The Future of the Internet: What’s Next?

The internet has a long history dating back decades, but the true dawn of the internet age came in the mid-1990s when regular American families bought PCs and connected to the internet for the first time. At the time, the “information superhighway” seemed like a technological oddity, a fad no more enduring the eight-track tapes or laser discs. Yet, there were a few folks who saw the amazing potential this new utility had to change the world irrevocably. Today, we can barely imagine a world where the answer to almost any question is at our fingertips. A half-remembered commercial, video, or news story can be found in seconds. So ubiquitous is fast internet connectivity that (major manufacturers are all but giving up on physical media in favor of streaming. Yet, your experience with the internet is only as good as the speed at which you can retrieve and view data.

There is no doubt that, barring the invention of a new technology not yet considered, that fiber optics are the future of broadband internet. The first optical fibers were made of glass. Researchers believed they would only work if laid in a straight line. Today’s latest generation of these cables use a more pliable material and are far more versatile than the pioneers of this technology believed. Current internet users look at 14.4k modems like stone wheels compared to modern tires. The advancements yet to come mean that in a decade or two, our modern internet speeds will seem equally slow. However, the future of internet is more that just faster fiber optics.

5G Mobile Networks

The fourth generation of mobile data networks, known colloquially as “4G,” delivers very fast service to users but still lag behind broadband speeds. The forthcoming 5G network, however, promises transfer rates that are comparable to modern fiber optic speeds. In theory, these networks could deliver data at transfer rates as high as 10 Gbps. This will revolutionize mobile data, which is a huge deal for users in the parts of the world where mobile internet is the best option for users. The potential in 5G networks goes beyond phones and tablet devices. Providers see 5G networks as competitors to broadband providers, meaning home and business internet may run on these “mobile” networks. Thus, providers across the globe are racing to corner the market on this technology.

Currently, both AT&T and Verizon offer limited trials of 5G service in select cities in the US. However, it will be some time before these services will be widely available, and, at first, these networks could be considerably slower than “true 5G.” Internationally, dozens of companies are vying to be the first ones to provide this revolutionary technology to their users. Companies like Vodaphone in South America and Huwei in China are rapidly developing this technology, but no one is there yet. Still, by the end of the next decade, 5G networks will hopefully be the norm. This network would provide ways for smart devices, both current ones and those yet to be invented, to deliver high-speed internet content.

Permanent Internet Connections

With 5G and ever-improving fiber optic connections, one of the developments on the horizon is a more permanent connection to the internet. Since the advent of DSL, users have a kind of permanent connection. Unlike dial-up users, their devices are constantly connected to the service. Yet everyone has experienced service interruptions that require users to restart their routers and reconnect to the network. In the future, this will be a thing of the past. No longer will users be required to connect to a network using complicated WiFi logins and passwords. Devices, from computers to smart appliances will automatically connect to these networks. If there is an interruption, providers want to make sure that they have redundancies in place so that the users never notice.

Once this becomes a reality the “Internet of Things” will become a wider and more user-friendly network. In the future, you could brush your teeth every morning in front of a “smart mirror” that is connected to the network. This mirror can evaluate your health, show news videos as you get read in the morning, or even be a place where your kids can play games that encourage good habits like teeth brushing or other good hygiene. All of your devices can communicate with each other and the larger world. Never miss a text or a call again, because you can link your phones to smart devices in your kitchen, bathroom, or anywhere.

The Adaptation of the Blockchain

If you’ve heard of the blockchain, it’s likely been connected to the current fad of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. However, this technology promise much more than weird investment opportunities and ways to pay for things digitally. The blockchain is, essentially, an encrypted record of transactions or activities that are highly resistant to modification. This is what makes it great for electronic currency, because no one could “hack” into your electronic wallet and steal your money. Still in its infancy, cryptocurrencies may become the preferred way to do business online. Yet, the potential for this technology goes far beyond those kind of transactions. These records are both open to the public, but secure enough so that only authorized users can see the specifics of that electronic ledger. This promises a revolution in how businesses and governments keep their records.

One potential use for these technologies is a “smart contract.” This would make the contract process almost entirely automated. This would make contract breaches less likely, especially with processes like automated escrow. These contracts could also be the future of investing, where banks or other organizations could offer investor bonds via the blockchain. This tech could also be used for other financial services, specifically to keep better track of accounts, increase efficiency, and reduce costs.

The blockchain could also be used by governments to keep a ledger of their public records. For those records that need declassified, this could be an automatic process. Also Freedom of Information Act requests could be done more easily and at much lower costs for the government or the requester. Even video game companies like Ubisoft and Fig are looking at how the blockchain can be used for games in the future.

Net Neutrality: What It Means and How It Affects You

Net Neutrality has been a hot-button political issue for a number of years now, both in the US and nations across the world. The basic premise of is that internet providers should treat all communication the same way. For example, in Portugal, provider MEO splits up its internet services. This means that you have to pay separately to use messaging services, social media, video, and music streaming. The European Union’s net neutrality rules mean that all of these services must cost the same and be delivered to user at the highest possible speeds. Without these provisions, providers could deliver certain companies’ services faster than their competitors. Similarly, they could throttle the speeds for subscribers, forcing them to pay a premium for faster service.

Proponents of Net Neutrality argue that regulation of this kind is no different than the way the US regulates phone service, broadcast television, or other public utilities. What advocates worry about is that lack of competition will make individual providers “kingmakers” when it comes to specific businesses. For example, a cable provider could deliberately throttle data coming from Netflix or Hulu while reserving their highest speeds for their own streaming services. Critics argue that since competition is growing this regulation is unnecessary, or that Net Neutrality rules should not apply to content delivery networks. This is still very much an active issue that could affect internet speeds, and costs to subscribers, in the US and across the world for the foreseeable future.

Human Interaction in the Age of Constant Connectivity

Perhaps the biggest concern about the ubiquity of internet connection from our home computers to our portable devices is its effects on how we live our lives. This, naturally, leads some to panic about the negative effect these advancements have on society. Yet, while fear of the unknown is common, there are also going to be incredible achievements as well. Advancements in medicine, education, and even entertainment are just going to be the beginning. If people have affordable access to the highest-speed internet, the whole world could change more dramatically than has already.  

Fear of Technology Through History

A new technology that helps disseminate educational information and media for enjoyment can’t be a bad thing, right? Well, it depends on who you ask.

When the Greeks first invented a written alphabet, Plato worried that if you write things down, you’ll be less likely to remember them. A new technology that changed everything almost as much as the alphabet was invented in the past, and many of us believe it was unequivocally a good thing.

Yet, when this amazing technological advancement first hit Planet Earth, a panic ensued. Some feared that it would turn hard-working and active humans into lazy sloths who wouldn’t even go outside again. Even worse, in their eyes, this new technology would make people less moral than they were before. We’re not talking about the internet, but rather the printing press.

In the 15th century. Johannes Trithemius wrote extensively about the evils of the printing press. Before the printing press, monks were primarily responsible for copying texts from the ancient Greeks to the Bible. These manuscripts were also “illuminated” with ornate fonts and drawings in the margins. Trithemius worried that the printing press would make the monks of the world lazy. He also believed that printed books were of a lesser quality than these hand-copied manuscripts.

Ultimately, he worried that people would stay in their homes all day, noses in books, leaving farms and manufacturing to fall to the wayside. For every new technology since, from the phone to the television to the home computer, there has been a similar panic. Today, with the rise of constant connection, is the technopanic a serious concern or they are modern-day Chicken Little screaming about falling skies?

Electronic Empathy

Perhaps the most prevalent technopanic of the day are those who believe that children growing up with smartphones are a generation that’s all-but “destroyed.” While parents of modern teenagers fondly remember their misspent youth partying by train tracks and sneaking into movies, today’s kids just don’t do that. They spend their time online with social media and sharing memes. Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University Jean M. Twenge wrote in The Atlantic that she’s found a correlation between teens that have a depressive episode and those that spend a lot of time using their phones. This is by no means definitive. It’s possible that depressed kids in centuries past would be more likely to stare into books or watch television then those teenagers who aren’t depressed. Still, these are valid questions and are worthy of further study.

For those of us who remember the days before the internet, the rapid pace at which technology changes is tough for us to navigate. Just as parents start to use and understand Facebook, their kids migrate to Tumblr or Snapchat. To those who used to spend their free time riding bikes with their friends, it looks like smartphone-loving kids are all weird loners. However, using this miracle of communications technology, these kids are in almost constant contact with their friends. If they move, they can keep in touch much more easily than their parents could. Through the internet, they find pen-pals all across the globe. In the time it used to take their parents to send letters back-and-forth, today’s teenagers have shared their entire life stories with their new friend. It’s possible that their kids will grow up in a world where technology is the main way they learn social skills and develop empathy for others.

AI and Automation

As the song says, the kids are alright, but what about their parents? The lightning-fast advancement of technology is, perhaps, not so kind to them. Politicians across the world create bogeymen to blame for lack of jobs and opportunities for blue-collar labor. Yet, the true culprit of these major changes comes from automation. Assembly lines in factories used to require hundreds of workers.

Today, these assembly lines are almost fully automated. In the past, when a person dictated some written document, a person would have to physically transcribe that audio recording. In the very near future, transcription services are likely to be fully automated using artificial intelligence. Self-driving cars and trucks will put drivers out of work, while AI might make editors of both the print and film variety redundant. Online stores are heavily accused of decimating the retail sector, including the plentiful jobs that teenagers and adults alike depend on.

This presents a much greater challenge for business and governmental leaders, because this technological advancement creates a skills gap. Someone in their late-forties or older whose entire professional industry all-but disappears, just can’t pick up a new skill-set and compete with younger workers who have more experience in that field. Yet, there are solutions. For example, since self-checkout aisles have eliminated the need for cashiers in some grocery stories, they now use employees to do customers’ shopping for them. Giant Eagle, a store in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, offers free “curbside delivery.” A customer places an order online, an employee finds the items in the store, and then loads those items into the customer’s car when they arrive. It’s not guaranteed, but with every technological advancement, humans tend to find new ways to put themselves to work.

The Future of Media

Already the power of high-speed internet has ushered in major upheavals in the media industries. Everything from music to reading to movies and television have all changed drastically in the past five or six years. We already see where some of this is going. Major media companies like Disney, Warner Bros., and HBO are following the lead of Netflix and Amazon Prime by offering streaming platforms that collect more content than one could watch in a whole lifetime. Companies like Spotify and Pandora are changing how people listen to music. Traditional print and publishing media are suffering, because audiences have come to expect to be able to read things (like this very post) for free. However, as they struggle, opportunities for independent authors and new media companies are there for the taking. It’s unclear how these changes will permanently affect things, but there is a reason to be hopeful. In the early 2000s, music file-sharing threatened to kill the music business. However, it eventually recovered with streaming services and digital music stores.

Of course, this is just the media technology that’s most popular today. Thanks to improvements in internet speeds, graphics capabilities, and mobile technology a whole new media frontier awaits. For the longest time virtual and augmented reality media has been promised by science-fiction. Thanks to smartphones and VR headsets, these things are becoming reality. Disney’s Lucasfilm is developing a project about iconic Star Wars villain Darth Vader with David S. Goyer and ILMxLab for VR. It’s not a movie nor a video game, but rather an “interactive story” that presents potential for a whole new kind of storytelling. VR could also allow people to virtually travel or attend events, like Comic-Con or sports events, in real time.

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