When you think “The Future of the Internet,” you’re thinking about hover-boards, aren’t you? Yeah, you are. It’s okay, I get it. Maybe you’re thinking about a smart toothbrush that takes a digital scan of your mouth every time you use it and can tell you if you’re missing spots or if you have a cavity. Or you’re thinking of that machine from the Made-For-TV Disney movie, “Smart House” that could make literally any food item that kid wanted in like 3 seconds. (To be honest, that’s what I was thinking.)
But how could all of those things be possible in the first place? What would the Internet have to look like in order for someone to install a smart food-maker in my apartment’s kitchen? It would be making cake all the time. Are we even headed in that direction? The Internet Society has been doing a lot of thinking about the future of the Internet, which makes sense because that’s kind of what they assemble to do: talk about the Internet of the past, fix the Internet of today, plan for the Internet of the future. They’re all about it. In a recent publication, which is hilarious if you have time to read it all, they measured the current state, increased usage habits, and managerial trends, and presented four potential scenarios of what they Internet could look like in the not-so-distant Future. And now I will attempt to explain them to you the way I wished someone had explained it to me.
Spoiler Alert: only one, maybe two of these, results in a hover-board.
The Moats and Drawbridges Internet
I figured we’d start with the worst.
This is the Internet wearing a $4,000 suit, smoking a cigar, and laughing at the peasants and their peasant-y ways. Seriously, if you were looking for a future where the Internet was The Man – this is the one for you. I’m not trying to be biased, but this Internet SUCKS. How did we let this happen, you guys? HOW COULD WE LET THEM WIN?
They said it was for protection – for our money, for our children, for our very identities. They said, “If we pass this bill, we can protect you from the evil of the Internet! Cyber attacks! Child abuse! The Hackerrrrssssss!” And we were scared, we – the general population of the Internet who likes online banking and videos of dancing animals – we were scared of losing our money and our animal videos so we said, yes, please protect us. We voted for the bill because we wanted to be safe. But the bill written to save us had a clause that dissolved Net Neutrality. And, well, no one told us that bit.
At first, they DID protect us. They went after the creeps and the hackers and the cyber terrorists and they shut it all down. And then, because we gave the government mouse a cookie, they started to “protect” us for all kinds of things – like information, equal bandwidth, and our paychecks. After that, there wasn’t much going on anymore. What were we even paying for again? Innovation and evolution of the web and Internet services slowed to a halt because lobbyists and politicians don’t like change. They like things the way they are when those things make them money. We look to each other on Twitter, asking with wide eyes, “who voted for these bozos?” And our tweets get filtered because Twitter got bought out years ago and is now controlled by a South Carolinian senator who has a striking resemblance to Kevin Spacey. He shook a couple hands, made a couple concessions, pushed a reporter in front of a train, and your missing tweet is the least of your worries now.
Okay, that got a bit dark, but you get my point, right? The Moats and Drawbridges Internet is a heavily centralized oligopoly, regulated and slowed by government legislation and closed-door deal making. Information is controlled and protected, and censored. It’s bad you guys. It’s just bad.
The Porous Garden Internet
The Porous Garden Internet will lighten things up a bit – this is the less doomsday version of Moats and Drawbridges. It’s Diet Moats and Drawbridges Internet. It’s also the closest potential future to our present state of the Internet that we’re working with right now.
In this future, we kind of just gave up. Fighting the good fight for Net Neutrality was exhausting and okay, so what if the Internet is only sort of free now? That’s kind of how most Apple users feel about their technology already. Once you commit to a $1500 laptop, the $500 smartphone that will sync perfectly just sort of made sense. And then the iPod just matched. And the iPad was for business purposes. So yeah, I mean, okay – go ahead and segregate my bandwidth for websites that are going to pay more for it – those are probably the good sites anyway, right? I don’t know – I’m so tired. Just text me when you guys decide and I’ll set up ApplePay for the bill.
That’s how a lot of things work right now. There’s so much information, and so many people trying to get at that bottom line, that when you really try to stop and figure something out, you get a headache and just want to go back to marathoning Battlestar Galactica, where things make sense. In this future, large commercial enterprises and niche content providers are on the never-ending quest for their big bottom line. It’s not that they think there’s a limited amount of it to go around like the Moat guys who literally kill companies to get them away from the watering hole, it’s that they want the most of it – they want the most of the water. Evolution of the Internet is driven by that bottom line, so is innovation. Developers, operators, content providers and hardware engineers live and die by that bottom line. There might be a hover-board here, but only if someone thinks it will bring the money to his/her team. If not? No dice. No hover-board for you.
The Boutique Network Internet
Life in the Boutique Internet would be different, and for anyone who wanted to use it for more than checking e-mail from their cousin a few miles away and pinning recipes for bundt cakes on Pinterest, it would be really frustrating. In this future, we see the breakdown of streamlined protocols and global unique identifiers in favor of regional or commercial segmentation. See, what happened here was rather predictable. Regions, governments, and large enterprises failed to optimize the Internet for its social and economic potential, and it started to break apart like the English Empire. Poor England. It had so many countries, and then they all started getting opinions and ideas and not wanting to pay taxes to the Crown, and down came the Union Jacks. That’s sort of what happens in this future: the Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) start to break away from the Crown – they each start coming up with their own ideas of how to deploy a new set of Internet identifiers, and without the King of England’s global coordination, without him saying, “no no, we’re PROTESTANTS, and you can’t call that snorkel.com because Canada already calls something else by that name,” the Internet starts to fractionalize. There are 2 different things being called Snorkel.com and no one can trust anyone anymore.
It’s sort of like this: you’re building a theme park in Roller-coaster Tycoon with several of your friends. Then, each of your friends downloads a different expansion pack with different building materials, different rules, and they all start building on top of your collaborative theme park. There’s a ride that your engineers can’t operate. There’s a concession stand that none of your guests have the right currency for – everyone is getting REALLY angry. Zero satisfaction points abound. Nothing works together anymore – and you have entire segments of your park that not even YOU can enter. Some of the park is built efficiently, but some of it looks like it is being built and maintained by a sadist – horribly established and not at all maintained. So you call up your friends and say, “Dudes. What gives?” And they shrug. And so you spend weeks locked in your bedroom, building a new expansion pack – one that can sort of work with all the other unique expansion packs. But you spend so much time fixing and re-fixing to make up for the bugs in the other expansion packs that you haven’t built a single ride in four years and you’ve lost your job and your boyfriend and your doctor says you might be anemic. You can’t remember why you even wanted to play Roller-coaster Tycoon in the first place. At night you fall asleep and envision your own satisfaction meter floating above your head. It’s been in the red for years.
That’s what life in the Boutique Internet will be like. Is that what you want?
The Common Pool Internet
This Internet is hard not to scoff at because of how beautifully idealistic and therefore unfathomable it is. In the Common Pool Internet – everything is open, and everyone is free. Ideas are shared and new innovations are played with like in the olden days when a group of nerds got together and figured out a way to network their computers and then network their network to another network and share information like wizards. In the Common Pool Internet, Net Neutrality reigns supreme, and for every Lyft, there is an Uber. For every Google, there’s a sad little Bing still trying to make Bing happen. And for every iPhone, there’s an Android and a Windows phone, pushing one another on each feature as if to say, “oh yeah? Well Rook to Knight Five. CHECK.” Move the King, Tim. That little green alien is coming for you.
In this future, the success of the population wins out over the success of the individual. Businesses try as they might to organize the Internet in order to control it, but it just doesn’t work. For every step they take towards regulation, some web developer on a Mountain Dew buzz creates a new script or hypothesizes a new way of doing things in a forum and the whole plan comes unravelled. You can’t regulate the Internet in the Common Pool future, Mr. Suit – it’s for everyone.
This future is a come-one, come-all type game. Disputes and challenges are solved through competition, not closed-door handshakes and courtroom negotiations. In this future, someone builds a hover-board, and someone else builds a better one, and on and on it goes until we have all the hover boards and everyone is the happiest. Operators, infrastructure providers, and resource management organizations work within the globally interlinked network, building horizontally after each technological advancement, leaving previous technology available to be manipulated and built upon by someone else.
So why do I scoff? Well, because for all the good that comes with a Common Pool Internet, just as much bad will follow. Open means open. Open to brilliant, positive creations, and open to cyber attacks, malignant hackers, and really horrifying creepers. No matter how much our tools and resources evolve, one thing will always remain: the Internet is created by people, and people will always be people. Capable of brilliance, and equally capable of viciousness.
Whatever version of these scenarios, or combinations of versions, comes to pass, the fact of the matter is that the Internet is not going anywhere. Many have speculated that it will soon become to us like electricity, invisible and ever-present. There is an opportunity afforded to Internet users to turn the entire global into a virtual Pangea – digitally connected where oceans and mountains once pulled us apart. What will we do with this ever-growing communication and information network?
After the teleporter and hover-board – it’s anyone’s guess.