The Internet in 2025: 12 reasons to fear our online future (Pew 5)

patel-theverge-internet-is-fuckedBe very afraid: see Nilay Patel’s hard-hitting post in The Verge last week


The trends are mostly about fragmentation

Or at least the triumph of depth of experience over outreach and a sense of commonality.

This is the 5th and last of my responses from the 2013-14 edition of the Pew/Elon experts survey on the future of the Internet. I only answered 5 of this year’s 8 questions; my four prior responses are these:

The final Pew question was the only one described as open-ended, i.e. it did not begin with the usual Yes/No binary choice. By the time I was done writing my relatively short response, I was seriously depressed. As Free Press president Craig Aaron said to The Verge’s Nilay Patel: “What we need right now is decisive action. We can still unfuck the Internet.” Sure, but where’s decisive action going to come from? The FCC? The CRTC? Questions for another time.


The Pew question…

Most significant impacts of the Internet – This is an open-ended question allowing you to make your own prediction about the role of the Internet in people’s lives in 2025 and the impact it will have on social, economic and political processes. Good and/or bad, what do you expect to be the most significant overall impacts of our uses of the Internet on humanity between now and 2025?

My response…

Thirsty-SoilThe Internet has peaked in 2014 as an open, shared global platform. The hallmark of the next decade will be fragmentation, with data reachability and the venerable end-to-end principle eventually succumbing to a host of social and political conflicts. This transformation will take place even as the Internet expands to reach another two or three billion people. Yet by 2025 most onliners will feel the Internet has improved their quality of life as individuals, thanks to the triumph of depth of experience over outreach and a sense of commonality. A dozen major trends point in the direction of continuing fragmentation of platforms and shared interests:

1. Consumers favor tethered appliances (iPhone) over generative appliances (Mac computers), and many businesses and governments have shared motives for discouraging general-purpose computing.

2. HTTP traffic is in sharp decline relative to other IP traffic, thanks to the appification of the Web and decline of the Web browser.

3. Whether companies are highly innovative or not, the retail digital business is far more profitable when developed within walled gardens, as Apple has proven dramatically.

4. Incumbent ISPs are waging war against the open Internet, successfully so far, by deploying data caps and managed IP networks that favor their content over everyone else’s.

5. Software-defined networking, which might promote more open standards and end-user control, is undermining the classic assumptions of TCP/IP, at least in part because SDN does some things more efficiently and cheaply.

6. Years of digital convergence have paradoxically brought about a notable divergence in end-user devices, as reflected in the BYOD movement, which is healthy for ecosystem diversity yet does little to enhance end-user flexibility and control.

7. Some of the most popular online platforms, like Google and Facebook, owe their success to highly intrusive data collection and mining, which has put the targeted-ad industrial complex at odds with the core interests of millions of their users.

8. Big copyright owners like the movie studios remain in conflict with millions of alienated customers, while each side keeps developing new technical weapons, like the PirateBrowser, created by The Pirate Bay collective to channel traffic away from the open Internet.

9. In most developed nations, deregulation of the retail access business has encouraged concentration of ownership among a small group of incumbents, thereby undermining competition and the opportunity for fast, affordable connectivity.

10. Even in jurisdictions where progressive social policies are in place, the digital divide is a moving target that will ensure a significant number of citizens will continue to be disenfranchised as technological progress stays out in front of attempts to democratize Internet access.

11. Balkanization has taken hold of the global Internet in ways that may be impossible to reverse, as many nation-states, not all of them autocratic, attempt to consolidate control of their breakaway networks behind national firewalls.

12. The threat of cyberwar is rising in step with the opportunities provided by emerging technologies and encouraged by the growing threats from state-sponsored hackers, spies and terrorists, all of whom have an overwhelming commitment to making the Internet as closed, unstable and secretive as possible.

The Internet of 2025 doesn’t necessarily have to follow all these developments to an inevitable conclusion: a bitter parody of itself in which the very idea of internetworking across a common platform is sacrificed to self-serving commercial and political imperatives. But changing that outcome for the better is going to take a lot of vigilance and determination, not to mention a heightened ability to appreciate that creative destruction is a two-way street.