The internet is dead, long live the internet

31 Jul
Is this really what is was supposed to be about?

Is this really what is was supposed to be about?

It seems like hardly a day goes by when there isn’t some sort of bad news regarding the internet. Whether it’s Britain enacting filters designed to block porn but which will inevitably snare a lot of other content, or Google flip-flopping on net neutrality now that it’s a broadband provider, or whether it’s people just getting overcharged for access in general, nothing good seems to be happening to this once-great democratizing and enabling force.

A piece in The Guardian underlined this the other day by suggesting that the days of the internet as we’ve come to know it – a truly global network – are numbered. It’s quickly being replaced by a series of intranets, or mini-internets that are controlled and curated by respective companies or countries.

The result is that what one person can access online in one country or even through a given provider may not be the same as someone in another part of the world.

As writer John Naughton writes:

It was always a possibility that the system would eventually be Balkanised, ie divided into a number of geographical or jurisdiction-determined subnets as societies such as China, Russia, Iran and other Islamic states decided that they needed to control how their citizens communicated. Now, Balkanisation is a certainty.

He’s probably right – the internet as we knew it is just about over. I recently lamented that it’s been fully commercialized, and that there’s very little on it that’s truly free. It’s basically a giant mall now that’s doing a fine job of extracting a lot of money from people.

A the same time, it’s perhaps wrong to get too pessimistic about the situation. Even with all the controls exerting themselves, the internet has made many people freer than they’ve ever been at any point in history (except for maybe a few years ago, when there weren’t as many controls or as much commercialization). For the most part, the internet can still be used as a tool for people to start businesses, experiment, communicate and entertain themselves with.

All of those things happened not because of, but almost in spite of commercial and government interests, and that’s the really remarkable thing: it was people who made the internet great. That powerful force shouldn’t be forgotten when considering the future; indeed, it’s cause for optimism.

As I’m winding up working on my upcoming book Humans 3.0, which aims to analyze technology’s overall effect on people, I’m concluding that history does indeed have a direction. Plenty of historians and anthropologists have argued that mankind has a destiny, and I’ve come to believe it too.

The emergence and explosion of the explosion of the internet seems proof that people innately want to be free and they very much want the tools that allow that to happen. The controlling and corrupting power of companies and governments come and go, but that fact is a constant force of history. It’s considerably more powerful.

The internet may in fact be taken over and Balkanized, but we shouldn’t assume that’s the end of the story. The internet as we’ve known it is only the beginning – technology marches onward, and something newer and better is sure to emerge. A hundred years from now, we’ll probably look back at today’s internet and think of how quaint it was.

What will we have then? I have no idea, but I do know that efforts to build that future are already under way. With the continually declining costs of everything associated with connectivity, I can imagine a future neo-internet based on mesh networks running on unlicensed “white space” spectrum. The FreedomBox, a low-cost personal server backed by Kickstarter funds, is just one step in this direction.

Such devices could allow individuals to set up their own intranets. It’s then possible that such networks – owned and controlled by people rather than corporations or governments – could grow and join together to form a new internet. It’s equally possible that the people running this new network might decide to keep commercial and government interests off them, the same way that universities do with their research intranets, to prevent the same sort of co-opting that happened to the original internet.

Who knows, really? It’s admittedly just fanciful speculation at this point.

One thing I am confident of, however, is that the arrow of history is pointing in the right direction, if the continual, inexorable desire for and ascent of freedom is any indication. That’s enough to counter some of the depressing realities facing the current internet. It’s also why, although it doesn’t seem like it now, the future will be better.


Posted by on July 31, 2013 in government, internet


3 responses to “The internet is dead, long live the internet

  1. Marc Venot

    July 31, 2013 at 4:22 am

    Maybe to use something Canadian it’s like white water rafting but to place herself (as a ship) behind a wall may only work for a powerhouse like China, the others will capsize or dry out.

  2. Michael Elling (@Infostack)

    July 31, 2013 at 7:17 am

    The “internet” was an inflection point in a digital information revolution that began in the 1840s. For the first 70 years that revolution was highly generative: electricity, text, audio, video, switching, etc… Then the US government killed off competition and christened the “natural monopoly” in 1913, further compounding and extending its mistake in 1934. The velocity of information and change slowed dramatically and may well have retarded political, socio and economic reforms well underway in the late 1800s as information and content was rigidly silo-ed and managed from the 1910s-1980s. In 1983 the information revolution got back on track and we digitized voice, then data and then wireless. These were all results of various forms of equal or open access (aka net neutrality). What’s needed is a framework that relates all these pieces; one that illustrates net neutrality or open access in the lower, middle and upper layers, and across market and geographic boundaries.

    To refer to the internet in a singular fashion is a mistake. It began as a data-driven bypass of the voice networks and scaled from forces set in motion by the break-up of AT&T. To not fully recognize this and then decry its death dooms us to perpetuate the same poor policy decisions from 1913, 1934 and 1996. Google has fallen into that trap.

  3. J. Van Leeuwen

    August 1, 2013 at 10:55 pm

    I agree that the future will be better.

    So does Peter Diamandis:

    Our ancient and relentless drive for autonomy (a less ambiguous notion than ‘freedom’) will remain the principal driver of technological development, and more broadly, economic development.

    I disagree with those who see total autonomy as the endpoint to human development, as we are capable of achieving far more good things through social enterprise – collaboration and cooperation – than we could ever achieve through autonomous enterprise.

    We will always have governments, societies and other forms of social organization.

    In principal, government and industry are meant to support us in our timeless aspiration towards greater autonomy.

    In practice, all human organizations tend to ossify and fossilize around their objectives and operating models, and also the strong identities and other social affinities that can develop around them, e.g., the Masonic Order.

    The Digital Revolution will strongly disrupt the form and function of many social and economic institutions we have all grown up with. For as long as it remains unclear what will replace these institutions, most people – more than eighty percent – will continue to protect the institutions we have.

    We can be damn sure that our telecom and cable incumbents are going to milk this institutional inertia for all it’s worth. Sadly, it seems our senior governments are also dragging their heels in responding to the seismic changes that are already rippling around the planet. These are the conditions that can lead to policy failures like those described by Michael Elling.

    For Canada, the leadership and other principal forces for progressive change will build from the grass roots up, i.e., from the community level. In principal, any community can build and operate its own digital infrastructure, as the communities of Olds, Alberta and Coquitlam, BC have already done:

    Many more communities will follow their lead in the years ahead, as long as our industry and senior governments don’t stand in their way. This scenario is already playing out in the U.S., where industry incumbents have successfully lobbied twenty State legislatures to hinder or outright prevent development of community broadband networks. This is, of course, massively counterproductive to the legitimate interests of citizens and governments, and ultimately, to the industry incumbents doing all the lobbying.

    By struggling to protect an institutional order that has outlived it’s usefulness, rather than helping transition to a new order, they merely undermine their sustainability. They also make the transition to a new order more severe and painful than it really needs to be, and almost everyone suffers for it.

    Much would be gained from crafting a strategic framework that helps us to define the new and improved social and economic institutions we will need for fully leveraging the vast personal, social and economic utility of today’s and tomorrow’s digital tools and networks.

    A nation with Canada’s physical and demographic geography stands to benefit more than most from the Digital Revolution. It couldn’t happen too soon, as our First Nation communities will attest.

    Time to build the next civilization.

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