Each week David Souter comments on an important issue for APC members and others concerned about the Information Society. This week’s blog suggests a way of looking at the history of the Internet.
Histories of the Internet
History matters, even for something as recent as the Internet. Looking back helps us understand how we got to where we are today, and helps us think about where we might end up tomorrow. With something as fast-moving as the Internet, we need all the help that we can get where that’s concerned.
Different people see history in different ways, about the Internet as much as anything. Techies tend to focus on changes in technology; governance groupies on the evolution of institutions such as ICANN and events like WSIS; users on the services that have changed their lives and livelihoods. All of these are valid in their different ways.
This week’s post suggests my framework for thinking about the history of the Internet, which tries to bring these different views together. Next week I’ll write on some of its implications for governance in the digital age.
Five phases, four turning points
The framework’s in the diagram above. It’s not intended as a roadmap, but as a description of what’s been happening – faster, of course, in developed than in developing countries, and it’s clearly been developed country markets that have led the way. So far as they’re concerned, I suggest we’ve seen four phases and are entering a fifth.
A thousand words is little space to summarise such rapid, complex change as there’s been on the Internet, so obviously this simplifies. With that in mind, I’ll run through my five phases one by one.
First there were geeks and scholars
In its early days, the Internet enabled better information exchange between small groups of users, mostly computer scientists and other researchers. They exchanged data using modems, through text-based interfaces such as ftp. Email was the most important application. The Internet was hard to use and had few users, almost all of them in Northern universities, research institutes and cities.
That era’s long gone now, but it established ways of doing things that are still at the core of today’s Internet – its basic protocols, domain name system, open ethos and networking principles. Internet governance today is still powerfully influenced by what passed for Internet governance back then.
And then the World Wide Web
The first game-changer was the Web, and the decision that it should be made available to all, unpatented and free. Browsers made it easy for non-specialists to move around the Internet, the online equivalent in accessibility of Windows and Apple’s icon-based computer screens.
The rapid growth in home computing, driven by graphical user interfaces, running on cheap desktop PCs, chimed with the end-to-end nature of Web connectivity. Internet usage spread from specialists to a large home market, at this stage mostly in developed countries. This was the point at which the Internet began to make its mark on public policy as well as on the lives of those outside its inner circles.
And then Web 2.0
The second game-changer was Web 2.0, a much more interactive Web that shifted the Internet’s prime driver from information to communications, from content access to content generation. Social media applications have been the star performers here. People who previously used the Internet occasionally began to use it many times a day, making it central rather than peripheral to lives.
As with the Web and PCs, Web 2.0 was driven on by hardware innovation – in this case mobile Internet, mobile broadband, smartphones and tablets. Now, instead of finding it in fixed locations, users could take the Internet anywhere they went (so long as there was connectivity). And while Web 2.0 and mobile Internet were changing the way the Internet is used, the Internet reached out into a genuinely global market, less dominated (though still dominated) by developed countries.
And then today
My third game-changer, underway today, is cloud computing – a shift away from storing data and running applications on PCs and mobiles (a user’s own devices) to storing and running them from data centres in the (mis-named) cloud. Many new services have been developed, for which streaming can stand as an exemplar.
Meanwhile, the Internet has reached beyond the wealthier market around the world to become a mass market in all developed countries and many developing countries too. Governments and international organisations have committed to the goal of making it universally available, a part of every life. Here again, the role of hardware’s been important. It’s broadband networks and massive data management estates that are enabling new services, big data, e-government, e-commerce. So broadband networks have become a focus for both investors and policymakers.
But the cloud’s growth has also marked a more subtle change in the nature of the Internet. Whatever the technology, so far as users are concerned, control of data and applications is now less in their own hands, more in those of data management and social media companies.
And then tomorrow
The last phase I’d suggest is the one that’s just beginning, which I’ve called the digital age. Its game-changer, I anticipate, will be the Internet of Things. Instead of just connecting people and their organisations, in the digital age, the Internet connects devices, and will connect many more of them than people. We will communicate more with machines online, and machines will communicate much more with one another. Far more data will be gathered and recorded about us than was previously imagined. Big data analysis, enabled by the cloud and IoT, will determine more of the policies that affect our lives. We will become much more Internet-dependent.
This digital age won’t be a construct of the Internet alone, but of the rapid evolution of ICTs in general. Its implications for privacy and expression, for the nature of employment, citizenship and governance are uncertain, controversial and will be subjects of future posts.
And as for long-term trends…
Of course, the timing that divides these game-changers and phases is not exact. Of course, it varies between places, and particularly between developed and developing countries. I’m merely offering a framework and drawing out some trends from the rapid evolution that’s occurred between the Internet that was and that which is and will be.
In all of this, I’ll pick three long-term trends.
The first is the rapid and continued growth in Internet users and their usage. Each day, more people use more devices to access more online services for longer. Expansion in the number of Internet users worldwide has been faster than any other communications medium bar mobile telephony. There’s still a long way to go before it becomes universal – a target for the international community – but the trend towards universality is far stronger than in other areas of technology such as electricity.
The second is commercialisation. The Internet may once have been the home of geeks and scholars. Today, it’s dominated by commercial businesses, including global corporations with high degrees of market dominance not just in providing online services but also in managing the data and applications at the centre of the cloud. The contest between commercial businesses is constantly evolving as new technologies and services emerge. But it will continue and become more central to Internet and other governance.
The third trend I’d pick out’s datafication. Data volumes are said to be doubling every two years or so. That growth is likely to intensify as the Internet of Things comes (more) onstream and we move towards societies in which everything we do, online and increasingly offline, is recorded by default (the topic of a recent post). This has implications not just for privacy but also for the ways in which we interact with one another and in which governments and companies relate to us. Tomorrow’s world won’t be like yesterday’s.
History matters, as I said at the start of this post, because it helps us understand how we got to where we are today, and helps us think about where we might end up tomorrow.
In next week’s post, I’ll explore some of the implications of these trends for governance of the Internet, and of society in general.