Thursday, October 21, 2010

Future of the Internet

Greetings from Santa Barbara, CA! Thanks to the advanced telecommuting practices of FFRC, I have had the possibility to spend the autumn here in this beautiful city (and lovely weather), immersing myself in a new culture.

For the lack of a physical working community, I´ve moved an even greater amount of my life to the Internet. As its position has solidified to form a central element of both the working and the social life, it is almost startling to consider the relatively short period of time we´ve been able to enjoy this digital lifestyle. Although the collapse of the Internet is a regular candidate for a possible black swan in many futures workshops, one rarely pauses to assess the probable, preferable and avoidable futures of the Internet itself. A few days ago, I made a small sidestep from the research I have been conducting on the future of news media and took a look at what has been said about the future of the Internet. Here´s what I found:

As usual, there are a few dystopic visions for the future, some very optimistic and lots of quite neutral but still rather interesting things. Most of the gloomier images for the future are connected to the commercial interest nowadays so intertwined with the Internet, with for example net neutrality forming one big discussion. Within the optimists, there are the classical visions of the semantic web and Internet of Things. Neutral issues include, among others, possible complications with moving from the current limited addressing system, IPv4, to the new but incompatible IPv6 and the paradigm shift brought about by cloud computing.

I will zoom in on one particular scenario for the future, which arguably classifies under the dystopias, but is among the more interesting in this category. Professor Jonathan Zittrain (co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, among other merits), in his 2008 book “The Future of Internet – and How to Stop It”, argues, in a nutshell, that when users switch their open and “generative” PCs to iPads, iPhones, Xboxes, Kindles and similar closed or “tethered” appliances, what they are actually doing is trading in their freedom to adjust and innovate for a more reliable, malware free user experience. This is problematic, because the basis of the Internet, according to the argument, has been the ability of a PC to run any code: this has been the source for an endless array of new kinds of uses for the Internet, and, essentially, has been the force behind the formation of the Internet itself. In “tethered” appliances, there are levels that are open only to the operating system, and which third-party applications cannot access, and this, says Zittrain, takes the “control” (or lack of it) from the users and places it on the whims of the commercial interests of the appliance manufacturers. From all this follows, that the end result could be an internet controlled by the companies, making the end of Internet more a “not with a bang but with a whimper” collapse of the sort of Internet we know now.
In an interview for the Wired magazine, the author even formulates a scenario on how he sees events could unfold:

“JZ: My worry is that users will drift into gated communities defined by their hardware or their network. They’ll switch to information appliances that are great at what they do [email, music, games] because they’re so tightly controlled by their makers. (…) It could happen through a watershed moment: A virus infects 50 percent of a corporate network and erases hard drives.
The problem is, we’re moving to software-as-service, which can be yanked or transformed at any moment. The ability of your PC to run independent code is an important safety valve.
W: You really think the sky could be falling?

JZ: Yes. Though by the time it falls, it may seem perfectly normal. It’s entirely possible that the past 25 years will seem like an extended version of the infatuation we once had with CB radio, when we thought that it was the great new power to the people.”

But before leaving you to consider this depressing image (or read the book, there is light at the end of the tunnel), I´d like to share a video clip: In a 1995 television show “Venture” the author Jonathan Zittrain introduces a novelty called PDA (personal digital assistant). At the time, these devices did not really catch on, but only 15 years later their descendants are so popular that they can be envisioned to take over the Internet? Once again, the famous quote attributed to William Gibson “the future is already here, it´s just not very evenly distributed” seems appropriate. The tricky part, of course, is to recognize the future when walking by it.