2013 to Infinity: The future World Wide Web

In the latest in our series on ripples from 1993, we contemplate the net's next phase

Bouncing off the print issue's 93 Till Infinity takeover, this week on Dazed Digital we are publishing five articles looking at how the events of 1993 impacted today's world – and where the ripples from that tumultuous year are headed.

After an interview with two newly weds, the first gay couple married at a US Amy base, 20 years on from Don't Ask, Don't Tell and a piece from South Africa's born free generation, here we wonder where the world wide web is going 20 years since it launched. 

I like this dated TV ad. It’s almost twenty years old, but the wide-eyed wonder smeared all over the phrase, “America Online can do all that??” is, for me, emblematic of the ecstasy which accompanied the World Wide Web’s mid-nineties boom.

And the list of totally, like, awesome stuff that the web could do at its inception in 1993 or two years later in the above ad is not that far from what still makes it a wonderful resource for us today. Ordering gifts at short notice, booking cheap plane tickets and socialising with geographically distant people who share the same interests – we’re enamoured of it all, though these things are no longer outlandish promises of productivity. They have become quotidian. [A point picked up in our interview with internet pioneer Robert Cailliaus – Ed]

But where next for the web? The future, depending on which view you take, is available in various shades of fantastic, terrifying and insane. I spent a few days digging up some interesting research and this, cyberpals, is the result.

The most immediate changes to the web you’re likely to notice are improvements in sheer pace. Broadband speeds of a gigabit or more have just started to become available to some US and UK web-fans through ventures like Google Fiber or, in Britain, Hyperoptic. Speeds of over 10 gigabytes are predicted to become normal, as are – of course – huge step-ups in mobile broadband. While improvements in bandwidth are certain, what is still in the realms of pure, fun speculation is how we will make use of these hypersonic speeds.

While data streams continue to exponentially increase in volume, however, the Internet will also begin to be supported in new and interesting places. Like space. Yes, Vint Cerf, one of the original architects of the infrastructure upon which the World Wide Web itself is built, has been hard at work thinking of ways to expand the Internet far beyond the confines of our planet.

And NASA, back in 2008, was already experimenting with lasers that could theoretically beam data back and forth between Earth and Mars. It’s technology like that (named Lasercom) which could play a key role in the foundations of an “Interplanetary Internet” of the future.

Even if the architecture of the web can be deployed to new frontiers, that’s not to say that the ideals which accompanied its inception will follow. Right now, the digital is a battleground for rival governments and organisations who possess contrasting beliefs on how the Internet should be managed.

Just a few days ago, Vietnam banned the sharing of news stories on social media – a move which signals the latest in a long line of crackdowns on cyber freedoms in certain Asian countries. As The Economist noted in April, the developing global schism on web censorship and the rise of intrusion by regimes is rapidly forcing nation states to put their cards on the table and decide whether they want to be hands-off or hands-on when it comes to controlling citizens’ access.

As the debate on this issue rages, it seems fair to say that the future web will be more divided geographically. In an outlandish, worst-case scenario, there could even be a true structural split in which a group of disgruntled countries completely cordon themselves off from the larger global network. This is mirrored by the eerie news that Apple has patented technology for security services to disable its devices temporarily within a certain radius.

According to MIT professor Jonathan Zittrain, even the commercial ownership of technology has a direct impact on our freedoms. In his book, “The Future of the Internet: And How to Stop it,” Zittrain writes of his concerns over, “bundled hardware and software that is created and controlled by one company.”

“This,” he argues, “will affect how readily behaviour on the Internet can be regulated, which in turn will determine the extent that regulators and commercial incumbents can constrain amateur innovation, which has been responsible for much of what we now consider precious about the Internet.”

But it’s much easier to interest the public in exciting new cloud services than to talk about TCP/IP architecture or the virtues of generative systems. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the rapid development of products like Google Now or iCloud has been so foregrounded both by tech companies and the press. 

To me, the predictive travel advice of a service like Google Now is a very significant glimpse of what’s to come in terms of a semantic web that allows machines to work automatically for us – even predicting our needs and desires. If predictive policing can already suggest imminent crime hotspots to law enforcers, could your phone one day listen to the world around you and tell you when you’re in danger? Or notify you when you’ve walked past a record store selling the first edition Suicide record you’re looking for?

Maybe cloud services will one day even be able to extract data from the Internet of Things you own (your fridge, your TV, your shoes) and make predictions about your risk of a heart attack or stroke based on a continuous, comprehensive and real-time assessment of your lifestyle.

Even before such modelling and simulation becomes widespread, personalised filter bubbles could become commonplace. For this to happen, the customisation of Internet content would have to deepen so much that, in the future, everything you see on the web – from the wording of news stories to the accent of a YouTube video’s voice-over – could be altered based on what algorithms know about you, your personality and your mood that day.

Start-up Gravity is currently working in a similar field and the BBC has tested the ability to live-edit radio scripts in order to tailor them for regional listeners. All of this suggests that a full range of content, from text to audio and video, could be moulded around your likes and dislikes in future decades. It’s online data-mining (on a massive scale) that would make such a thing possible.

Finally, as technologies like virtual reality headsets and new telepresence robots become more sophisticated, there is a possibility that those chunky gigabit connections will be put to use supporting truly immersive alternate existences in other bodies – either physical or virtual.

It’s exactly that kind of scenario which is present in the 2009 Bruce Willis action thriller Surrogates. Although Surrogates seems to be a film about robotics, it’s just as much about connectivity between human and robot surrogate. Can a data connection be created for your entire body and the electrical signals in your nervous system? Can your thoughts be transported wirelessly into a host bot who is stronger, healthier and more attractive than you?

We’re already playing with the surrogate identities of social network profiles and people have recently experienced living for extended periods as telepresences in bots. So in the future, will we be able to experience the data feed from some surrogate presence across the planet as though its eyes were our eyes; its ears our ears, and so on? If so, the need for video casts and live blogs might disappear completely. We’d, through whatever vessel, “be” there to watch it ourselves.

And just think. Twenty years ago they thought email was cool.