Week 12: The Future of the Internet


This week we will look at the internet in the future. First we will summarise the history of the development of the internet thus far, creating the context for discussion on its future development. Then we will look at the issues that exist in people’s use of the internet today. We’ll consider the various stages that the internet has moved through in its development and then look at the scenarios that are presented by the Internet Society for the direction that future internet development will take. Finally, we will take a brief look at the Innerweb.

Few could have imagined what the internet would be like today, 40 years ago (though some were pretty close):

The internet began as a response to the Soviet Union launching the first rocket into space in 1957. The USA thought that they needed to ensure that their military research and development was the best in the world to compete in the Cold War arms race and so they developed ARPANET:

As the 1960s and 70s proceeded, the threat of nuclear war continued and so too did the development of what we now know as the internet:

By the 1980s, the internet had started to be used by the public:

Lift off occurred in the 1990s with massive growth and commercial success – the internet had arrived:

Issues with the internet today

The internet today is used in ways that were not imagined when it was originally designed. Highbandwidth usage is increasing, especially with the use of streaming video and this is leading to congestion. The accelerating scale of the internet and the information available is making it harder to find the information you want. Security issues, especially around financial information are increasing. Discussion has now started around what the internet will look like in the future and about what needs to be done about these issues.

The internet and security

Security concerns about the internet are rising and some argue that the internet is becoming increasingly unsafe. This has led to the development of products that are harder to modify and therefore less vulnerable to viruses etc. such as the iPad and XBOX – these are more reliable but the controls imposed make it harder for others to innovate with these products. Some have also argued that there is a need for agreements to regulate the internet or that we need an international online security council.

Internet freedom

The issue of internet freedom has also become a frequently raised issue. Net neutrality is the concept that there is equality among the information that travels to your computer:

Some telecoms and ISPs are proposing that there be different tiers of internet access that companies would pay for and there are many who argue that this would undermine net neutrality. Google and Verizon have proposed a policy on net neutrality which has been widely criticised.

Concerns also exist about the limiting of internet access by national governments. Herdict is a website that allows you to report and track interference in internet traffic and thus acts as a watchdog on this practice.

The different stages of the internet

The internet is often described as existing in a series of different states. Web 1.0 was characterised as having a division between producers and spectators – most internet users did not and could not produce internet content and so were spectators of those who did (often larger organisations). In Web 2.0 the distinction between producers and consumers had disappeared – it was now much easier for most people to produce content for the web through blogs, videos, podcasts, comments on websites, microblogging etc.

The next stage of the internet is called the Future Internet or Web 3.0. There are two opposing views of how this new state will appear. Some argue that there will be a gradual evolutionary development while others say that there will need to be a clean slate approach that recreates the whole internet from scratch. They argue that this is needed due to the poor state that the internet is now in. Those arguing for the evolutionary approach say that the clean slate view is just too big and expensive to be practical.

Irrespective of how the internet gets there, two themes feature in what the Future Internet will look like.

The first of these is that the internet will expand beyond traditional devices (PCs, laptops etc.) and become ‘The Internet of Things”:

The second theme that is emerging is called the ‘Semantic Web’, the creation of a more intelligent internet:

The Future Internet, applying the Internet of Things and the Semantic Web will be applied in many areas. RFID tags will enable more effective asset management – companies and individuals will be able to keep better track of what they have and where it is – either being transported, used or in storage. Healthcare will be transformed with remote gathering of health information.

Environmental monitoring will be improved with the use of remote sensors. There will be new office applications and software to make work easier and more productive. Retail services will be focused more individually and new methods of marketing will emerge.

Transformation will also occur in many other areas. Vint Cerf of Google explains his vision.

The Future Internet will have a number of defining features. It will be pervasive and ubiquitous – most people will have access all of the time. It will be a network of networks, linking together networks of people and things. There will be interoperability and accessibility – your internet access and capabilities will not be limited to the type of device that you have. There will be more miniaturisation and there will more context awareness in the services that you use. More resources will be virtualised – the cloud will expand and semantics will have an increasing role to play.

The Internet Society scenarios

The picture above is thought by some people to be overly optimistic and they see threats to the continued existence of the internet as we know it. The Internet Society has developed four possible future scenarios of what might happen.

The first of these scenarios, and the most optimistic one, is called Common Pool.  This scenario is described as having positive generative and distributed and decentralised properties – most users would be able to access most content and able to contribute content on their own. Opportunity and growth are normal:

The second Internet Society scenario is Boutique Networks. In this model political, regional and large enterprise interests dominate and control their own part of the internet. This results in the internet fractionalising as each provider draws as much as they can from the common pool and gives little back:

The third scenario is called Moats and Drawbridges. Here the internet would become heavily centralised, dominated by a few big players who would create their own rules. There would be little innovation and strict control on access, usage and intellectual property:

The fourth scenario is Porous Garden. In this scenario networks remain global but with access to content and services tied to the use of specific networks and associated information appliances:

It is unclear what direction the Future Internet will take but these scenarios will help us to consider the actions that may be necessary to ensure that the internet provides as much benefit to people as possible.

The Innerweb

The final area that we will look at this week is called the Innerweb, which refers to how information technology is making us more human. One example of this is Google Goggles which enhances the way we see and understand the world around us:

Amber Case looks at this more broadly, discussing the extent to which information technology is changing who we are:

So, this week we have looked at the future of the internet, considering how it has developed, examining the issues that are challenging the internet today and looking at how these might impact the internet in the future. We then considered possible models of the future from the Internet Society and finally considered what this might mean for people.

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