There’s no disputing that innovations in technology, and specifically those surrounding the Internet, have driven seismic shifts in the business of public relations.  So who better to address the 2010 Member Dinner of the Council of Public Relations Firms than Vinton (Vint) Cerf, popularly known as one of the ‘fathers’ of the Internet?

Cerf, who co-designed the TCP/IP protocols used to develop the underlying architecture of the Internet (distinct from Tim Berners-Lee, credited with inventing the World Wide Web), is currently known for his role at Google as VP and Chief Internet Evangelist.  In a discussion moderated by former Los Angeles Times editor and trustee at the Newseum, Shelby Coffee III, Cerf covered a lot of ground, to say the least.  PR agency executives in attendance heard a brief history lesson of how the ‘net as we know it came to be, why packets are metaphorically akin to postcards and even work Cerf is tackling to help NASA establish an interplanetary network to support real-time communications between far-flung equipment and space missions.

Heady stuff, this.

But a few points stood out to me as both a member of the public relations industry and a citizen of this specific moment in time (it’s Google’s world after all, we just live in it…).  First was Cerf’s list of tech trends to watch in the next three to five years.

  • The explosive growth of mobile as a primary means of accessing the Internet.
  • The wave of satellite-based broadband access poised to hit underserved areas of the world like Sub-Saharan African.
  • A rapid evolution from an ‘Internet of People’ (where communications between people is the primary driver) to an ‘Internet of Things’ (where even simple devices will be networked to communicate).
  • The continued expansion of cloud computing.

These trends are not necessarily surprising to hear.  Some like mobile and cloud computing generate their own cottage industries of content and commentary.  Yet they are no less important in their potential impact.

But in my view, the more suggestive aspects of the discussion related to the very nature of the Internet itself, and the content that populates it

Several times Cerf referred to the Internet as a tabula rasa, that proverbial blank canvas on which a dizzying array of things can be ‘drawn.’  Later, when asked if anything about the evolution of his invention disappointed him, he combined this analogy with another – the mirror.  Cerf noted that since the ‘net is a blank slate, it disappoints him to see the junk that the general public has created to populate it.  He went on to say that the Internet is just a mirror we hold up to ourselves.

I took note of this, as I’ve often spoken about the Web as nothing more than the best and worst of humanity.  This concept comes to mind when I talk to someone uncomfortable with certain ways in which technology is evolving – like the collapse of our ‘public’ versus ‘private’ lives, the shifting nature of the ‘authority’ thanks to tools like Wikipedia or the way online discourse can turn so depressingly nasty.

Yet concluding that the Internet is ‘just us’ (true as it may be) feels a bit too passive.  The stage may be blank, but there are still actors on it – not to mention those building the scenery.  And right now, Google is one of the stars of the show.

When the inescapable privacy question was raised, Cerf was emphatic that Google “does not care about you” (i.e., who you are, where you live, what you do, etc.).  Google cares about patterns and the way those patterns enable core business models like AdWords.

Oh, but lots of others care.  This was underscored again by most recent privacy dust-up around Facebook and Rapleaf.  And when it comes to those who do ‘care who you are,’ we can assume it’s not the marketers consumers should fear.  There are significantly more scary things out there beyond the far fences of Google’s security protocols and encryptions.

But privacy / security issues aside, debates over the nature of content on the Web have critical implications for the public relations profession.  Today, that blank slate is being written daily a million times over (or, if you like, uploaded at the rate of 24-hours of video per minute).  As Cerf commented, the sheer diversity of content is so much more visible (and discoverable) on the Interest versus any other media or medium.  And that content ranges from worthless to stellar.  So who decides what content is credible, factual, appropriate, useful, etc.?

Cerf noted some governments will certainly try, of which China has been the most visible example.  But ultimately, he asserted that individuals must foster their ability to think critically by paying attention to what they read, hear, see and surf – and encourage a similar critical thinking in their children.  And this skill set has always been at the heart of what we do in PR.

We are shapers and disseminators of information.  And we’re ideally builders of understanding and trust among different types of constituencies, through access to new ideas, relevant insights and informed perspectives.  So I’d sum it up this way.  When an individual looks in the Internet’s mirror, we as PR practitioners have an active role to play in helping them find – and make a thoughtful assessment of – what they are searching for.

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