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What Will the Internet Be in 2050?


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)

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

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