As anyone with only a passing interest in technology can tell you, the internet has radically affected, even revolutionised, the way we interact in the social, economic, academic and political spheres.
Once a network of dedicated enthusiasts – geeks and academics – the internet was an egalitarian, even utopian, experiment. But like many countercultures, once the web went more mainstream, it became far more commercial and hierarchical. Of course, the original democratic and collaborative spirit still exists, as reflected in the wealth of free, open-source material, including the emblematic Wikipedia and the online ‘Copyleft’ concept.
But the wider trend towards monetising the internet continues, as demonstrated by the growth of advertisingdriven web giants like the search engine Google and social networking hub Facebook, and greater use of pay walls blocking access to content.
As we stand on the frontier of the Future Internet, the web is on the verge of a revolution, raising the question of which trend(s) will dominate. Since the direction the internet takes will have enormous socio-economic, political and ethical implications, it is important to try to foresee possible trends and their ramifications.
THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME
With a view to building a better understanding of the direction(s) in which the web is heading and the significance of this, the Oxford Internet Institute carried out a major EU-funded study, which was due to be presented at a public workshop on 22 November 2013 in Brussels.
The study isolated four major forces that will shape the Future Internet. The first of these was the conflict of interest between the various online stakeholders: network operators, service and content providers, governments and users. The second factor is the rapidly shifting infrastructure and socio-technical context, where change is increasingly driven by commercial imperatives and less so by technological change.
A third force is the degree of governance and regulation, which can potentially preserve the neutrality of the internet and prevent major market players from misusing their dominant position.
The final factor is the growing trend of focusing on the user when designing interfaces and applications.
MARKETPLACE OR FORUM
Employing several foresight techniques, the study construct four plausible scenarios for the future: ‘Smooth trip’, ‘Going green’, ‘Commercial Big Brother’ and ‘Power to the people’, with the last two representing opposite ends on the spectrum of possibilities.
Under the ‘Commercial Big Brother’ scenario, the online world would become little more than a commercial platform where shopping and e-commerce would be the web’s dominant activities. In the ‘Power to the people’ scenario, the internet would become predominantly a forum for the free production of knowledge and the promotion of freedom and democracy. The ‘Smooth trip’ scenario lies in the middle ground between the two and shares elements of both.
The diagram below illustrates and explains the features of the four scenarios, the differences between them and how they overlap. As is evident, ‘Commercial Big Brother’ and ‘Power to the people’ do not overlap. They digress in two respects in particular: the pervasive nature of network control (centralised vs. decentralised) and the main beneficiaries of the internet (competitive economic interests vs. new forms of social collaboration).
TOWARDS THE INTERNET OF EVERYTHING
The emerging Internet of Things will change the nature of power, concludes the study’s final report. “The growth of connectivity of internet-enabled devices, e.g. the Internet of Things … will redefine the very nature of the internet and, most importantly, the fabric of social, cultural, political and economic institutions globally.”
This is because the internet has infiltrated many aspects of our lives, and will continue to do so as it spreads across our physical space and becomes accessible anytime, anywhere, ‘anyhow’. This increasing culture of dependence creates potential vulnerability, from the technical to the legal.
This gives extra urgency to governance and regulation issues, the report emphasises. However, its authors do warn against the dangers of overregulation. “It is also true that the internet’s bottom-up evolutionary development and relative lack of protection and regulation has made possible the flourishing of innovative applications and unprecedent possibilities, with huge societal and economic repercussions.”
Although commercial spaces on the internet are inevitable and, in the right form, desirable, the tension between the business and social aspects of the web is growing. The consequences of inaction or the wrong type of action could be grave: the open and transparent internet of today is at risk of becoming a huge market of citizens’ data, dominated and managed by a few internet giants.
THE INTERNET OF EVERYONE
Today, there are already signs indicating that, if left unchecked and not properly regulated, we are well on the road to the ‘Commercial Big Brother’ future reality. For instance, Google controls four-fifths of the global search market and 98 % of the mobile search market, while Facebook dominates the social networking and identity ecosystem.
However, the collaborative, grass-roots, socially-driven face of the internet is also growing, as reflected in the mushrooming spread of open source software, the explosion in blogs, crowdsourcing and funding, and the various wiki-like platforms.
To strike the right balance between these trends and ensure that the internet remains essentially bottom-up and democratic, the study has come up with 10 paired guiding principles. These features of the Future Internet are:
Available and accessible
Diverse and inclusive
Scalable and sustainable
Open and sharable
Green and affordable
Reliable and resilient
Safe and secure
Private and trustworthy
Appealing and useable
Adaptable and customisable
This also highlights the importance of a multidisciplinary approach to Future Internet research – including but not limited to sociological design, psycho-economics for decision-making, design influenced by cognitive factors and comprehension analysis – rather than the current focus on networks.
Such a holistic focus will enable us to design and build a Future Internet which is a human-oriented, user-centred, social space for collaboration and innovation.
It’s assembly time
Given the strategic importance of the Future Internet, stakeholders have been gathering regularly under the auspices of the European Commission since 2008. This annual Future Internet Assembly (FIA) is the main event in the EU calendar relating to the web of tomorrow.
In 2013, FIA took place in Dublin and focused on the theme of how the Future Internet accelerates innovation. Next March, the first FIA under Horizon 2020 will be hosted by Athens and it will deal with ways to reshape the Future Internet’s infrastructure to further promote innovation based on developments in, for example, network/cloud integration, network virtualisation, software and services, applications and social media, energy-saving trends, and open platforms and new markets.
More info: FIA – http://www.future-internet.eu/, FIA Dublin – http://www.fi-dublin.eu/about/ and FIA Athens – http://www.fi-athens.eu/