Three Decades of the Information Superhighway and Internet Economy

Shankkar Aiyar
5 min readJan 14, 2024

Over half the world’s 8 billion are born in the age of the internet. In 1994, at the Superhighway Summit, Al Gore quipped nothing has happened unless it is on TV. In 2024 nothing has happened unless it is on social media. Google is a verb, Uber is not an adjective, Amazon is not just a river. The internet economy is over $ 15 trillion and AI will ramp up speed and scale.

By Shankkar Aiyar | The Third Eye | Published: 14th January 2024 |

Thirty years ago, on January 11, over two dozen leaders from government, academia and communications met at the University of California at a futuristic conference titled ‘The Superhighway Summit’. Curiously, it was organised by Richard Frank of the Academy of Television, Arts and Sciences. On cue, Al Gore, then the US vice president, quipped, “Nothing has happened unless it is on television.” In 2024, you could say, nothing has happened unless it is on the internet, on social media.

Image for representation | Generated with AI

The evolution of the internet has a long history. The Superhighway Summit was in a sense the beginning of the Internet superhighway, the kick-start of the Internet economy. The birth of NCSA Mosaic and Netscape in 1994, followed by Microsoft Windows Explorer opened up the World Wide Web to users. From hesitant and small beginnings, the internet economy soared globally.

In 2024, the median age of the world is estimated at around 30.5 years. Effectively, half the world’s 8-plus-billion population is born in the age of the internet. The number of web riders across the world over is estimated to be over 5.3 billion and is growing. Google, the noun, is also a verb for seeking answers, the web is not necessarily the thing spiders weave, streams carry movies and music, socialising doesn’t require leaving the couch, expressions are abbreviated, and trolls are not mythical creatures. Almost every prediction made by Isaac Asimov is on touchscreens.

The arc of transformation is strikingly short. Some of the most used applications and the largest internet-based corporations came up in recent history — till 1994 Amazon was a river quietly flowing in South America. Alphabet was the descriptor of letters in a fixed order. Uber was not a ride, just an adjective. Meta (formerly Facebook), X (formerly Twitter), the ubiquitous WhatsApp, Spotify, ByteDance, DoorDash, JD.com, Shopify, Booking.com, Airbnb and Netflix are the Gen Z of the corporate world.

The Indian perspective illustrates the amplification of penetration. Although Alexander Graham Bell received the patent for the telephone in 1876, two-thirds of Indians didn’t have a phone till the 1990s. The internet itself was made available by VSNL in August 1995. Today, over 1.2 billion Indians are mobile phone users, nearly 800 million Indians are internet users and e-commerce is the most competitive domain. Over 535 million are on WhatsApp and around a fifth of the 2.7 billion YouTube viewers are in India.

Nothing quite illuminates the exponential impact of the internet as the use of online financial transactions. India’s digital public infrastructure — thanks to the Aadhaar identity platform — is now the model and envy of the developing world. The data under the hood says it all. Take financial transactions. The National Payments Corporation of India recorded over 499 million IMPS transfers in December 2023. The ubiquitous scan-and-pay UPI platform notches over 11.5 billion transactions in a month.

The contribution of the internet to global economic growth is a continuing debate — in 2011, studies by McKinsey surmised that there were 2 billion internet users and the internet economy contributed around $8 trillion. A recent World Bank report estimates that the digital economy contributes to more than 15 percent of the global gross domestic product and that it has been growing two-and-a-half times faster than the physical world GDP. The potential and dividend is visible in the market valuation of internet companies — $7.5 trillion as per companiesmarketcap.com — listed on Wall Street.

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The adoption of technology is accelerated by events. The pandemic converted sceptics on the benefits of tele-tutoring, telemedicine and hybrid work weeks. Surveys suggest roughly a third of the workforce has adopted hybrid work schedules. As companies struggle to get folks back into office, jobs are routinely advertised as remote and hybrid, besides onsite. The wars in Ukraine and in the Middle East have expanded the use of net-enabled offensive and defensive capabilities. Unsurprisingly, unmanned aerial vehicles and cybersecurity are among the rising stars in the military-industrial complex.

Meanwhile, the world is on the brink of what British entrepreneur-innovator Mustafa Suleyman calls the coming wave. Private equity funds, companies and governments are pouring over $200 billion to get ready for the next big leap — the launch of user-case-defined applications in generative AI and artificial general intelligence. The promise of the potential is reflected in the valuations of the Magnificent Seven — which, as per Torsten Slok of Apollo Global Management, is more than the combined market cap of the stock markets of Japan, Canada and the UK.

AI holds much hope — particularly in levelling asymmetries of access, skills and opportunities. It also triggers fears of economic, political and existential consequences. The possible retrenchment of human interface has implications for nation states. At the political level, the fear is about fuelling polarisation and expansion of the constituency of angst and grief on social media.

The existential threat articulated by the pioneers of AI is very real and demands regulatory guardrails. There are no guarantees, but the path laid down by the International Atomic Energy Agency for nuclear installations could be a good template. It could be scaffolded by a sanctions regime and a warning system, like for tsunamis, if and when systems go rogue. This and more may be required and calls for global coordination. If global leaders can’t get it right, they could consult an AI interface!

Shankkar Aiyar, political economy analyst, is author of ‘Accidental India’, ‘Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12-Digit Revolution’ and ‘The Gated Republic –India’s Public Policy Failures and Private Solutions’.

You can email him at shankkar.aiyar@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @ShankkarAiyar. This column was first published here. His previous columns can be found here.

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Shankkar Aiyar

Journalist-Analyst. Author of ‘Accidental India, ‘Áadhaar: A Biometric History’ and ‘The Gated Republic’. Studying how politics rules the economics of people!