doing so via the World Wide Web.
It may be surprising to remember that the Web isn’t that old. It wasn’t around for the 1973 recession or the ’87 housing downturn or the one in 1990, and it was just coming online when the smaller 1994 housing downturn took place. Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired magazine, former publisher of Whole Earth Review and digital philosopher extraordinaire, puts it more neatly: The Web is only about 5,000 days old.
It’s a mere teenager.
"All these things rolling into our lives," he said at last year’s TED conference — things like satellite images, Google maps, Craigslist, online real estate listings, access to incalculable amounts of data — "this abundance of things, this cornucopia of stuff, never-ending" has all come about in the last 5,000 days.
"It’s amazing," he says, "but we’re not amazed."
Kelly says the first lesson of the Web is "to start believing in the impossible," because the Web has made the seemingly impossible possible. Who would have believed anyone 15 years ago talking about a machine that does what the Web does and does it continuously, globally and for free? He calculates that the Web now processes 100 billion clicks per day, some 2 million e-mails and 1 million instant messages per second, features 55 trillion links between Web pages, and traffics the equivalent of one-third to one-half of the content in the Library of Congress every second of every day. And the Web has never crashed. It has run uninterrupted with zero downtime for the last 5,000 days.
In his TED talk, Kelly takes the audience on a kind of bio-architectural tour of the next 5,000 days on the Web, into the next evolutionary phase of what he calls "the most reliable global machine ever made." Every digital device you own — your computer, cell phone, iPod, television — is already a "window" into the Web, says Kelly. He asks us to imagine that in the near future most things we own will be Web-connected: books, eyeglasses, replacement hips, furniture, wedding rings, tools, appliances, houses. He calls a shoe "a chip with a heel" and a car "a chip with wheels." Over the next 5,000 days the Web will become "the Internet of Things," says Mr. Kelly.
Admittedly, his future model strikes me as a little HAL-like (the all-seeing computer in the movie "2001"), a little too monotheistic, technologically speaking (Kelly calls the machine "the One"), but it’s a rich and engaging theory and well worth listening to. (Click here to see the video.)
And it’s critical for the real estate industry to understand where the Web is headed because the Web has become so central to its business. Notwithstanding the impact of social media on this business, can you imagine doing your job today without online access to real estate data or e-mail or Google? One inevitable outcome of the current housing downturn is the accelerated integration of digital tools and interactive services into the business. Disruption accelerates innovation and doing business digitally has proven a better, far more efficient way to do the business of real estate. It’s also inevitable that the next generation of agents entering the industry is coming equipped with greater digital skills than the generation before it.
Of course, the other current Web development that will affect the real estate business is the unmitigated explosion of online video. We are literally stuffing the Internet with video. YouTube is only 3 years old (imagine that), but is now frequented by more than 62 million visitors a month.
Cisco, the huge manufacturer of servers and routers, recently published its "Visual Networking Index: Approaching the Zetabyte Era" that estimates how much video is being streamed, downloaded or passed through the Internet, IP and peer-to-peer networks now and into the future. Some of its projections are astounding.
For instance, in 2012 Internet traffic will be 75 times larger than it was in 2002, and video will constitute nearly 400 times what U.S. Internet backbone traffic was in 2000. In 2012, the equivalent of 7 billion DVDs will be flying around the Internet every month.
Internet video made up about 22 percent of all consumer Internet traffic at the end of 2007. That number will jump to 32 percent by the end of this year, a remarkable one-year leap. By 2012, video will make up nearly 50 percent of all consumer Internet traffic. We’re clearly watching a lot of video on the Web.
As humans demand more of the Web, it is spurring what Cisco calls "a new generation of complex, highly personalized, bandwidth-intensive media applications." The Web — and its offspring — is continuing to grow, change, adapt, mutate and expand to meet human needs, and all the systems it touches will need to adapt, change and grow as well.
If the Web has proven that it is possible to make the impossible possible, what’s impossible to imagine in the real estate industry? Can we imagine a completely open and transparent marketplace of homes for sale? Can we imagine a time when hyperinflating home values can be kept in check? Can we imagine reinventing the role of the real estate agent into, say, a lifetime residential investment adviser? Can we imagine recession-proofing this perennially boom-or-bust industry? Can we imagine seriously reinventing the mortgage business with benefits accruing to both industry and consumers?
It’s amazing to consider what’s possible. And yet, somehow, we seem not amazed. Perhaps we should be.
Channing L. Dawson is senior adviser to FrontDoor.com/Scripps Networks Interactive. He was part of the founding executive team for both HGTV and DIY Network.
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