The Future of the Internet

How we got here and were we are going

The Future of the Internet
Image via Canva

During my undergraduate degree, I asked Professor Noam Chomsky if he thought that the Internet might prove to be an inherently anarchist community, to which he replied with the following:

“It was designed that way and functioned that way as long as it was within the public sector (first Pentagon, then National Science Foundation) (much of it in the lab at MIT where I was working). Since it was privatized 20 years ago, that has been less and less true, in many ways.”

Whatever the temporally-local political implications of the Internet, however, there can be absolutely no doubt that its creation is perhaps the greatest leap forward in the history of human communication. In a way, the history of the Internet is the history of human communications, a steady and yet convoluted march toward greater degrees of communication and interconnection across the millennial. As the historian Yuval Noah Harari points out in his groundbreaking book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, it is our capacity to imagine things that aren’t real and share those things with our fellows that allowed us to expand in ways that other varieties of human were apparently less-capable at (as evidenced by their eventual destruction at our hands).

Everything from verbalized speech, to basic notation, to advanced writing and the proliferation of language through mass printing… every piece of the puzzle of human communication comes together within the Internet as a massively powerful culminating entity. As Chomsky pointed out, this is not an invention free of co-option by powerful selfish interests, but I still maintain that the wonders it opens to us still have the potential to burn bright enough to outshine the dark ends to which it has been used. I think time will tell in which direction the house of cards falls.

A network of inventions

As I’ve already suggested, the Internet is not the product of a single mind, but its true beginnings were quite specific and tied, sadly, to the Cold War.

After the Soviet Union beat America to space with Sputnik, the United States finally started emphasizing the need for science education (something largely ignored beforehand)… it was out of this surge of concern over Soviet ingenuity that drove the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, now known as DARPA). The latter of these, ARPA, was especially concerned with the weakness of the U.S. communications grid to a Soviet attack. A means of communicating even should that grid be destroyed became the main point of its research efforts.

Galactic network

M.I.T. proved the main field within which thinking about this project would take place, with the initial concept described as a “galactic network” of computers capable of “talking” to one another. The first step proved to be the creation of “packet switching” a technique of breaking information down into blocks which could all be sent separately through different connections and ultimately reassembled. This meant that no single line was required between computers — they could send data through a vast network.

The first computers attached to the network were house-sized, but through the 1970s, technology’s advance began to gather speed. Soon UCLA, Stanford, and the University of Hawaii were all connected within ARPAnet, then the University College in London and the Royal Radar Establishment in Norway. But problems still existed; the increased number of local networks made it increasingly difficult to connect them all into the “galactic network” earlier envisioned at M.I.T. That’s where Vinton Carf came in.

A computer scientist, Vinton Carf developed a way for all those global-local networks to communicate with each other, something called TCP/IP (”Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol”). This is how all computers and computer networks recognize one another and communicate.

A protocol for everything

With TCP/IP solving the longstanding issue of communication beyond local networks, the Internet was born. This fledgling network connected scientists worldwide and allowed information to be sent from one computer to another anywhere. An incredible step forward, but it wouldn’t be until 1991 that the “World Wide Web,” as we know it today, would be born.

Thanks to Tim Berners-Lee, an English computer programmer, abstracted out of the Internet’s pre-existing elements, the first union that would allow for more than mere passive exploration: it would be a linked database that anyone could connect to, with instructions for how to create new servers and build websites. In fact, that original site is still hosted on CERN (where Berners-Lee worked at the time).

You can view it here.

This was the World Wide Web, a name that Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau (another computer scientist instrumental in early Internet efforts) agreed on together. From there, it was a steady expansion and process of normalization for the “Web” to become a dominant force in our lives — quite literally in my lifetime: the first non-European Web-server was installed in Palo Alto in December 1991, the same year I was born.

The future of the net

Since then, the Internet and the World Wide Web have gone through many major advances and revisions, and will undoubtedly continue to do so in the coming decades.

New methods of processing, storing, and sharing data are being explored. Of these, the most vital to our wellbeing as a global society are those that increase interoperability. We have increasing trials ahead with regard to security and safety in the e-verse, but the first step must be to remove absolute corporate or autocratic control of what we say and how we say it.

Communities need to naturally weed out the bad actors among them. The racists, misogynists, and anti-vaxxers are incredibly dangerous, but they’re fostered by many of the systems that corporate sites use to make their money. The rage-and-paranoia-spewing side of the internet is a powerful driver for corporate profits.

Interoperability would allow me to connect to friends on Facebook, even when I’m no longer a member of Facebook. Combine this with new laws that break down the Draconian copyright enforcement systems (that don’t help content creators, and actually harm us all), and we really could be getting somewhere.

New infrastructure for Internet connectivity is being implemented everywhere, via cellular services, fiber-optic networks, and satellite systems like StarLink network. True, there are massive problems inherent in some of these, but the push, at least, suggests a growing trend toward growth-mindset instead of “how much does it cost?”

Finally, blockchain technologies are breaking through in interesting ways, allowing for a secure (and yet open) form of digital transaction. These networks are not the only way forward, but they represent a powerful drive toward a new type of community building — one where creators can get paid without having to rely on corporate sponsorships.

While it’s difficult to say the long-term social and philosophical implications of the Internet (a technology still in its adolescence), it has brought hope and connection to the world like nothing before. If we can use it correctly, mobilize ourselves, and use this tool to promote the common good, we might just end up with half a chance at beating the corporations and the autocrats once and for all.

Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, a librarian, independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider becoming a paid subscriber for as little as $2.50 a month!

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