There is no doubt that the internet is an incredibly useful invention, arguably one of our greatest innovations as a species. Without it, how could we use Facebook to “check-in” at WalMart, see pictures of the surface of Pluto while we’re waiting for the bus, or reset our home thermostats while on vacation in Hawai’i? The long fingers of Vinton Cerf, Tim Berners-Lee and their fellow pioneers tug at ever more remote corners of our world, weaving a Net that binds us together, for good or ill. Can we look into the hazy crystal ball and scry into the future of the internet?
The concept of the internet as we know it may first have been imagined by Mark Twain in 1898 as an invention called the “telelectroscope” that allowed an imprisoned man to virtually travel the globe. Today’s internet is miraculous in its ability to connect people who never would have met (Hello, Reader!), but in reality, unlike fiction, there is always a cost. Hardware, server farms, and creation of quality content are not free, although people expect to access almost every website without having to pay. Putting all websites behind paywalls could cover that cost, but also exclude those unwilling or unable to pay. That would be unfortunate, since there are legitimate reasons that information and access to the internet should be available at no charge, from kids doing homework to the Arab Spring.
The consensus answer for most websites is to accept advertising. The perverse effect is that the real customers become the advertisers, who pay websites for delivering a product (readers). The website attracts the readers with bait (enjoyable or useful content) that is supported with the ad dollars. The advertising model got us this far, even if it does result in sensational, overly partisan content of dubious integrity, or slideshows like “The 50 Most Horrible Examples of Clickbait Ever! (Number 23 will shock you!)”. The next generation of revenue was data analysis: figuring out what the people visiting your site are most likely to buy, and selling targeted customers to specific advertisers. The future of the internet could end up being a complete lack of privacy, as businesses and government agencies comb through our internet personas with fine-toothed combs. We’re pretty much there right now. However, surveillance as a business model provides its own compelling argument for crowdfunded or subscription services.
Another problem clogging up the web is abuse. Once users don the mask of anonymity, they feel free to say horrible things. This could be a boon to an ad-based model as comment section flame wars cash in on refresh after refresh, but it’s likelier that the nastiness will drive people away, as evidenced by the self-selection of echo chambers and general abandonment of cross-cultural discourse: exactly the kind of communication and harmony that the internet was supposed to foster. Will the future of the internet be found in more moderated fora, as the halls of Facebook and Twitter are emptied and left to bots?
The internet may be a wireless connection between people and information, but parts of it are still very physical. Last week’s DDOS attack that knocked out many major websites was the result of millions of connected devices, from smart TVs to wi-fi enabled thermostats, being hijacked and formed into an army of bots used to attack and overwhelm a company called Dyn, a major router of internet traffic. Manufacturers of these devices hadn’t properly thought through the need for security, because what use is there in hacking an internet-connected toaster? Perhaps the spectre of strangers hacking into baby monitors will put more consumer pressure on manufacturers to take security more seriously in the future of the internet.
While the burst of the dot.com bubble put the kibosh on any number of websites that were not economically viable, the convenience of online shopping is hard to beat, especially for those who live in rural areas. If it’s an hour’s drive to the nearest grocery store, the temptation to have Amazon deliver laundry detergent to your door must be hard to resist. However, shipping is only practical for as long as fuel prices remain low, and even then, serving as a grocery delivery service is taking a toll on UPS and the USPS. While the internet opens up markets for purveyors of unique or handmade goods, people buying routine commodities online has helped to empty the economic landscape in rural areas.
As the years pass, the future of the internet also means disintegration. We can still see and touch original versions of the Epic of Gilgamesh, but information stored on magnetic media or in silicon chips is subject to corruption, and even if it survives for a considerable length of time, still requires the proper equipment to access it. Technology moves fast: cassette tapes, Super-8 film and laser discs have been out for a while, and VCRs are no longer manufactured as standalone devices. Think of how much information we have stored on computers, such as e-books and digitized family photos, and how much of that will be lost as technology shifts and we don’t keep updating the media. In the Middle Ages, fortunate discoveries of the classics of the ancient world kept culture alive. We won’t be so lucky, if and when our computers go dark.
And finally, the future of the internet may be no internet at all. This invention, which was supposed to be the answer to so many problems, has created problems of its own. From the ease with which we insult strangers, the constant surveillance, the endless pop-up ads, hacks of personal information and fraud perpetrated by identity thieves, the way content is licensed instead of owned, and the expense of maintaining energy-sucking server farms to hold all that data, the internet may one day be more of a problem than it is worth. No one can deny that it has been a remarkably useful tool for many purposes. In a deindustrialized future, however, it may prove impossible to maintain, especially as something more than a toy for the very rich. The money we pay for internet service only covers a portion of the cost of those racks and racks of hard drives, and much of the rest is covered by investors and cheap credit, especially as tech has gotten cheaper. I don’t expect that these circumstances will exist forever. As the inherent problems of connection grow to surpass the benefits, people may realize that most of what the internet provides can also be gotten elsewhere. That the straight line of progress from the caves to the stars is a deep-seated, identity-defining matter of faith for many people doesn’t mean that it’s the way things have to go. Just as the Navy is reintroducing celestial navigation in a hacker-ridden world, it may be wise for the rest of us to brush up on older skills that will still be useful if the future of the internet is less than eternal.