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.