FEATURE: Two Futures for the Internet

Jack William Bell


Where We Were

In 1993 the World Wide Web (WWW) was two years old and there was a total of 130 websites. There was no need for search engines, there were no ads or websites selling things. Social media was email and Usenet – a distributed discussion system where messages were exchanged between servers.

Mosaic, the first general-user Internet browser was released that year. But few people installed or used it because connecting a home computer to the Internet was both expensive and difficult; even if you had an Internet service provider you needed to install special software and network drivers.

Instead, those at the leading edge of tech used a modem to connect with local BBS systems run as a hobby or to one of the few non-Internet commercial services, like America Online (AOL), CompuServe, and Prodigy. These operated as digital islands with little interoperability, aside from a few BBS systems interconnected via the FIDO network.

But 1993 was an inflection point between what came before and what we have now. It was the year AOL added Internet email addresses. The first webcam was connected to the Internet. The first livestream event featured the band Severe Tire Damage. One service, The Well, had gotten so big it needed to institute moderation policies for the first time.

By the end of the decade, a home Internet connection was common and orders of magnitude faster than a modem could provide. Google, Amazon, Ebay, and many more names still around today existed. Change came blindingly fast.

Thirty Years Later

The Internet landscape of 2023 is unrecognizable to someone from 1993. In only seven years the WWW grew from just over a hundred to more than 17 million websites at the turn of the century. A decade later there were nearly 207 million. Today that number exceeds 1.6 billion.

We’ve seen websites and business plans come and go as the corporate world tried to find a way to make money in this new space. We saw blogs start as hobbies and then fade away or be absorbed by monetization schemes. We saw every possible take on Social Media rise and fall and eventually group features into three basic forms. We saw pornography explode in popularity. We saw smartphones entirely change our social interactions by connecting everyone, anywhere, all the time … with a camera. And we saw the social fallout of things that used to happen with at most one or two witnesses being broadcast to everyone in real time.

Today the top ten Internet companies include old standards like Amazon, Alphabet (Google), and Meta (Facebook) – but half of them are Chinese and relatively new. And, while some of them also make money by selling physical goods or actual services to users, they all share a single monetization strategy: gather user data and leverage it by selling services to other companies.

In 2023 the common currency of the Internet is not dollars, but personal information; gathered directly from users by devices those users voluntarily carry in their pockets via applications those users voluntarily download and use. Basically we trade our privacy to these companies in return for services (mostly social media, but also health monitoring applications and mapping services and dating apps and streaming media and “smart doorbells” and so on) and the companies then arbitrage that data to their real customers.

This personal data is packaged and sold in a variety of ways. They might sell advertising targeted directly to individuals. They might sell the data rolled up into ‘trends’ useful in product planning. They might even sell the raw data with no idea (or concern) how it will be used or who it might be resold to. There are entire new industries based on slicing and dicing and reselling personal data about you: Where and what you eat. When you go to bed and when you get up. How you exercise. Your health metrics. Where you go and, often, what you do when you get there.

Who your friends are.

And, of course, what you like. Including those deeply personal preferences you might not want to share publicly.

And, of course, the customers for that data now include law enforcement, political actors, and propaganda outlets of all kinds.

The Two Shapes of Things to Come

This growth of personal data collection is a clear trend line; albeit one pointing in two different directions. There is a strong corporate and even governmental interest in continuing down the path of data collection for profit and as a tool for swaying the masses. And yet there is a contrasting trend of efforts by more liberal governments and privacy advocates to contain and restrict data collection to at least require users to be informed and allowed to decide what data is collected and retained. All this plus a very large contingent of users deciding on their own to opt out via technical solutions and behavior changes.

Other trends with an equal bifurcation of possible futures include:

  • News Media consolidation and the loss of  “local journalism” with a concurrent rise of  “citizen journalism”.
  • Social Media consolidation due to network effects, then fracturing again as the sites are monetized and made less useful including into intentionally distributed non-corporate systems like Mastodon
  • Authoritarian governments are increasingly “walling off” the rest of the world and surveilling their citizens while projects to pierce those walls and hide user traffic rise from the grassroots
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) is growing as a service sector while facing calls for more regulation from those who distrust the current state of the art and dislike the fact it is trained on our personal and public data
  • Virtual Reality (VR) and its sister Augmented Reality (AR) are just getting started and seem likely to find uses and misuses we haven’t even dreamed of yet

There’s a common thread to these two directions the Internet could go. On the one hand, you have a corporate/government lockdown scenario: enclosing the commons. On the other hand, you have the citizen grassroots co-op scenario: dividing the commons.

Enclosing the Commons

Up until the 18th century, much of the property in England and Scotland was  “common”. Theoretically protected by a lord, this land was held and used “in common” by the people living there. These people decided as a group how to divide and manage the land. Then, beginning primarily in the 18th century, the British Parliament passed a series of Enclosure Acts giving that land to the lords who responded by exploiting or driving out the commoners.

In the same way, the early Internet was a “commons” and consisted mostly of regular people doing things that interested them—often for free and certainly not in the expectation of enormous profits.

Early versions of the corporate Internet were a sort of privately owned commons, allowing anyone to come and play while making it easy because you didn’t have to learn to code HTML or use WordPress. “Network effects” meant more people followed their friends inside these “walled gardens” and led to the depopulation of the true commons.

But those days are over and there’s no profit in “free”. First the big corporate sites enclosed Internet “property” by making walls higher and now they seek to extract “rent” any way they can. Governmental regulation is increasing as well and, in the end, we may reach a state where only a “lord” may own the “land” in the name of protecting us.

Dividing the Commons

At the same time, the initial DIY Wild West spirit of the web lives on. If you climb over the walls of corporate social media you will find a “Fediverse” of interconnected communities—mostly run by private citizens. There are loud calls for a return to private blogs and other features of the old web which atrophied during the rise of corporate sites. There are already distributed versions of everything from search to the cloud office suites offered by the likes of Google. And governments who respect the rights and privacy of their citizens are choosing to regulate the worst excesses of the corporate Internet.

There remains a hope we can retain the commons by simply building it out faster than the corporate and authoritarian world can enclose it.

Hither or Yon?

It’s impossible to determine what direction the Internet will go. Most likely we’ll get some of one and some of the other and maybe some, “I wasn’t expecting that!”

One thing is clear: the World Wide Web is reaching the end of its life as some governments increasingly restrict access to the World Wide part of the name. Add in a patchwork of regulatory frameworks in different polities and even those websites available worldwide must present a different user experience depending on where you use them.

If we’re lucky we’ll still have a minimally regulated commons we can divide between ourselves.

And if we’re not? We can expect a ragtag group of rebels creating their own unregulated commons out of whatever materials come to hand. Trying to maintain personal freedom and integrity in the face of Big Brother for real.


About Jack William Bell

A retired programmer with forty years of experience, Bell is finally able to work on his own projects with complete freedom. He is also a writer, musician, and all-around esthete; a father, grandfather, and more. Basically, he is a very busy person.

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