September 24, 2006

The Future of the Internet II

Reflections

The issues are the same, but the stakes are higher than ever before; looking ahead instead of simply looking backward is of vital importance.

Hope and fear are threaded through the material shared by respondents to this survey. This is a predictable outcome, since all human progress has had its negative and positive influences; as social communications theorist Mark Poster pointed out in one of his survey elaborations, “ambivalent effects are typical of all great historical changes.”

The hope found here appears in common future visions of people helping people through connections on a massive, collaborative, open, worldwide communications network. The internet is already a powerful tool for social networking, for connection. Innovations such as Wikipedia, MySpace, Flickr and Second Life are showing the power of individual participation and creativity and the wisdom of crowds. In addition, the number of internet initiatives for the public good is on the increase as the economics of connectedness are beginning to flatten. One such project is the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS), based out of the UC system units at Berkeley, Davis, Merced and Santa Cruz.

The efforts of CITRIS, supported by funding from tech companies, are responsible, for instance, for a Wi-Fi wireless network that allows eye specialists in the Tamil Nadu region of India to examine patients in remote clinics via high-quality video conference. The program is now expanding to include 50 clinics that will serve up to 500,000 patients each year. CITRIS also hosted a June 2006 international conference in Helsinki on the convergence of future communications technologies; the environment, energy and sustainability; and services, security and society.58

A lot of the fear about the future of the worldwide communications network is expressed in concerns about the outcomes of political and economic power struggles in the new age of human networking.

Throughout the history of communications innovations, every new-media mechanism has been perceived and framed by existing firms and their political allies in the old-media paradigm. For instance, decision-makers applied their experiences with the telegraph when evaluating how best to deploy radio; they looked at the diffusion of television with radio-tinted glasses. The old-media rules, regulations, pecking order and associated social, political and economic power structures are always superimposed upon the latest breakthrough technology. As Carolyn Marvin observed in her book When Old Technologies Were New, “New practices do not so much flow directly from technologies that inspire them as they are improvised out of old practices that no longer work in new settings.”59

There is a mournful tone – sometimes tinged with frustration – underlying a significant percentage of the written responses to several of the proposed scenarios in this survey. Many respondents reflect disappointment in seeing the internet’s open, neutral potential being threatened by what they believe to be corporate and governmental attempts to return to older business and political models. They would like to see the internet defined in a new way, not in the telephone/television paradigm, and they would like to see hope restored for an internet that can help topple oppressive regimes and allow individuals everywhere to self-actualize.

Survey participant David Clark, an original internet architect who is working to help inspire a new, improved internet, said in a recent interview with Red Herring magazine that it’s vital to stop struggling with the past (the old paradigm) and dream of how good the future can be. “We don’t presently have a roadmap of where we are trying to go with the internet, where we would like to be in 10 to 15 years,” he said in the interview. “If the story is compelling enough, people will figure out how to get there.”60

  1. The Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society site is available online at www.citiris-us.org.
  2. Marvin, C. When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking about Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 1988, p. 5.
  3. "The Future of the Internet: In a Decade, the Net Will Dig Deeper into Our Lives," Red Herring, April 10, 2006, available online at http://www.redherring.com/Article.aspx?a=16391&hed=The+Future+of+the+Internet