Thursday, October 16, 2008

If we can believe the numbers, change is accelerating

This article was first published in Marketing magazine.

This is the one hundredth column I’ve written for Marketing. 100 is an important number in western culture – we follow the FTSE 100, the Billboard 100, we review after the first 100 days and we can never forget Haircut 100.

So this week I’m going to look at some of the numbers that tell us a little about how digital has taken our world by storm. The Web is 6555 days old today, counting from when Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau submitted their WorldWideWeb: Proposal for a Hypertext Project – the first use of the WWW term, and even for someone like me who lives and breathes this stuff, some of the figures are staggering.

Then, the internet was a purely text-based environment. But Berners-Lee and Cailliau’s idea of marrying it with hypertext caused a revolution. And despite British Telecom’s failed attempt to enforce a patent in 2002 on hyperlinks, the web has become perhaps the single biggest force for change since the invention of walking.

Every possible permutation of 3 character .com domains has been registered. The BBC has 43 different translations of its website, Facebook has 63.

Worldwide, 74 billion searches are made each month, and the size of the index held by search engines continues to grow apace. In 2001, searching for "search engine optimisation” threw up 12,300 results in Google. That number today is 77.8 million – an increase of 632,420%.

The average monthly number of searches per searcher in the UK is 124 - the same as the average number of cups of tea per Briton per month. And although those results are delivered in the blink of an eye, so far this year according to, users have spent 24 trillion hours waiting for web pages to download.

Perhaps it was worth the wait. In the US, 1 of every 8 couples getting married last year met over the internet.

Proof though that the internet is not immune from external fiscal factors came with the creation of President Bush’s economic stimulus plan, which involved sending cheques of up to $1200 to taxpayers. It was widely reported as having created a 30% boost in internet pornography revenues, which currently run at $3075 per second (or 0.18% of global GDP).

30% of internet users have made a purchase (and possibly had their identity stolen) from spam emails. A recent study also showed that less than one in one million spam emails actually lead to sale – which explains why there are so many of them.

After years stuck in your computer, mobile is becoming a serious force in digital. The number of text messages sent and received every day exceeds the world’s population, and A SIM-free mobile phone sells on eBay every 17 seconds – part of the 1.3 billion handsets that are expected to be sold this year.

Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns describes the exponential growth of change in technological progress. He believes Moore’s Law (the processing power available for a dollar doubles every two years) can be applied to our broader experience of technology. Let’s consider; agriculture appeared 12,000 years ago. The first cities appeared 6,000 years ago, printing 532 years ago, TV 80 years ago, the internet 18 years ago.

If he’s right, half the change we’ve experienced since the internet started occurred in the last two years, and the next 18 years will see 362 years’ worth of change.

So our power to predict the future, to plan our businesses and understand our consumers, is increasingly threatened by this acceleration. And the voices that say they now understand digital are the most dangerous of all, because if they understood it yesterday, things are different today.