CAUGHT IN THE WEB: THE INTERNET PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE

CAUGHT IN THE WEB: THE INTERNET PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE

18/7/2009

1,581,571,589. This is the number of internet users when the World Wide Web was last analysed. 23.6% of the population of planet Earth.

Since its birth to the general public in the mid nineties, the Internet has become an intrinsic part of our daily lives. What were letters are now emails, what were shops are now retail websites. An extended group of friends who might have stayed in touch via the occasional telephone call now can observe each others activities amongst hundreds of others on social networking sites. The list continues. The question is how has something that has emerged so recently already grown to the proportions that we see today? Where did the internet come from, what is it at the present time and what could it become in the future?

– BIRTH –

Firstly it is important to remember the physicality of the Internet; a network of interlinked computers connected by copper, fibre optic and wireless technology. These computers communicate with each other via Internet Protocol Suite (TCP/IP or transmission control protocol and internet protocol), and various programs operating through the use of E-mail, online gaming, file transfer, file sharing, and person to person voice and video communication, to name a few.

To discover how the Internet emerged we must first go back to October 4th 1957, and the launch into orbit of the unmanned Russian satellite, Sputnik.

The Cold War between the Soviet Union and The USA had been in effect for around a decade, with the tensions between the two powers increasingly mounting. Sputnik 1 was the first artificial and unmanned satellite in space and so gained the Soviet Union the victory in the well renowned ‘Space Race’. As a reaction to this endeavour, the United States began to create a project that would earn them a vitally important technological lead over their adversary. It was named ‘ARPA’ or
The Advanced Research Projects Agency, and came to life in February 1958.

‘DARPA’s original mission, established in 1958, was to prevent technological surprise like the launch of Sputnik, which signalled that the Soviets had beaten the U.S. into space. The mission statement has evolved over time. Today, DARPA’s mission is still to prevent technological surprise to the US, but also to create technological surprise for our enemies.’

It is important to take into account that prior to this time, the computers that were in use used a method of calculation known as ‘Batch Processing’. This required one processing job to be completely finished before another could be started, so using huge banks of individual computers kept in cooled chambers. Operators who once could perform maintenance directly on their computers now could not access their chambers to perform their task. To iron out glitches, technicians had to be employed to work on the computers and manually re enter information resulting in a massively frustrating and arduous process.

The birth of ARPA created a huge forward step for computing. The first remote connections were developed so technicians no longer needed to perform manual work, and the instance of ‘Time Sharing’ came in effect. This enabled the processing power of one computer to be shared by multiple users, so vastly increasing processing speeds and distributing power to the needs of active users, rather than using a division of the full potential between a set number of terminals, whether actively or inactively using the system.

In 1966 ARPA developed this technology and created the first packet switching computer network, aimed at efficient knowledge transfer between the various Governmental departments of the USA. So followed the decentralisation of information systems, vital in the instance of a nuclear attack, and the distribution of this data via cables as opposed to radio waves. This would become ‘ARPANET’ – the predecessor of the Internet we use today.

– THE PRESENT –

Since 1990, the Internet has expanded exponentially. With over a billion users worldwide, it is without a doubt the most important technological development of our time. Over the course of just under twenty years, we have integrated the various aspects of our personal lives deep within the humming server banks of websites worldwide. The Internet courses with financial details, personal messages, photos, videos, documents, video games, and of course the vast virtual span of E-commerce.

The United Kingdom, as of 2009, has the seventh highest Internet usage worldwide with nearly 44 million users. Since 2000, growth in users has risen by over 180%.
China tops the scales with nearly 300 million users, but less than a third of the proportion by population compared to the UK (currently over 70% – one of the highest in the world). Nearly 80% of people aged 16-24 in the UK use the Internet on a daily basis.

So how has an information sharing network technology originally developed by the US Government become a fundamental part of our lives in modern society?

Firstly it is important to know that the Internet refers to the technology that enables computers to communicate with each other on a worldwide scale. The World Wide Web is the system of interlinked hypertext documents within the Internet. A small point now, but it may be very useful over the next few years.

In 1990, British computer scientist and MIT professor Tim Berners-Lee developed the first web browser –‘WorldWideWeb’. The Web steadily grew until 1994, when the first stages of online commerce began to appear. 15 years later, the United States is generating over 200 billion dollars in online sales, with yearly increases rising steadily.

Connection speeds in the UK have soared from the original 56k dial up modem connections to over 20mb per second, with one Swedish individual’s boasting a 5GB service; that is a full high definition DVD in just under two seconds. Although the increase is profound, the UK remains 41st in the world for download speeds.

Isolated terminals in Schools and Universities have become sprawling Wireless Hotspots. The Internet has developed into the foremost means of communication, and even spawned entirely new language groups from the use of abbreviation in online conversations.

Internet forums covering a vast array of subjects have become enormous centres of knowledge and information, the most populated of which, Gaia online, is frequented by over 18 million members. To put that into perspective, that is approximately the same number as the population of Angola, brought together to discuss role-playing video games.

The World Wide Web, in less than ten years, has expanded its reach and strengthened its grasp with over 55 Trillion links interwoven between its nearly 200 million sites. It is estimated that hyperlinks are clicked over 100 billion times every day. In the time that it took you to read this line, 2 million emails and 1 million instant messages would have been sent, with around 8 terabytes of web traffic in the same period of time. Rough calculations put the total amount of data online at around 500 Exabytes. (One Exabyte is 1 with 18 zeros following bytes) To put this in perspective, the sum of all human-produced information (including all audio, video recordings and text/books) was about 12 Exabytes of data, as of ten years ago.

As much as the Internet has helped to expose the current and forthcoming energy crisis, the Internet and it’s associated hardware uses 5% of the world’s available electricity.

Social networking sites such as Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter have changed the face of communication. Facebook now boasts more than 200 million active users, 50% of whom log into the website at least once every 24 hours. Myspace holds around the same amount of users.

Online gaming has also taken the Web by storm, the most popular of which, with an almost 65% majority in the market, is World of Warcraft: With over 12 million dedicated monthly subscribers it has become far more than a game. Other titles share the same obsession; one 28-year-old South Korean man played ‘Starcraft’, an online military strategy game, for over 50 hours straight before collapsing. The post mortem concluded that heart failure due to malnourishment, dehydration and lack of sleep was the cause of death. Online gaming has also emerged into the physical realm with an ever-growing market for virtual attributes such as weaponry or abilities. In one case, ‘Shanda’ a Chinese role-playing gamer, became involved with the genuine Chinese Police after virtually selling stolen virtual items to a fellow gamer. The items were removed from the purchaser’s account, and ‘Shanda’ was subsequently sued in a real Court.  An incident in Japan in 2008 saw a 43-year-old Japanese piano teacher find herself in real jail after viciously murdering her ex-husband…in ‘Maple Story’. According to reports, the woman’s virtual husband suddenly divorced her in mid-May, which lead to her to log on with the 33-year-old man’s username and password in order to delete his game profile. When the man discovered the death of his character, he called the real police. The alleged virtual murderer has now been jailed for suspicion of illegally accessing a computer and manipulating electronic data, which in Japan can carry a five-year prison sentence or a fine of up to $5,000. The game ‘Second Life’ comprises an entire virtual world known as ‘The Grid’ where users can make real (?) money from the virtual trading of virtually designed items in virtual shops. The Video Game industry has grown exponentially and will surpass the film industry soon if it has not already.

Unsurprisingly, some of the first websites were pornography orientated. Today, nearly 30,000 people per second are viewing web pornography, with a new video being produced every 39 minutes, 24 hours a day. Roughly 12% of all websites (that’s 24 million) are pornographic, with over 250 new addresses appearing daily. 25% of all search engine requests are for porn. 35% of all Internet downloads are pornographic in nature. Around 55 GBP per second is being spent on the industry worldwide. In 2006, the calculated revenue from the US porn industry was $2.84 billion, with 89% of the world market is contained in the US.

– THE FUTURE –

The World Wide Web has now reached a similar complexity as the human brain, the most distinct difference being that our human processing power is not doubling every two years. Thirty years from now, the Web will reach the equivalent of six billion human brains (roughly the population of the world). If allowed to continue, the Internet and World Wide Web will exceed the combined processing power of the entire human family by 2040.

Quoted from ‘Global Brain’ by Dick Pelletier:

‘Experts compare the Internet to a planet growing a global brain. As users, we represent the neurons. Texting, emails, and IM act as nerve endings, and electromagnetic waves through the sky become neural pathways. Like germinating seeds, this global brain continues to evolve and as some forward-thinkers believe, will not stop until it develops feelings and achieves consciousnesses.’

The future of the Internet and World Wide Web points towards a need for complete transparency from its respective users in order to integrate seamlessly with the host of services and sources of information that it will provide. The premise of the Web’s future seems to be expectant of a comprehensive submission of personal details and lifestyle information in order to function as promised, until something of a status quo is reached. With this in account, the potential for a Speight of Civil Liberty infringements is worryingly close, not to mention the enormous disadvantage that citizens who feel uncomfortable with submitting the components of their personal lives online may suddenly find themselves encountering. Could we see a social divide between people living on and offline in the next few decades?

One of the most apparent advances in the dynamic of the Internet and World Wide Web currently is cloud computing. At the present time, most programs and applications are installed and run from individual computers. Programs that could have been purchased for significant amounts of money may lie unused on many systems, resulting in wasted storage and a drain on processing power. This new advance in Internet technology draws directly from a ‘cloud’ of virtualized programs, running from larger severs around the world. Computers will no longer be limited to the processing power of their components, the only required hardware being an Internet connection, a screen, mouse, and keyboard. Gamers who currently are expected to purchase new hardware due to the ever-increasing demands of video games will need only a monthly subscription and an Internet connection, eventually rendering the entire video gaming hardware market obsolete.
The future will see us drawing our information and applications usually run from the confines of your home directly from ‘The Cloud’, in the case of businesses, huge costs will be able to be shed in return for a simple subscription fee. Concerns have been raised over potential issues with confidentiality and data integrity, however.

A host of other advances lay in wait, some positive, some not so positive, others definitively negative. One of these is ‘Phorm’, an online advertising company responsible for some of the first adware seen online. In brief, Phorm seeks to collect online browsing habits in order to focus user specific advertising on your screen. One BBC report mentioned Phorm’s potential to use our computers inbuilt webcams and mics to collect data, using the example of hearing a dog barking through the microphone while online, and bringing up Pet food or Vetinary advertising on relevant Phorm enabled pages.

Current trends are moving towards the integration and synchronisation of more and more personal devices into the World Wide Web. Web enabled mobiles are now a common occurrence, many of which are GPS or Global Positioning System enabled (another military invention). This allows tripartite tracking of a person’s whereabouts, primarily from phone signals, satellites, and wireless Internet connections. Quite simply, if anyone mentions personal tracking devices in the future, it is already here.

Radio Frequency Identity Tags (RFID) are fast becoming commonplace in various applications. They operate in three separate states, passive, semi passive, and active, and transmit small amounts of data to RFID readers nearby. Further articles will cover this issue in full, but the RFID tag will be a crucial part of the expansion of the Web into our personal lives. The expectation is that most products will be tagged and traceable, bringing an entirely new dynamic to business and marketing. For more information on abuse of Civil Liberties please see the Database State article.

The Future of the Web needs to be imagined in a certain sense to understand where we will be in a decade or so from now. A comparatively tiny group of intelligent humans have created an entirely new paradigm of communication in a comparatively minute amount of time, even in regard to the invention of the telephone in 1876 and its evolution since. It is crucial to understand that the Internet has crept from the confines of ARPA and its related projects in Europe, where it was under the watch of small pockets of competent, qualified individuals, and out into the public domain, where it is most certainly not. Even in the stages of its infancy, to reverse the growth and incorporation of our lives there within would render a huge proportion of people living in the developed world inept to function as what we have taken to be normality. Even now, the consequences of a total crash of the network and its machinations would be unthinkable, from the checking of ones emails to the communications at the stratospheric levels of world leadership. The Web becomes more adept with every photo uploaded, every birthday registered, and every email sent. We are slowly but surely downloading our lives within its memory, and with every piece of information we are helping it to learn about the criteria with which we function. Could it be possible that the Internet begins to predict your thoughts and actions, based on calculations from billions of others? Could it be that the future of this creation is integration with us so deep that it becomes difficult to see a way out? We are the life supply to the World Wide Web. In the same way that oxygen feeds the brain, we are the agents of its existence. The importance of keeping our lives at a safe distance from complete integration with the web cannot be underestimated.

In a haunting quote from ‘The Next 5000 Days of the Web’, Kevin Kelly, editor of Wired magazine, commenting on an emerging form of the Web reads:

‘There is only ONE machine
The Web is its O.S.
All screens look into the ONE
No bits will live outside the Web
To share is to gain
Let the ONE read it
The ONE is us’.

O.N. 18-7-2009

This article contains extracts from the article ‘Global Brain’ by Dick Pelletier on Future blogger

Also extracts from the lecture ‘The next 5000 days of the Internet’ by Kevin Kelly

And Information from the website Kotaku.com

 

Audio Version

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