Analysis: The Moxie Sessions: The Great Online Experiment: How is the Internet changing what we do and who we are?

Skype is “the killer app for grandmothers” and Facebook and have provided platforms for people to debate the merits of Red Peak with the same fervour previous generations devoted to the Springbok Tour. 

But what is this worldwide experiment with moving our lives online actually doing to us? What does it mean for business, for society or for human interaction?

Since 2007, AUT’s Dr Philippa Smith has been involved in New Zealand’s part of the World Internet Project, a multi-country survey of use of and attitudes to the Internet. Dr Smith reckons the main change in recent years has been a shift from “do you use the Internet?” to “how do you use the Internet?”

If the Internet is an experiment, New Zealanders are enthusiastic guinea pigs. 

In the 2013 World Internet Project survey, 92% of New Zealand respondents said they were Internet users. New Zealand is part of a group of developed countries that are high adopters, particularly of email and using the Internet to find information and buy things online. We are also enthusiastic users of apps and of live video streaming. 

Dr Smith says although we have been quick to get connected, and we’re generally trusting of information we find online, we are not all on board. There are still many digital divides – not just the traditional connectivity, but also gaps in skills and access to devices. The 2013 survey shows that 5% of us have never used the Internet, and 3% are ex-users, who tried out the Internet but found it had no lasting appeal, or that the technology was too difficult. 

Spark regulatory affairs general manager John Wesley-Smith pointed out that while New Zealand ranks highly in international comparisons of broadband take-up and infrastructure quality, there are still big questions about what we should be doing with it, and how we will pay for future improvements to it. 

A lot of what we actually do is watch cat videos. “Consumer video makes up over half of all internet traffic, whether on our fixed network or our mobile network,” he says. 

This creates big questions for those who have to build the networks. Carrying all those ones and zeros is expensive and the business models we have at the moment mean higher costs but not necessarily higher revenues. 

New revenue streams needed
If our network operators are going to keep investing at the levels we need them to, to keep pace with the rapid growth in data usage, then they are going to need to find new revenue streams and business models.  

Development of new options like the Internet of Things, which will connect billions of physical objects to the network, and Smart Cities will be important in helping create better industry economics. 

Vaughan Baker, Managing Director of MyRepublic NZ, an ISP founded in Singapore, is more bullish on the possibilities. He describes the government’s Ultra-Fast Broadband initiative as “the biggest upgrade to our infrastructure since we built the motorways and the ports”, and focuses on its potential as an economic tool. 

“New Zealand’s game makers are a $250 million software subsector. We are far from our customers in other countries, but quality broadband means we can try new business models that can be launched to the world from here.” 

Dr Jane Cherrington, of brand and business innovation agency String Theory, sounded a more cautionary note about the impact of the Internet on our cognitive capabilities. “Constant distraction stops short-term memory creation, which means that learning cannot happen. You really need to focus if you are to think differently.” If you contract your memory-making out to Google, you might actually go through life without learning much at all, while constantly reassuring yourself that the answer to any question is just a few taps away. Watch the video here and decide for yourself.

It is easy to get carried away by the benefits of transformative technology. But many around the Moxie table were concerned about the long-run impacts of a younger generation sharing intimate details with anyone online. Participants discussed other downsides, too: free diffusion of information won’t necessarily lead to positive change by itself.

And sometimes technology priorities seem questionable. While the world delights in an app that can tell you the best time to pee during a movie, ordinary businesses are often slow to take advantage of the possibilities of the Internet. 

Mostly, we just replicate the physical in the digital world: email is just like postal mail, but quicker. The big upsides, like easier collaboration with colleagues in business, or genuine life-long learning outside of the office, are really only beginning to become visible now.

New technology often creates challenges, and there is usually someone, Cassandra or otherwise, fretting about the impacts of the latest innovation. 

A widely-quoted New Zealand study from 2013 is one of several investigating whether television makes children more violent or antisocial. Stanley Milgram did some of the first studies on this topic in the late 1960s (although it is fair to say modern results are rather different from what he found).

If we collect data as we continue this experiment, we’re better placed to identify and deal with problems as they arise. We can’t stop the whole Internet, but we might end up changing some bits of it. In the past, New Zealand has introduced a voluntary filter for ISPs to prevent access to child pornography, and we have recently brought in legislative restrictions on online communications that cause serious emotional distress. 

We have taken a tougher line on problematic innovations in other fields too, banning certain pesticides and CFCs after deciding they did more harm than good.

Just as the Industrial Revolution contributed to changes in almost every aspect of daily life, the Internet is contributing to a revolution in society and technology. 

We don’t know where we will end up: as Back to the Future Day showed, we can be spectacularly wrong in our predictions about the future. But these are exciting times for everyone from device-wielding toddlers to business innovators.

Julie Fry (@juliemfry on Twitter) is a consulting economist based in Motueka and New York. 

Every month, The Moxie Sessions brings together a small group of business thinkers to discuss ways New Zealand can take advantage of the Internet to boost its national competitiveness. For more, see In October, the Moxie Sessions returned to GridAKL, to discuss the role of the Internet.

Thanks to Alcatel Lucent and its ng Connect programme for the generous sponsorship that helps to make The Moxie Sessions possible.

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