When the Internet Is Gone

Recent events toward something collectively dubbed the “two-tier Internet” by journos have got me thinking about the future of the Internet again. Bear in mind Clay Shirky’s adage that whenever he thinks about what should happen, it prevents him from thinking about what will. The following is therefore not particularly considered against anything and is doubtless rooted in too many pre-conceptions, but what the hell. See what you think.

Forward into the future by 50 years, when those evil ISPs have squeezed the life out of the Internet. The “commercial network” is an oligopoly of walled gardens, each as dull and boring as one another, having long since raced to the bottom for lowest common denominator appeal. Microsoft controls the EyeCandy Platform on which much of it is based, and most have ditched TPC/IP as being too “outdated.” Content is controlled by a handful of media conglomerates that pump out a methadone metronome of sport, celebrity gossip sites and vapid branding vehicles masquerading as “lifestyle portals.” TV, voice communication and the old Internet have now pretty much melded into one on line. Music on the network is largely the preserve of pre-teen pap pop since DRM is built in to the protocols in use – nothing that isn’t part of the ISP’s kickback deals with music publishers is allowed to play. But music (and print) publishers, as we shall see, have all but died a complete death. The artistic desert of the Old Internet is the only place they can ply a trade.

There is also the “non-commercial network.” This is bandwidth regulated by governments for non-profit and community purposes. The ISPs are made to contribute to this and peer with it. If they had their way, they’d squash it. This network’s main practical purpose is to link the walled gardens together. This, ironically, is a free service the ISPs rely on. Here, a loose “outdated” collection of SMTP-like protocols of both point-to-point and store-and-forward nature predominates. Between these, there is still good old HTTP, carrying government and community sites. By today’s standards it’s still incredibly fast, and delivers an experience better than we have today, but the content lacks any edge. Censorship is rife, and everything is locked down tight. It’s the “official” public domain used by teachers, academics, OAPs and very young children. Teletext, by the way, has migrated here too, and like some kind of techo cockroach, continues to be resistant to all cultural and technological change. Just as it was in the year 2000.

What hope then for the cyber cowboys, the hackers and cypherpunks that brought us the Old Internet? Have they at last had to part with the control that started to wane at the start of the 21st century? What happened to FOSS, copyleft and Creative Commons?

The answer is that they are no longer on line as we know it. They have instead returned to their roots, reclaimed the conceptual spaces they once inhabited at the end of the last century. They have formed a new system that is now underpinning commerce and society. This time, however, it really is decentralised.

The irony is that the cyberpunks of 2056 appropriated a term to describe this system first coined by Microsoft in 2002: The Darknet (1Mb Word file). The Darknet has been fuelled by various technological and cultural changes. The Darknet is the true successor of today’s Internet and exists thanks to developments in three key technologies: encryption, wireless networking, and above all, storage hardware.

Firstly though, consider that in the year 2056, the vast majority of computer hardware is made in China. China’s manufacturers listen to the West only in terms of profit and loss. If there are markets to be exploited, they will sell to them. Since manufacturing industry in the US and EC (the second and third largest economies in the world) is now minimal, there are few producers to protect by tariff. The West bas been bleating about compliance with copyright conventions, anti-piracy initiatives and many other demands brought by publishing industry lobbyists, but apart from some notable victories in the early years, hardware is now largely kept free of technologies to restrict its use in copying. Even when such victories are won, the technologies in question are soon circumvented by hackers, or one or more industry players break ranks to gain an edge over the competition. The technologies then become obsolete. Once this happens, the technological snake oil salesmen hit the publishing industry again, who duly fall for it, lobby the politicians who then pass poorly drafted legislation. Once again, the cycle starts again only for it all to come to nothing in the end.

The greatest enabling factor is that physical storage capacity has sky-rocketed in the preceding 50 years. Its price has also tumbled to the point of trivial commodity. A device the size of a lentil can contain a petabyte, and cost not much more than a pack of gum. Most personal devices can, if the user wants to pay a bit extra, contain thousands of petabytes of storage. The dominant storage technology contains no moving parts, takes picoseconds to access and is completely non-volatile on power-off. Commodity production methods have produced a reliable housing for this technology that equips these storage “beans” with near-field connectivity (the great-great-grandchild of Bluetooth) to seek out and connect to I/O automatically, and with very low power requirements. The network protocols involved can also carry enough energy to re-charge the beans if necessary. They have a mean time to failure of about 10 years. Portable devices mostly use fuel cells which can be re-charged with water. On the whole, battery life is about as much of an issue as it is with calculators and wrist watches in 2006.

Virtually all devices that can be (including the storage beans) are Ethernet enabled and individually addressable over IPv6. Most wireless connectivity runs at thousands of times the speed we now have with 802.11. Not only is this using radio spectrum, but other frequencies as well. So there are billions of channels that devices can communicate together on.

The use of cheap quantum encryption over relatively long distances is also starting to become possible for domestic use. Standard public-key encryption is well understood even by children, and is as common as signing a cheque or presenting ID today. This, together with the routine use of tunnelling and steganography built into devices and turned on as standard. Privacy and security having been good selling points for years following increasingly dire attempts by publishers to control and spy on their customers’ use of their content. This now means that snooping on traffic is a dead science.

On their own, these three technologies are used on the ISP-controlled networks. Indeed, some even boast that all their internal communications use quantum encryption keys, which in fact will be standard in another five years or so anyway. Wireless is also ubiquitous and taken for granted. What is new is what people are doing when these things combine – how they are using these technologies.

To get a flavour for what’s going on, take Mary. She’s a 23-year old woman fresh out of university. She’s in what we might today call a band, and a lot of her friends are too. It’s not just music they play though. They make what we would call digital art. They also write a kind of poetry, which is sometimes used as lyrics and other times stand on their own or are used by others as dialogues between cartoon characters in collaborative films that are shown in schools, pubs and various social gatherings. Mary likes to mash and mix media together, as do her friends. And she likes to share or buy the best she finds. Less able or interested people do the same. Making your own entertainment is a way of life in some circles for people of her age.

Mary’s main device is her “index.” This is a device the size of a mobile phone which is designed mainly to let her “mine” media and information. She gets this information not from the commercial networks, or even the non-commercial one. She gets it from tiny storage devices that litter her world. On desks, glove compartments, swimming pools, the garden, inside clothes or made into jewelery. These are the “beans” of data given to her by friends, handed out on the street, in clubs or at fuel stations, written by the indexes of others, or other devices. Everywhere you go, there are beans nestling, mostly out of view, somewhere.

A bean could contain the complete works of English literature, or all the works of Hollywood from 1920 to 2020, or a catalogue of clothes. As long as she is within a few meters of a bean she can re-charge it, index it and scan it for stuff she might be interested in. Much of what she finds is encrypted; some of it in a format she can’t read, is bad or otherwise corrupted. So she needs a way of approaching the owners to offer them her key so that she can read their beans, and vice versa. This leads her to maintain huge social networks mediated by collaborative filters which at their edges form commercial networks where buying and selling is performed. Barriers to entry to her network is next to zero, but getting her attention is next to impossible unless the “swarm” of her interests, personal contacts and filters bring you to her.

Perhaps the most interesting social shift that Mary typifies is that she’s not interested in real time very much. This is with the exception of messaging within her trusted network (not having a trusted network isn’t really an option since legions of spammers will simply saturate your comms channels immediately). The immediacy of news or current events is not a selling point because there is no common, centralised idea of what constitutes “news” or an event. There is no point in trying to stay “current” with general information, since there is more than enough information to absorb in her immediate community. This community constantly fragments and specialises. Any centrality only exists long enough to sustain a specific end. The Reithan notion of broadcast media has therefore withered away into the commercial networks where it is struggling to survive at all. Instead, data comes to Mary in fits and starts. Sometimes she may not mine anything for days or weeks, but when she does and she’s in the mood to find something she will look for it. She may then spend another few days or even months idly browsing a subset of it, or picking out specifics that she’s looking for. Then she’ll get on with her life and store the physical bean itself, or download some or all of its contents elsewhere. She is also giving as much data as she is getting. This leads to a pronounced fragmentation and deepening of interests between people. Last year Mary mined a bean containing information about the Middle Ages compiled by a bunch of hippies she met on holiday while her boyfriend was looking at a set of re-created late 1990’s bulletin boards he found on the beach in Manila.

Meanwhile, the entertainment media is alive and well. They are still producing big budget films (or “immersions” are they are now called) as well as thousands of smaller, niche productions at comparatively low cost, although still out of reach of most individuals. Huge audiences for them are there, but only at first. Copyright terms last only a few months, and are for the most part respected. Once the media is consumed by the Darknet after that, there are few channels left to make money with, save perhaps a charitable long tail, which sustains some small producers reasonably well. Neverthless, as the ideas and techniques of each immersion are digested and re-constituted by the public domain, they come back in barely recognisable form as material for a new immersion to be developed by the studio and manipulated using the latest technologies they have access to. Along the way, the countless spin-offs and mashups have in turn inspired various ways of making money for many different people in and outside of the immediate media industry. What started at the turn of the century as what the studios thought was a thorn in their side has turned out to be their saviour. The MPAA was disbanded in disgrace about twenty years ago.

So the media executives have seen the light on copying: their industry is supported by The Darknet. But what of the ISPs? The facilitators of the Old Internet have become an irrelevance – massaging a bland morass of middle-American taste while share prices drift around aimlessly and profits flat-line. They could instead have been where the media corporations are: embracing the freedom that the public domain gives their business, and using this to invest in better ways of making money. They now know that if you seek to control the system, it instead will control you.

April 2006

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