The Winter 2016 issue of Dædalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is devoted to the Internet. Its 7 articles explore some of the major issues shaping the Internet’s future. The issue was curated by Harvard professor Yochai Benkler and MIT research scientist David Clark, whose joint introduction and individual papers frame the overall discussion.
“The Internet was born in 1983,” write Benkler and Clark in the Introduction. That year saw the adoption of TCP/IP, - the communications protocol that defines the Internet to this day. Its technical directions and overall culture have been largely determined by the academic and research communities, who were also its early users. With strong government support, they developed a system that “only a researcher could love: general, abstract, optimized for nothing, and open to exploration of more or less anything imaginable using connected computers.”
The Internet has since evolved “from a network that primarily delivered email among academics and government employees, to a network over which the World Wide Web arose, to the video and mobile platform it has become - and the control network for embedded computing that it is fast becoming.” From its niche research beginnings, it’s become the universal platform for collaborative innovation, enabling startups, large institutions, and everyone in between to quickly develop and bring to market many new digital products and services.
What design choices have led to the Internet as we know it? Could it still evolve into a fundamentally different platform than the one we use today? What decisions could significantly shape its future? These are among the very important questions explored in the Dædalus issue. In their Introduction, Benkler and Clark summarized some of the key themes that emerged from the various papers, - a few of which I’d now like to discuss.
The Technical is Political
As is the case with any complex system, the Internet’s design has been the result of many different choices. Some have involved technical matters, e.g. scalability, performance, robustness. Other choices have been more political in nature, reflecting the conflicting requirements of its various stakeholders in government, business and user communities. Most have been part technical, part political.
“[T]he character of the Internet as we experience it today is, in fact, contingent on key decisions made in the past by its designers, those who have invested in it, and those who have regulated it,” wrote Clark in the The Contingent Internet. “With different choices, we might have a very different Internet today.” It’s important to understand the impact of past decisions on today’s Internet as a lens through which to explore how decisions made today might shape its future, “including how open, how diverse, how funded, and how protective of the rights of its users it may be.”
Fundamentally, the Internet is a general purpose data network supporting a remarkable variety of applications. Being general purposes is a major design choice, best appreciated when considering the alternatives, such as the telephone network, which was designed specifically to carry telephone calls. This generality has enabled the Internet to become a powerful platform for innovation, but it’s come at a price: it’s good-enough but not optimal for any one application.
Over the years, the Internet has faced a number of serious challenges. For example, until the adoption of IPv6 in the late 1990s, there was a serious concern that we would soon run out of IP addresses. IPv6 can theoretically support around 3.4×1038 addresses, compared to the 4.3×109 addresses previously supported by IPv4. Bandwidth has been another major concern, especially given the rapidly growing requirements for streaming high-quality video.
So far, the Internet has been up to its challenges. A major reason for its adaptability is that it’s stuck to its basic data-transport mission, i.e., just moving bits around. The Internet has no idea what the bits mean or what they’re trying to accomplish. That’s all the responsibility of the applications running on top of it.
Consequently, there’s no one overall owner responsible for security, - arguably the biggest challenge facing the Internet. The responsibility for security is divided among several actors, making it significantly harder to achieve. As Clark points out, “the design decisions that shaped the Internet as we know it likely did not optimize secure and trustworthy operation.”
“The design of the original Internet was biased in favor of decentralization of power and freedom to act,” notes Benkler in, Degrees of Freedom, Dimensions of Power. “As a result, we benefited from an explosion of decentralized entrepreneurial activity and expressive individual work, as well as extensive participatory activity. But the design characteristics that underwrote these gains also supported cybercrime, spam, and malice.”
Centralized power is generally in the hands of governments or large companies; decentralized power tends to be distributed among individuals or loose collectives. It’s quite possible that a more centralized Internet architecture and/or governance could have avoided some of the major security, cybercrime and spam issues we currently face. But at what cost?
“To imagine either that all centralized power is good and all decentralized power is criminal and mob-like, or that all decentralized power is participatory and expressive and all centralized power is extractive and authoritarian is wildly ahistorical…” adds Benkler. “If we allow that power can be good or bad, whether centralized or decentralized, and that existing dynamics are tending toward greater centralization and stabilization of power, then we are left with a singular task: to design a system that will disrupt forms of power - old and new - as they emerge, and that will provide a range of degrees of freedom, allowing individuals and groups to bob and weave among the sources and forms of power that the Internet is coming to instantiate.”
Smartphones and Things
The majority of Internet users now connect via smartphones. There are already close to 3.5 billion Internet users and around 2.5 billion smartphone subscriptions around the world. Over the past decade, we’ve been transitioning from the connected Internet of PCs, browsers and web servers to the hyperconnected Internet of smart mobile devices, cloud computing and broadband wireless networks. This transition has major implications for the future of the Internet.
The connected phase of the Internet was based on an open business model. Neither PC or server vendors, nor Internet service providers could control the applications offered on their platforms by independent software vendors (ISVs). This open model is now changing in the world of smartphones, app stores and cloud-based service providers. Smartphone vendors, - e.g., Apple, Google’s Android, Samsung, - can control the apps running on their platforms and distributed through their cloud-based app stores. Consequently, the smartphone-based Internet is becoming a less open platform, potentially controlled by a small set of large and powerful institutions.
Benkler fears that “While the Internet protocol itself remain open, as does the IETF [Internet Engineering Task Force], other control points counter the dynamics of the early Internet… Unless something dramatic changes these trends, the future of conscious Internet use is based in handheld devices running apps. Moreover, as connected sensors and controllers (origin of the Internet of Things as a concept) become pervasive, an increasingly larger portion of Internet use will not be conscious at all.”
The intertwined connection between the Internet and actionable data is another major theme explored in the Dædalus issue. This is not surprising. In their 2013 Foreign Affairs article, The Rise of Big Data: How It’s Changing the Way We Think About the World, - Kenneth Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schönberger wrote that “big data marks the moment when the information society finally fulfills the promise implied by its name.” They used the term datafication to describe our newfound ability to capture as data many aspects of the economy, society and our personal behaviors that have never been quantified before.
The explosive growth of the Internet in the 1990s took the digital revolution to a whole new level. Now, the Internet is ushering an equally impactful data revolution. Data is being generated by just about everything and everybody around us, including not only the growing volume of online and offline transactions, but also web searches, social media interactions, billions of smart mobile devices and 10s of billions of IoT smart sensors.
“Who owns these data and how they are secured so that unauthorized actors do not have the capacity to act maliciously from a distance are central to the questions of security, privacy, and control,” note Benkler and Clark in their introduction. “No less important, a mixture of data-analysis techniques and the personalized data available from Internet use today makes data about individuals actionable.” Great care must be taken to prevent governments and companies from misusing the powerful insights embodied in all that data.
“The Internet started its life as public infrastructure, largely dedicated to communications among academic and public institutions… It has become indispensable to an ever growing range of human activity. Understanding the design challenges these changes pose, subjecting them to continuous critical reflection informed by real-world analysis of the rapidly changing character of the Internet, and insisting on open, rational, democratic debate over the implications of our choices is perhaps the most important role of academic reflection about the past and future Internet.”