The Internet: Huge Changes Ahead

If you’re thinking this is going to be about Web3 and the metaverse, it’s not. Just want to get the hype cycle stuff out of the way first. And while I will be discussing them, it won’t be what you’re expecting. Perhaps it will. My last article looked at how the internet has, in and of itself, become part of the warp and woof of our global sociocultural systems. It is, in many ways, a reflection of of our physical societies and cultures. As it’s become so deeply intertwined, it is also reflective of capitalism, global economic shifts and all that it connects. Sounds lofty. It is.

Cost and the Right of Access

The higher the speed we want, the higher the cost. Those who can afford it, will pay. For those who can’t, governments will (and many already are) step in to deliver service. It won’t be very fast, especially in rural areas. Musk’s Starlink service will benefit greatly, others will enter that space (pun intended.)

You might think the reason for this is capitalism. Sort of. The primary reason however, is bureaucracy. Both democratic and autocratic governments are becoming more digital. As they seek economic efficiencies, they’ll push for more automation of the services they provide. Many already do. China and Nordic countries have become very sophisticated in this. Other democracies and autocracies are catching up. It’s less about freedoms and more about management of a society. The upside? Less lines waiting for drivers license renewals!

Division of Labour

The pandemic showed the world that in knowledge industries, much of the work can be done from anywhere. Automation in manufacturing is also rapidly increasing with the use of Artificial Intelligence, additive processes, robotics and the Industrial-Internet-of-Things (IIoT). Specialization will continue to increase. The internet infrastructure is the backbone for how all of this can happen.

This in turn will drive demand for a more robust internet. It may even be a part of a splitting of the internet, which I discuss below. Knowledge workers too, will have to learn to adapt to working alongside Artificial Intelligence bots and develop new skills.

Urban Design & Culture

Along with changes in the division of labour will come a re-thinking of urban design and architecture along with the cultures of highly urbanized areas. Metropolises will continue to grow, but they will be guided by more humanistic approaches. Many cities today are not designed for humans, they’re designed for the physical systems needed to have a lot of people living in dense areas; they’re designed for system efficiencies. As we need less cables for the internet, so we can start shaping urban areas in more human ways.

Cybersecurity and Privacy

When it comes to privacy, consumers are increasingly aware of, and angry with, how consumer tech giants, especially social media platforms like Meta (Facebook) and TikTok handle their personal data. This has reached the point where consumers are demanding lawmakers make changes. Hence the EU’s GDPR and other countries revamping their laws. Autocracies like China and Russia, Belarus, Iran, they don’t care for human rights, let alone privacy.

But both democracies and autocracies (to varying degrees) care about cybersecurity. This too, will factor into a splitting, or tiering, of the internet.

Multiple Internets

Three factors I mention above may lead to a splitting of the internet, or, if you will, a multi-tiered internet. The Consumer Internet, which will be for all the things consumers do; eCommerce, social media, streaming services, music and collaborations. There may be varying degrees of service quality as well, depending on your ability to pay. This also may be where the uhm, metaverse thing, if it ever exists, might be.

The second will be the Industrial Internet, for manufacturing, knowledge industries (corporations) and connected IIoT devices. It will be highly secure, perhaps with its own set of protocols and a re-design of both hardware and software to make it all work. The third layer may be the Dark Web, in which reside all the nasty stuff, where the trolls live and people who want to live “Off-Net” will go, the same as folks in the real world who want to live “Off Grid.”

A Values Based, Geopolitical Split of the Internet

Even a country as locked down and dictatorial as North Korea has some degree of internet access. And they can access the same internet as everyone else. Other autocracies from China, Russia and Iran to smaller States can access the same internet. Over the next decade or so, as geopolitical systems re-align based on values, it’s not unthinkable that the internet could split along these lines as well. Geopolitical Firewalls. Interoperability and access between them will be tightly controlled.

Rule of Law and Governance

It’s no secret that in the U.S., Tech Giants are shovelling ever larger piles of money into lobbying, they’re doing the same in the EU. It is what happens in America and the EU that can impact their entire business models around the world. Most national governments have been struggling to keep up with the rapid pace of change in the digital world. From privacy laws to data taxation and crime. This is starting to change.

Over the coming decade, as governments, and especially their bureaucracies, catch up, changes will come. We can expect more intense lobbying by Tech Giants, but we can also expect increased pushback from citizen groups. It will be a test of wills. But as Tech Giants think in very technical ways and continue their move away from the humanities, they set themselves up for more disasters, which will only empower civil society groups and make it harder for politicians to let the Tech Giants get away with their mistakes. This will set up deeper tensions between civil society and technology companies.

As the internet becomes more deeply embedded in our sociocultural systems, it becomes the plumbing that helps us run these complex systems. Uptime will also be critical, more than it is now. It is already critical to many businesses, but at a societal scale we still often treat the internet as something new and novel. It no longer is. The internet is starting to become an invisible technology, meaning that we don’t think about it, it’s just always there.

The years ahead are quite exciting as we explore new ways of shaping the internet to our societies.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious