Who knew the Internet would go from being a fringe curiosity to being an indispensable part of our lives in less than 20 years? And who knows where the Internet will be 20 years from now?
Probably nobody. But there are some pretty good guesstimates floating around.
Some of them sound like good news. Some of them don't.
Vint Cerf, who is probably the person most often called "the father of the Internet" — and now a Google vice president — says in talks he gives these days that it's possible to foresee things five years ahead with some degree of certainty. For example:
This is already happening. Personal computers were once the only way you accessed the Internet, but today, personal digital assistants and cell phones go online and send and receive e-mail.
And it's pretty clear that more and more devices will be operated online, including smart cars, smart houses and gizmos we'll carry around with us to warn of hazardous environmental conditions or pollution and to predict the weather.
To see a brief interview with Cerf, visit www.mailtribune.com/vintcerf (scroll to the bottom of the page).
Electrolux, which is best known for its vacuum cleaners, has already developed the ScreenFridge, an Internet refrigerator that inventories and manages your food supplies. It will even e-mail a shopping list to your local supermarket. If the market delivers, the appliance will arrange for a delivery time that works with your schedule.
Toshiba envisions a "Smart Kitchen" in which all your home appliances will be hooked to the network. Each will have its own Internet Protocol address. To see if you have a cold beer in the fridge, you'll just dial up your appliance on your cell phone.
And this goes way beyond everyday appliances. NASA has developed a Virtual Collaborative Clinic that connects medical facilities and lets doctors manipulate three-dimensional images of MRI scans and other images. Doctors can even simulate surgery by using a "cyber scalpel" to practice their moves before using them on real patients. Among other things, it's a way for local hospitals of the near future to have resources once confined to the largest, most prestigious institutions.
One of the most far-reaching surveys on the future of the Internet was conducted by Elon University and the Pew Internet Project in fall 2004. More than 1,200 "network-technology stakeholders" made thousands of projections. Participants included people from Internet2, Microsoft, Oracle, RAND, AOL, IBM, the FBI, the FCC, Stanford, the University of California at Berkeley, Harvard, AT&T and other entities based all over the world (for detailed results, see www.mailtribune.com/pewinternetsurvey). Some of their forecasts are already coming true.
Respondents were asked to list institutions in regard to their likelihood for change due to the impact of the Internet, on a scale of one (no impact) to 10 (radical change). The institution considered likely to change the most was news, with a score of 8.46. These days, we see stories every day about the plight of newspapers.
Education was next at 7.98, followed by the workplace (7.84), health care (7.63), government (7.39) and the arts (7.18).
Institutions deemed least likely to experience change were the military (6.53), families (6.24), neighborhoods/communities (6.16) and religion (4.69).
Typical of projections was this sweeping one from Bob Metcalfe, the originator of Ethernet and a former InfoWorld columnist:
"Governments will tend toward democracy. Transportation will be refined through massive substitution of communication. The current flight to cities will be reversed. The Internet won't be in schools; it will replace schools. Television channels will be replaced by video blogs and Dan Rather will be dragged off the set."
By no means are all the experts seeing the I-future through rose-colored glasses. The rise of "location-aware" computing such as navigation systems is already leading to battles over who controls knowledge of where people are. Not only the FBI and the CIA are interested. The courts have already had cases in which the police want to do surveillance of people through the Internet-enabled nav systems in their cars.
One participant in the Pew study foresaw organized crime and terrorist groups leveraging the Internet to victimize millions. Another despaired of the Internet changing human endeavors too much, "because it's increasingly a cesspool of spam, porn, phishing and other distracting and annoying commodities, discouraging more intensive and productive use."
Then there is Jonathan Zittrain. A professor of Internet law at Harvard Law School, he is the author of "The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It," a new book with lots of buzz that says essentially that the same thing is happening to the Internet that happened to hitchhiking.
"In the Web counterrevolution that Jonathan Zittrain foresees, users will lose the ability to control content, companies will gain the power to censor data, and security will trump innovation," Katie Baker wrote in a review in Newsweek.
We are used to being able to use our computers to run any program from any source we choose without the approval of a third party. But Zittrain says we're already entering a world where we'll need centralized approval.
According to Zittrain, iPods, iPhones, Xboxes and TiVos are just the first wave of "tethered" Internet-based products that users cannot readily modify. As such devices and applications eclipse the PC, the nature of the Internet — what Zittrain calls its "generativity," or innovative character — will be increasingly endangered.
There is an hour-long talk by Zittrain on the future of the Internet on YouTube and more at guardian.co.uk.
If there is hope for the Internet, Zittrain writes, it is in the hands of its users. Drawing on "generative technologies" such as Wikipedia, he outlines ways to develop new technologies and social structures to let users continue to work creatively and cooperatively.
Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail email@example.com.