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Future of the Internet

 

Future of the Internet
Report on the workshop
28th January 2000
Departments of Innovation Studies and Cultural Studies
University of East London

 

Background

To mark the end of the project, From the net to the web and beyond: actors and interests in the construction of the Internet, the project team was holding two workshops for users of research. The first explored the future of the Internet. The second will explore the role of information and communication technologies in urban regeneration. It was held on 17 March in London’s Docklands. What follows is a summary of the issues raised in the papers sent prior to the ‘Future of the Internet’ workshop and the discussion which took place on 28 January. It is by no means a verbatim account, but it aims to provide an overview of the themes addressed.

The starting point of the workshop was the recognition that the Internet has changed in many (but not all) ways since its beginnings. It is likely it will continue to change. What will it look like in five, ten or fifteen years time? Who will be using it? For what? What will the interfaces be like? Who will enter and leave the industry? What are the new opportunities and threats? What are the obstacles to achieving them?

People from the industry and from universities with extensive knowledge and experience of the Internet were invited (see list of participants below). Once they had accepted the invitation to participate in the workshop, they were asked to write something about one or more of the following issues, for circulation prior to the workshop:

Participants were indeed seasoned users. After lunch, while waiting (in vain) for the audio-visual facility to work as it had in the morning, we did a round of when people first used the Internet. This starkly raised the questions of what is the Internet, and when did it begin? Most of the people present had been using something which could be described as the Internet in the 1980s. Many of the older people present (which is over 35 in cyberspace) remembered using JANET and X.25 networks, which could be used for file transfer many years ago. One of the younger people present remembered setting up an online environment for his friends in 1985, when he was 12. Someone who had started using it in 1993-4 remarked that in most groups he would be considered a long-time user; in this group, he was a ‘newbie’.

Introduction to the workshop

The project team introduced the day. Sally Wyatt provided a framework for the day’s discussion. She began with the observation that we live in a future-oriented society. Just as winners get to write history, present-day actors attempt to write tomorrow’s history, largely as a way of attempting to secure their current positions. This is particularly true for the Internet, which unleashes all sorts of futuristic fantasy and speculation. But of course, history still matters because it makes some futures more plausible than others. The following shape the possible directions of the Internet:

The objective of the workshop was to explore what is at stake in the contested and contestable visions of the future of the Internet and to question some of the taken-for-granted assumptions about its present and future directions.

Graham Thomas introduced the ‘Ellis Island’ model of thinking about the Internet, which highlights the problems of assimilation of new communities by old, problems experienced on the Internet at the end of the twentieth century (and into the twenty-first) and by the United States at the beginning of the last century. Until the mid-1970s, the Internet was dominated by scientists and engineers. The next wave of immigrants was the computer science community in the early 1980s. After that, academics more generally and information providers became more involved. With the development of the World Wide Web in 1993, a much more diverse group of settlers has arrived; nonetheless many of the principles and practices established during the early years remain. Graham also identified a number of fault lines; the resolution of which will signficantly influence the way the Internet emerges:

Tiziana Terranova highlighted the role of web design and the nature of the labour process, especially in the east end of London. Ironically, many of the people working in this industry became involved because they rejected the norms of traditional work, and expected to find more flexible forms of working in the new media industries. However, they work extremely long hours, often with little or no financial reward; and the need to find clients and raise finance forces them to adopt some of the norms of the worlds of advertising, finance and big business. Tiziana emphasised that the voracious appetite of the Web for content means that the proliferation of small content providers is more than compatible with the ever-greater concentration at the other end of the market, exemplifed by the recent AOL/Time-Warner merger. This illustrated another common perspective, namely that the polarised positions often presented in discussions of the Internet are not always incompatible. There can be both a commercial AND non-commercial future for the Internet. There can be market concentration AND the proliferation of small companies involved in web and software design and content provision.

Discussion

The discussion is grouped around the following themes:

However, do not be fooled into thinking the discussion was organised in this way. In fact, the discussion was very wide-ranging and often moved between discussion of the future of the Internet in very material ways and discussion of the purposes served by promoting particular future visions of the Internet. Sometimes it was difficult to maintain boundaries between different issues – an experience that many users have with the Internet itself.

Sources and role of future visions
Science fiction continues to inform future thinking. William Gibson, Pat Cadigan, Neal Stephenson and Bruce Sterling all received special mention. Some participants were surprised to find the older work of Gibson, such as Neuromancer, still being cited as an important reference point. However, others remarked on the similarities between the mega-corporations from which Case, Neuromancer’s protagonist, is trying to steal information and the mega-corporations resulting from mergers such as that between AOL and Time-Warner.

One of the problems with science fiction worlds is that they are often just one world, whereas in cyberspace we inhabit different worlds simultaneously. To talk about THE Internet or THE web has less and less meaning, as the net appears to be ‘fracturing’. This may or may not be a good thing. Diversity opens up more possibilities for successful innovation, but there are ‘network externality’ benefits from having a single Internet platform. One participant challenged the conventional wisdom of the unalloyed benefits of network externalities, by expressing the view that the greater number of users also leads to a lot more ‘noise’ on the network.

One issue on which participants agreed is that discussions of the future are a way of discussing changes in our own times. They can be used to prepare people for the present and to manage anxiety. Thus, discussions about the future ‘must be read for their techno-politics… because it will give us a better understanding of the current formations of power in cyberspace’.

Projections of the future have a real impact on today’s decisions. For instance, investments in Internet-related stocks of companies currently losing huge amounts of money can only be justified by reference to a vision of the future in which the Internet is even more ubiquitous than at present. (On the other hand, it was pointed out that ‘venture capitalists are like sheep’ - a species not generally known for its forecasting abilities.)

Interface devices
There was some debate about the future proliferation of interface devices. A world in which the computer remains the dominant interface is seen as a US one; whereas a world with a multiplicity of access devices is seen as more European. A wider choice of interfaces was seen as essential to increasing access to the Internet. This raises different questions: What kinds of services will work well on what kinds of devices? A choice of matches to watch during Wimbledon fortnight might be a good application of ‘TV on demand’, but how many people (media studies students excepted) really want to act as programme producers, choosing their own camera angles, etc? What is the likelihood (very high in some participants’ minds and completely unthinkable for others) of the end of the dominance of TCP/IP?

One of the more prescient moments in Garry Trudeau’s Doonsebury comic strip occurs in February 1995. Both Alice and Elmont are homeless in Washington, DC. Alice approaches Elmont who is sitting on a park bench, to ask him if he’d like to go for some soup. He tells her to be quiet as he is scrolling through his email. There is a pause, and then Alice asks, ‘Don’t you need a computer for that?’ Elmont replies, ‘Possibly. Researchers still aren’t sure.’

Commercial vs. non-commercial
Despite all the recent hype about e-commerce, there is a very long history of business to business e-commerce. The new questions arise because of the possibilities for consumption by individual consumers, especially of real, material goods where there are massive problems of delivery and scaling-up from the current small scale.

Experimentation needs to remain ahead of corporate control, although there were many fears that commercial interests will consolidate their position and that voluntary, political, not-for-profit organisations will become mere followers.

The appropriateness of the market metaphor was hotly disputed. One contributor saw the net as a kind of high-tech ‘souk’, and very like a market of the Adam Smith variety. Others perceive the net as having a much more hybrid character, and completely unlike a market. For the latter view, see the piece by Richard Barbrook in the catalogue for Noise: the digital and the discrete, at the Wellcome Institute in London until 26 March (http://www.kettlesyard.co.uk/noise)

Social exclusion
Who are winners and losers? Who are the Indians, pursuing Graham’s ‘Ellis Island’ metaphor? Who will be the roadkill on the information superhighway? The focus is often on access to the Internet, but perhaps the main problem in the future will be about the removal of traditional methods of access to goods, services and communication. For instance, if online banking grows, then bank branches will close, leaving people who have no online access without an easy means to obtain banking services. One participant expressed the hope that the Internet will be, ‘less associated with the idea that it will level social, generational and gendered inequities’, meaning that as the Internet becomes more ubiquitous, it is less likely to be seen as a ‘special’ force (or place), separate from the social pattern - and social divisions - of society in general. When that happens, the Internet will cease to be the holder of fears and hopes about the future.

As the Internet becomes more ubiquitous and a more important locus of power, different patterns of conflict and cooperation will emerge: between digital and offline elites and between digital elite and digital grassroots (cf. T. Jordan (1999) Cyberpower, The Culture and Politics of Cyberspace and the Internet, London: Routledge).

Content/design
There was discussion of how content will be offered and sold. The ultimate goal of some of the people promoting the client-server model of access is that content is never sold, only leased or rented - i.e. you pay for each time you see or use it. Content is increasingly becoming tied in with access means, in a revival of the 1980s’ ‘online services’ model, now reinvented as the ‘walled garden’ by cable companies, etc. When you access the Internet via a specific provider’s facilities, that provider will want to keep you focused on the content which that provider offers (either its own content or that of organisations with which it has done deals). One problem highlighted was how to put ‘public service’ content and attitudes into such walled gardens.

There was disagreement about future design paradigms, with some participants passionate about simpler, text-only design while others are committed to full ‘multi-mediafication’. Of course, this reflects users’ content and service preferences as well as their hardware capabilities.

Financial investment
The current financial speculation was a source of amazement to us all. Parallels with earlier technological ‘revolutions’, such as railroads, pharmaceuticals were noted. The fear expressed is that the bubble will burst, resulting in a slowdown of technological and cultural innovation.

In the recent book by Charles Ferguson, (High Stakes, No Prisoners: A Winner’s Tale of Greed and Glory in the Internet Wars, Times Books, 1999) he warns about the future, pointing to a problem,

that over the long run could prove more important than Microsoft as an efficient and brutal monopolist. That is the prospect of Microsoft as an inefficient, declining, politicized monopolist, in the manner of General Motors, pre-divestiture AT&T, or pre-1993 IBM… Monopolists with captive customers inevitably succumb to the temptations of laziness and decline, and when they do, they impose enormous costs upon the economy.

Ferguson was the founder of Vermeer Technologies, inventor of FrontPage, sold in January 1996 for US$130million of Microsoft stock.

Politics
What does an Internet politician look like? Since Kennedy, we all know what a television president has to do. But how do politicians know the pulse of the Net? How can they use their TV skills if people are accessing information via WAP-enabled mobile phones? How can they influence rumours? The control freaks of New Labour try to do this, but it is very difficult if not completely unmanageable in a landscape of highly diversified discussion groups. This has parallels with (largely unsuccessful) attempts by the Chinese government to control the use of the Internet within its own borders. Science fiction has also highlighted some possible net-related developments in this area: Sterling's Distraction includes a description of an internet presidential campaign featuring the use of competing software agents in a propaganda war, and the use of net conferences to incite people to attack opponents

On the other hand, the Internet can also be a means of organising counter-cultural political opposition, for instance during the demonstrations against the WTO meeting in Seattle recently. Some discussants thought that one consequence of global networking is that power is diffusing away from the nation state, and there is a question mark over what might happen to agencies tied to geographical constituencies.

 

Is there any point when discourses about the future stop, perhaps when the technology stabilises?

 

Participants

Perri 6 – University of Strathclyde
Richard Barbrook – University of Westminster
Colin Blackman – Editor of info and foresight
Nik Brown – University of York
Robin Hamman – University of Westminster/ BBC Online
Tim Jordan – Open University
Helen Kennedy – University of East London
Ian Miles – University of Manchester
Keith Mitchell – LINX
David Neice – University of Sussex
Richard Rogers – Jan van Eyck Akademie, Maastricht
Tiziana Terranova – University of East London
Graham Thomas – University of East London
Michael Wild –Future Unit, Department of Trade and Industry
Sally Wyatt – University of Amsterdam/ University of East London

 

The workshop was organised by Sally Wyatt, Tiziana Terranova and Graham Thomas of the project, From the net to the web and beyond: actors and interests in the construction of the Internet, funded by the ESRC’s Virtual Society? Programme.

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