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What Will the Internet Be in 2050?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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A global computer-based communication network has fundamentally changed our social, cultural, and political landscape over the past 20 years.  As an evolutionary anthropologist, I have to point out that there has been no previous communication revolution of this speed or intensity.  Consequently, this communication tool gives us the power to completely restructure our entire existence, both on an individual and collective level.

As inescapably pervasive as the Internet’s emergence has been, fewer scientists are studying it, than you would think.  Even fewer scientists are attempting to situate its emergence within the context of our technological evolution, or understand its potential future development in the 21st century.

So I’ll ask… what will the Internet be in 2050?

Today, I can’t help but notice that the Internet is getting more and more intelligent.  When it first emerged it was passive and unorganized.  Today, it is massively active, alerting you about opportunities that may interest you.  It is also massively organized, with weighted hyperlinks, wikis, and powerful search engines.

Also, consider the obvious:

1) We keep giving the Internet more and more data every year

2) We keep using the Internet more and more every year

3) And finally, more and more of us are able to use the Internet every year

The end goal of some of these trends seem evident to me.  We will eventually have all of our lives recorded in some way, shape, or form on the Internet.  Some of this information may exist in mediums that don’t currently exist today.

We will also eventually have our entire communication existence mediated in some way through the Internet.  The devices that we use to access the Internet keep getting smaller, and more intimately accessible.  Will they eventually just become a part of our bodies this century?  After the “wearables” revolution, the “internals” revolution will probably not be far behind.

And clearly all humans will eventually be able to access the Internet, wherever they are.  Just consider the Google Loom project.  All 7 billion of us (and then 8 billion, and then 9 billion of us) all interacting seamlessly and intimately on the Internet in new digital worlds of our own making.

Sharing, commenting, liking, buying, selling, writing, tweeting, hash-tagging.

Internet users per 100 inhabitants

Internet users per 100 inhabitants

When you stop and think about this, it may start to become overwhelming.  The 21st century is clearly going to be a very different one from the 20th century.  And one could make the argument that the 21st century will be so different primarily because of the emergence and full establishment of the Internet as a communication medium binding human thought together.

A communication revolution like this offers us fantastic opportunities.  First it allows us to build a global culture.  Over evolutionary time this was obviously not possible even though our species had colonized all of the unfrozen continents ~20,000 years ago.  With instant global communication, the formation of a truly global culture is in reach this century.

Second, the Internet allows us an opportunity to make the borders of the 19th and 20th century obsolete.  Why should the national structure of our planet remain static with a global communication network?  It doesn’t have to, and it probably won’t.  The longer humans are engaging deeply with the Internet, and the more integrated the Internet becomes within all human-life, the less likely we are to relate at all to the nation state.  The Blue Marble image made us all think about becoming citizens of the planet.  The Internet makes this a practical reality.

But can we know the Internet’s deeper future?  Some of the trends I mentioned above are likely to manifest in the 2020s, or the 2030s.  What will the Internet be in 2050?  And if our knowledge of the future Internet was well developed, could it help us make more intelligent decisions about our careers and our personal lives today?  And from an intellectual level, can we situate this communication revolution within the context of previous communication revolutions?

I think the answer to both questions is yes, so I have partnered with the Global Brain Institute to start answering these questions.  If you want to learn more about this research, and if you want to help, visit my Microryza account or get in touch via Twitter!

Images: The Opte Project and Jeff Ogden (W163)

Cadell Last About the Author: Cadell Last is an evolutionary anthropologist (MSc.) with a background studying chimpanzee sleeping patterns and the emergence of human bipedalism. He is currently working on an animated science channel with PBS Digital Studios and merging anthropological and cybernetic theory with the Global Brain Institute. Follow on Twitter @cadelllast.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. RSchmidt 10:33 am 09/23/2013

    I think the internet will begin the drive towards world federalism. With corporations and commerce occurring more and more across national borders there needs to be more governance and oversight to prevent the rise of corporate totalitarianism. I see the European Union as the seed of this new world model. One would think that the UN would naturally evolve to fill that role but it can’t work when a small collection of powerful nations have veto power over everyone else, and I don’t see any of them willing to give that up. The decline of the nation state could be a good thing. As it stands, nations seem to be able to act with impunity against the interests and the very lives of their own citizens. Syria has used chemical warfare against its own citizens with the protection of Russia and China and the ambivalence of the american people. Hopefully in a world federalist system people would understand that it is the responsibility of all peoples to guarantee the rights of everyone else. The internet has allowed us all to connect regardless of borders, perhaps those connections will finally expand our concept of community to include all of humanity.

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  2. 2. cadelllast 11:40 am 09/23/2013

    @RSchmidt I agree with you that some global governance system will emerge from this process, perhaps before 2050. I agree with you that the UN probably won’t fill this role. I think it will come from the decentralization of voting and democracy. We could exist in a world where government’s as they currently exist become obsolete and decision-making is outsourced the crowd/cloud. With all humans interacting all the time on the Internet (and perhaps merged with the Internet) to have a decentralized voting system like this. It could be global in scope, with additional regional components.

    Of course, the most important aspect of this future is that we may finally be able to come together as one species.

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  3. 3. mikeedge 12:53 pm 09/23/2013

    The internet will become humanities total conscious and will bring about greater and faster inventions and developments than have ever been seen before. “Big Data” will resolve issues on a scale that was not humanly possible prior to the internet. Language barriers will become a trivial local hurdle that will be broken down by internet translators. With wearable internet devices or internal internet devices you may speak the language you grew up with and the receiver will hear their own native tongue. The “Tower of Babyl” will fall away for all of humanity to communicate clearly and concisely.
    Take a trip to a foreign land and you can act like a local the minute you get there. Know which form of transportation is the best and buy your ticket just by saying you want to go there. You will be guided to the correct location for the car, plane or train. Your bank account or credit card will be charged automatically. No ticket will be required no driver of the car, train or plane. Electronic monitors will read whether or not you have access and allow you to enter.
    So many incredible changes will happen over the next 40 years that people will look back at the beginning years of the internet as the dark ages. Remember we have 20 years since the inception of the internet to the public from it being a government and university based system.
    Hold on for an incredible ride. The only thing that can slow it down are solar flares / sun spots that temporarily wipe out electric signals but that can be solved, too, with data redundancy and neural path structuring.

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  4. 4. IncredibleMouse 6:23 pm 09/23/2013

    Never underestimate the power of a collectively conservative bunch to impede with fervor anything that progresses forward. Be sure to include this lag coefficient in your timeline calculations.

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  5. 5. JamesD 12:28 am 11/4/2013

    After the feudal system, local government also developed, national borders didn’t really exist.When nationalism evolved people tried to hold onto their freedom with systems like anarchy, but were soon over powered controlled by a central national government. The internet and a friendly passport might give the illusion of freedom but be on guard against being manipulated, even over the internet.

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