The future of the Internet

By Marc Resnick

I am reading Jonathan Zittrain’s 2008 book on “The Future of the Internet” in preparation for my Spring web innovation class.  He doesn’t talk about futuristic technology or specific products and services like most predictors do.  The book doesn’t have flying cars or 3-D printing of fully functional automobiles at home, or any of that.  He spends the entire 250 pages discussing what he sees as the key issue of the future.

When the Internet was young, there was no business case for doing anything bad, so most users were trustworthy and trusted.  Even the hackers mostly did their work just to get street cred, not to actually hurt anything.  They would break into the CIA server just to be able to boast about the accomplishment.  No one was stealing credit card numbers and identities.

Then the Internet spread to the masses.  This led to three very significant changes.  First, there were many more users (volume).  Second, the advent of e-commerce meant that sensitive information was now there for the taking (value).  Third, the typical user was pretty clueless about how the system actually worked, so they didn’t know how to secure their networks and PCs (efficiency).  Any business that has a high volume, high value product and can produce it efficiently has a great business.  So even if philosophically we like have an open Internet, net neutrality, long tail, open source . . . . . this just might not be sustainable.

He sees two ends of a spectrum that the Internet will evolve into.  On one end is the tethered information appliance.  In this case, everybody makes a small piece of the puzzle (like the toaster, blender, oven, microwave, silverware, plates, etc in your kitchen).  They are mostly cross-compatible (most food containers are microwavable nowadays), and consumers don’t have the ability to hack anything because none of them are particularly complex.  There is not much to hack with.  In this model, our word processor, browser, camera, etc etc etc would all be very minimally functional, you would buy the ones you want, and plug them all together.  They would not truly “integrate” like they can now.

On the other end of the spectrum is the old IBM model where they leased you the hardware, software, training, maintenance plan, and even customized programming for your entire system.  So everything was fully integrated and fully compatible, but you weren’t connected to the outside.  It was all locked down, so no hacking was possible and even if you could break through you couldn’t spread it to others.

The problem with both ends of the spectrum is that we destroy the innovative culture of the Internet.  Mashups and mods, and 5th party apps on top of 4th party APIs on 3rd party software on 2nd party hardware on a 1st party network disappears.  No more Angry Birds.

So he proposes something down the middle.  A hybrid of the two that combines technological, regulatory, process, and communication innovations.  It’s not perfect, but given where we are going now it is much better than the alternatives.  It balances some amount of security and safety with a moderate freedom to hack, mashup, and innovate.

All three of these possibilities are still in the future and none of us has a crystal ball to know what is possible or what will happen.  Maybe we will hit a technological singularity and all of this will be moot.  Or maybe the bad guys will win before we have a chance to get to one of these futures.  But if we want the future to reflect a balance of freedom and security, we can’t leave it to the governments of the world or to the Microsoft/Apple/Googles.  Nobody’s best interest is quite aligned with the general public.  Look at what happened when we let the banks redesign the mortgage industry.   One thing we know is that incentives matter.

So I started thinking about who would make up the best team to figure out and design the future?  It seems to me that what Zittrain describes requires a combination of many of our disciplines.  A team of brilliant innovators working through the technological, political, cultural, regulatory, psychological, and other issues to create a vision for the future would be a great read (maybe a White Paper, or short book) and could be the roadmap that the future really follows.

Anyone interested?  Let me know.

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