Something has happened to our sense of the future. In old movies or TV shows, the future was often depicted as a wholly alien world, a barely recognizable landscape of flying cars, and out of control clones. On a show like Black Mirror, by contrast, the future often looks a lot like the present, but with higher-quality VR. This imaginative contraction—might it have something to do with the progression of the internet? Here was had the most significant technological leap in generations, the potential for which seemed boundless—and it’s looked the same, basically, for over a decade. Twitter and Facebook might look different than they did in 2009, but not that different. It seems we’ve reached a sort of stasis, and it’s not clear what might change it. Will the internet look radically different in ten years, or just somewhat sleeker? For this week’s Giz Asks, we reached out to a number of experts for a sense of how the internet might look a decade from now.
Professor of Media and Communication Studies at the University of Westminster, Director of the Communication and Media Research Institute, and author of 500 publications, including the books Social Media: A Critical Introduction, Digital Demagogue: Authoritarian Capitalism in the Age of Trump and Twitter, and Rereading Marx in the Age of Digital Capitalism
The internet and society interact. How the internet will look like in 2030 depends on how society will develop. History is the history of class and social struggles, which is why the future is not determined and relatively open. It all depends on human praxis. The future of society and the internet range on a continuum where dystopias form one end and concrete utopias another end. We are in a crisis that puts forward the alternatives of barbarism and socialism.
If the current tendencies of nationalism and authoritarianism continue and intensify, then the future will be war and fascism. On a fascist internet in a fascist society, there’ll be constant right-wing propaganda over corporate monopoly platforms and state-controlled platforms, entertainment will keep the masses apolitical and silent, there’ll be no democracy and no freedom of speech, any political opposition—including alternative and critical voices on the Internet—will be crushed with violence. On the fascist internet, there is a combination of corporate and state surveillance.
In order to prevent such a dystopian future, humans need to struggle for democratic socialism. Socialism is always democratic otherwise it is not socialist. On a socialist internet in socialist society, we find public service internet platforms that are independent from the state and corporations as well as platform co-operatives, self-managed internet organizations that are owned and controlled by workers and users. Under socialist conditions, there is egalitarian access to education and skills development and working time is radically reduced so that humans have the time, spaces and skills available that allow everyone to develop as a critical and creative individual. Such individuals will use the internet in critical and creative ways so that a dynamic plurality of new social initiatives and projects supported by face-to-face and internet-mediated communication will emerge.
The future of society and the internet could take on any form situated on the continuum between barbarism and socialism. In 1915, Rosa Luxemburg wrote that “[b]ourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism”. More than 100 years later, both society and the internet stand at a similar crossroads in a time of crisis and bifurcations.
Sarah J. Jackson
Presidential Associate Professor, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania
In 2030 the shape of the internet will depend wholly on if advocates and fairness-minded policymakers can succeed in reinstating and strengthening network neutrality. If they can’t, and given the recent dismantling of net neutrality and other policies that center democratic access, in 2030 the internet the majority access through phone data and WiFi will include more ads, slower speeds, more corporately-selected content, and platforms will reflect less diversity of users. Elites will have access to expensive, private internet that is faster and better and old concerns about a digital divide will come to have new meaning.
Host of the Techmeme Ride Home podcast and author of How The Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone
For sure, we’re about to see a bi-furcated internet. We’re already seeing it happen. It’s not just that there will be a Chinese version of the internet and a “western” version of the internet, where one is more locked down/surveilled/censored and the other is still the open-standards based, largely unregulated commons that we’ve been used to for at least 30 years. The question is becoming, will other governments be attracted to this notion of a “locked” down internet? Will there be a Russian version of the internet? An Indian version of the internet, etc.?
And then the question becomes, what about Europe and GDPR? Already companies and platforms have to serve different things to users in Europe. To what degree will we see the internet splinter into a galaxy of different “internets” based on local law and even custom? Platforms and companies already had to decide if, and in what way, they would try to do business on China’s internet. By 2030, will it be a matter of making that choice on a case-by-case, country by country basis?
Then again, the “western” “open” internet has already been, to a large degree, subsumed by the major platforms a silos anyway. I don’t see that process slowing down any time soon. Indeed, the whole point of the oligopoly that is sitting atop the Internet is to strangle any competitors (read: innovation; read: disruption). As such, I guess my overall answer is one of extreme pessimism. In 2030 might we look back 10, 15 years and pine for the internet we once new as a fallen golden era?
Sarah Ann Oates
Professor and Senior Scholar, Journalism, University of Maryland, whose research focuses on media and democratization, especially the role of the internet in non-free states
While connection to the internet has become much more seamless and automatic by 2030, the global online audience will be split into clans and tribes. Some of these tribes will be national in nature, particularly as authoritarian regimes wall off their citizens on to limited, national platforms. This is happening already in countries such as China, but it will also occur as people turn away from large, generic social media platforms and engage more with affinity groups. There will be a rise in micro-influencers as people vest more time and attention in their own particular interests. In other words, people are less interested in one generic internet and much more oriented to smaller, more intimate online communities and experiences.
2019 already has seen the end of privacy, not just in terms of countless data breaches but also because we realize that our online behavior creates a distinctive, recognizable identity. It is expected that 2030 may bring the end of online anonymity as well, given that anonymity is impossible in a sphere in which your online behavior is as distinctive as a fingerprint. While acknowledging the end of anonymity may be painful for some users who enjoy changing or assuming identities online, it can mean less undesirable behavior such as trolling and scams online. This means no more Ashley Madison-type shock revelations and more civil behavior.
Privacy is dead, long live personalization.
Associate Professor, Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University, whose research focuses on the global distribution of digital media, and the relationship between technology, society, and the aquatic environment. She is the author of The Undersea Network.
In 2030, the internet will be under water. Granted, a lot of the internet is already under water—traveling through fiber-optic cables that transport almost all transoceanic traffic. And cables will still be the foundation of the global internet in 2030. But broad swathes of internet architecture that was never meant to be submerged—terrestrial cables, data centers, and the offices of internet providers—will have been affected by climate change. The effects of this won’t simply be outages. Climate change, and the economic cost of mitigating it, will cascade into content. What is already a multiple-tier system will become even less democratic or rhizomatic. Those who can afford to pay will have access to backup networks and resilient architectures. Those who can’t will sacrifice their privacy and autonomy to be linked in. The groundwork for this system is already in place. It will just take a decade of catastrophic storms to fully realize it.
Professor of Digital Cultural Heritage at the University of Edinburgh‘s College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, and Director of the Edinburgh Centre for Data, Culture and Society
As the internet comes up to its 60th birthday, and the world wide web passes its 40th, the early days of no regulation, computational creativity, freedom of digital movement, and equal access to networks will seem like ancient history. Those who remember the very early days of the World Wide Web will, for the most part, be reaching an age where Geocities will seem like a fairytale land to tell grandchildren about. It’s likely that in its place we’ll have an increasingly locked down digital environment, where users also understand that every activity they undertake can and will be tracked, traced, and monetized. As we’ve seen in recent years, the building and hosting of platforms to host content will become increasingly complex, and therefore costly, resulting in a further closing down of opportunities for the development of technology for social good if that doesn’t comply with dominant surveillance capitalist economy funding models.
What I would like is that we’ll have found the ways to negotiate the worst of human behavior that we’ve been seeing on social media in recent years, with a range of checks and balances introduced to identify and stop unwanted bullying and harassment, in a way that doesn’t stifle debate when it is welcomed. I’d like there to be less blunt social media tools, that users can take control over, allowing meaningful interactions. I’d like to see the not-for-profits who govern the internet be given increased legal powers to intervene on ethical issues, and to challenge the dominance of big commerce. I’d like for human culture and history to be given equal precedence on the internet to financial transactions, and for building meaningful human connections to be at the heart of technological development. I’d like for the networked, community experience to be utilized in innovative ways to tackle climate change, and the environmental crisis. I’d like there to be increased diversity in tech, and its products. I’d like to see this financed through Network Taxes on big commerce, and the technology and financial industries.
Failing that (all of which are avenues we need to start exploring now if they are to happen) we’ll see growing pockets of society which shun the internet and its invasive ways: refuseniks who find ways to stay off-grid, local, and human. Despite great initial goals and promise for society, the internet may have eaten itself by 2030, and be downgraded to a suite of prescribed services, rather than the playground and support structure it could have been. The 1990s WWW was great, but you had to be there.
Professor, Digital Cultures, Maastricht University, The Netherlands, whose work focuses on what digital technologies mean for how people find and understand health information, and for how science is changing. She is also the programme director for a new, interdisciplinary BA Digital Society, and the co-author of Cyber Genetics: Health Genetics and New Media
Eleven years is a long time in the life of the internet. If we go back to 2008, many commentators were still claiming that the internet could only bring good things—democracy to countries suffering under authoritarian regimes, new forms of work and organization that would bring greater flexibility for workers and consumers, enormous creative possibilities for both amateurs and professionals. If we go back to 1997, the internet was still relatively new for ordinary consumers, having only gone public a few years previously. At that point, many governments were investing in the infrastructure and were concerned with how best to overcome any digital divides that might emerge.
Now, most commentators recognize that it is all more complicated. The internet can be used by different political parties and regimes, not always in the interest of openness and democracy. Many more millions of people have access to the internet then 22 years ago but not all of them are using it to inform themselves about their health or to express their creativity. Some are using it for criminal ends or as an infinite procrastination device.
Who knows what it will look like in 2030? Some days, I fear that we will be living in a post-apocalyptic world in which many of the social, political, and technological gains of the 20th century will be lost and that the internet will have played a major role in bringing about that disaster. It will have hastened the climate disaster by its continued growth and the enormous energy needs of bitcoin, AI, and big data. It will also have contributed to the breakdown of trust between individuals and between countries through the further spread of misinformation and the better quality of deep fakes.
On better days, I hope that the early promises and potential of the internet will be realized. But that won’t happen by itself. Governments need to take their responsibilities seriously to reign in the economic and political power of a few corporations. While the internet brings new legal and ethical challenges, there is already lots of legislation that could be deployed, maybe not universally but in some local, national and supranational jurisdictions. There are many examples of laws that deal with hate speech, tax evasion, abuse of monopoly power, privacy, and human rights. But to apply those laws to the internet and the myriad activities it enables requires that legislators and citizens learn much more about how the internet works and what is possible, legally, and technically.
Technologies, including the internet, reflect the values and priorities of the societies in which they are developed. Societies get the technologies they deserve. It is up to us—individually and collectively—to create, design, use, and evaluate technologies. Sometimes we need to choose otherwise, and sometimes even reject what may be on offer.
Professor of Economics and Director of the Information Economy Project at Clemson University
The commercial internet, just twenty-five years of age, is already slouching into mid-life crisis. The premature malady is deep, hormonal. I need not list the plagues of locust we count in our restless sleep. You know them well—as Google, Facebook, Evite, and the People’s Republic of China have secretly shared with me.
What to expect in 2030, a decade hence? I shudder to guess, and my first step is in reverse. One decade ago, circa 2010, our world was giddy with digital hope and change, gushing over the Internet Triumphant ushering in a transformational American president. And then back to 2000, when the “tech giant” meme was the heralded in the AOL-Time Warner merger to end online competition as the world had known it.
These history crushing moments turned out over-rated. But I am undeterred.
The internet of 2030 will outperform today’s online world by the same margin that Netflix outdoes the Blockbuster store. Yesterday’s internet window was a desktop panel; now it’s a mobile screen; 2030’s will be the sensor in your favorite body part. This is mostly a good thing. A Golden Age of health and fitness is emerging. The data to be generated by our Smart Bodies will make us physically robust and mentally healthy, relative to trend. A.I. will feast, not on the Tiny Data of 2020, but galaxies more in 2030.
To get there, we half-follow Tim Cook. Cook savages Mark Zuckerberg for playing fast and loose with our confidences, and offers a nifty solution: pay Apple all of your money. It’s the polar image of Facebook, where the gate is wide open but you spill, and hence share, all your thoughts. The clash of such models, with their rival bargains and competing curations, will lead to discovery and solution. Our mid-life crisis will come to be embraced of more of a happy early retirement. I hope Ray Kurzweil is there to celebrate. And I’m taking my One-a-Day Multi-Vitamins in hopes of joining him.
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