The Web is a Village at Scale

Some time ago, I spent a month in the Himilayas. There were no roads or cars, only footpaths connecting small villages where people lived without most modern conveniences. Inside these tight-knit mountain communities, everyone appeared to have a natural sense of each others’ well-being.

In contrast, it is well documented that technical societies tend to be more isolating than their non-digital counterparts. While social networks allow friends to share more than ever, the process of picture-posting and typing is awkward and limiting compared to the simple, high-fidelity experience of chatting with a neighbor along the footpath.

However, there are signs this is beginning to change. Pervasive sensor and network technologies have the potential to recast the web as a Himalayan village at scale. In the same way dozens of villagers can routinely, at a glance, gauge a neighbor’s well-being — the same is happening by the millions in the digital realm. For example, as more people become comfortable sharing their quantified self — weight lost, calories burned, miles run, kilometers peddled, steps walked — its becoming possible, with a glance at status updates, to make assumptions about neighborly fitness and general welfare.

As appearance, vibrancy, posture and expression signal physical and mental well-being amongst rural villagers, new devices such as Nike FuelBand make it easier than ever to effortlessly signal physical and mental well-being in the larger digital village. Today, if a friend posts, “Wow, you look great today,” they might just as well be looking at your new Nike Fuel points as a picture of your new haircut. So while it’s true, the latest sensor technologies are revolutionary, the resulting human experience may not be; instead, it may harken back to a comfortable, friendly visit along a well-traveled footpath.