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The Future of the Internet

By Rohit Talwar and Alexandra Whittington
How might the technologies, functionality and governance of the internet evolve – what could this mean for individuals, society, business and government?
Envisaging tomorrow’s Internet

Advances in information and communications technology (ICT) are opening up many possible paths to the future of cyberspace as we know it. The resulting visions for tomorrow’s Internet vary quite dramatically – on one of the spectrum are the notions of a smart public servant that anticipates and serves our every need while protecting our information fiercely. Somewhere in the middle (depending on your perspective) is the notion of the Web as a synthesized reality which blurs seamlessly with our physical one. At the other extreme lie dystopian visions where our every action is monitored by governments and commercial interests and where we have to trade our privacy in return for access to goods and services. This Chapter discusses the forces and factors shaping the future possible evolution of the Internet and highlights how its role in business and society could evolve over the next twenty years.

Introduction – the internet as a central backbone for the planet

Since the birth of the World Wide Web (WWW) in 1991, the idea of the public internet has become established as central part of life for many in the developed world in particular. There is often confusion between the Internet as the underlying communications infrastructure and the World Wide Web – the globally distributed network of public websites that we access via the Internet.

So what else can we access via the Internet? Estimates suggest that 60 to 90 percent of all traffic on the internet goes to the so called Dark Web – also known as the Deep Web, Deepnet, Invisible Web, Hidden Web, and Dark Internet. These are publicly accessible sites that have hidden their IP addresses either for privacy, security or illicit reasons. They hide their IP address using encryption tools such as TOR and I2P and the users have to know where to find these sites and use the same encryption tools to gain access. Some argue that the evolution of the Dark Web may drive developments in the public Internet.

Today there are an estimated 3.13 billion public Internet users worldwide and this is projected to rise to 4.7 billion by 2025. We estimate this could reach anywhere from five to seven billion by 2035. Andrew Ellis, professor of optical communications at Aston University, told the Sunday Times that Internet usage in the UK “…is growing so fast, currently at an exponential rate, that, in theory, it could be using all the UK power generation by 2035.”

As the Internet becomes increasingly mobile, and the capabilities and speed of the underlying technologies improve, the scale and reach of the internet and World Wide Web of websites that reside on it are expected to grow over that same period. Most experts believe it will be the first truly global infrastructure service – reaching far more people than centralized electricity distribution or public water supplies.

How might the growing scale, functionality, sophistication and intelligence of the internet impact the way we live, how society operates, and the nature of business, government, and the economy? What could a truly multi-sensory internet be like – how would the addition of touch, taste, smell, and direct brain stimulation change our experience of the Web? Can we maintain net neutrality with all data being treated equally; will the net remain an open access public good or fall under commercial or governmental control? How will we power tomorrow’s Internet and avoid the risk of it draining public energy supplies? What are the implications for privacy, work, jobs, incomes, and social interactions? An exploration of the future of the internet must encompass all of these issues if we are to develop true insight on this phenomenon that is set to become the central nervous system of the planet over the next two decades.

In addressing these issues, we also need to ask ourselves some fundamental questions about the purpose, intent, role, ownership, and control of this increasingly powerful tool that many of us take for granted. What is the Internet, what is it for, what does it do, and should anyone own it? To help address these questions we will draw on three simple but powerful metaphors that describe the critical forces at play here:

  • When Worlds Collide – the growing sense of urgency and shock arising from the clash between older physical entities and their newer “born digital” challengers.
  • Masters of the Universe – the notion of emerging entities with boundless ambition, wielding almost mythical power, and displaying heroic leadership in their quest to take on any and every challenge.
  • DNA Evolution – the rapid technological changes and resulting social shifts that could change the code of life itself. These forces are driven by a relentless pace of development of the underlying technologies that serve up the Internet and through which we access it. This evolution is also changing our understanding of where the internet “lives”. We have already watched computing and Internet access graduate from our desktops to portable and mobile devices. We are now in the phase of wearable access and evolving to one where our devices could increasingly be embedded in our brains and bodies.

On a 10 to 20-year timeframe the notion of devices being grown or grafted into to our bodies is not beyond the realms of possibility given the advances being made in the underlying scientific disciplines. On the short horizon is mass connectivity of everyday objects via the Internet of Things (IoT) – with projections of anywhere between 50 and 250 billion net-connected objects over the next 20 years. The future of the Internet over the next two decades and beyond is most likely to see a whole new hyperconnected world of networked people, objects, and systems capable of transforming, reframing, and undermining the established norms of business and society.

When Worlds Collide – The internet is becoming the battleground between those born physical and their born digital challengers. There is a fundamental clash of mindset and assumptions here. The former see and conceive the world as physical objects or concepts – people, homes, bank accounts. In contrast, the born digital community views everything as data, with every requirement, problem, or challenge resolvable by finding the right algorithms, with the solutions deliverable via the Web. As a result, they believe that the solution to every problem from education to food shortages and environmental issues can be tackled by applying a digital mindset and deploying the right exponential technologies. The internet is the critical ingredient that enables the scaling up and global co-ordination, management and distribution of solutions.

Masters of the Universe – The companies that provide essential and increasingly universal internet services are reaching across industry and product lines to come up with game-changing solutions. With such profound capacities going forward, the analogy “Masters of the Universe” seems suitable to express a sense that the data and insight being gathered via the Web allows firms like Google, Facebook, and the rest to believe they can do anything.

Critically, they own the user interface and the platforms through which users interact on a daily basis. This enables the providers of popular social media platforms, search engines, and mobile devices to capture far more data about our lifestyles on a daily basis than any retailer, bank, or other service provider can possibly hope to. They own the interface and brand experience for their customers and have a level of customer loyalty that is powering their ambitions. As a result life extension, self-driving automobiles, banking, and healthcare are just some of the sectors that the “Masters of the Universe” view as within reach and prime for dominance and / or disruption.

This group see themselves as both the saviors and the ultimate inheritors of the planet in a winner-takes-all race to conquer a digitally- enabled and cyber-dependent world. As the technology elites continue to throw their hats into the ring, it becomes clear there are few endeavors they will not attempt. CNN columnist Andrew Keen suggests this new class of leadership resembles, “….a pre-industrial cultural economy of patronage determined by the whims of a narrow cultural and economic elite rather than by the democracy of the marketplace.”

Mutations in the DNA – As the internet evolves, it seems likely that businesses will favor early identification of opportunities to use it to ensure access to new markets, customers, and relationships. As the internet’s functionality expands and the IoT blurs the boundaries between physical and virtual, so we will see continuous growth in the proportion of daily life that is Web-enabled, Web-dependent or Web-embedded. In this environment, accurate market insight and the choice of strategic actions will depend on having a solid grasp of the oncoming waves of technological advances.

An ever-expanding array of technology tools will increasingly define, expand, and enhance the parameters of daily life and the ways in which it could unfold. This shift to the Web is driving the mutation of DNA – how the internet will enable disruptors to change the game within sector after sector rather than playing within the rules. Some of the major mutations in the social and business DNA are gaining ground already and could have explosive impact in the coming decades – a number of such possibilities are explored later in the chapter.

Future internet visions and scenarios

A number of potentially competing views are emerging for how the internet could play out over the next 20 years. The Pew Research Digital Life 2025 project surveyed over 2,500 experts on the future of the internet. A key outcome was the notion of the internet as a utility that will soon “flow like electricity,” being a simple fact of life for which there is little concern or recognition as a separate thing from the machines it runs. The study outlined 15 predictions that provide a sense of the challenges, risks, trade-offs, and choices that will confront society, governments, and business leaders when considering a technology that runs the risk of fading into the background. The predictions provide a useful framework for understanding the potential breadth and depth of impact:

Functionality and Usage
  • Information sharing over the Internet will be so effortlessly interwoven into daily life that it will become invisible, flowing like electricity, often through machine intermediaries.
  • The Internet of Things, artificial intelligence (AI) and big data will make people more aware of their world and their own behavior.
  • Augmented reality and wearable devices will be implemented to monitor and give quick feedback on daily life, especially in regard to personal health.
  • The Internet will become “the Internets” as access, systems and principles are renegotiated.
Societal Impact
  • The spread of the Internet will enhance global connectivity, fostering more positive relationships among societies.
  • Political awareness and action will be facilitated and more peaceful change, and more public uprisings like the Arab Spring will emerge.
  • The spread of the “Ubernet” will diminish the meaning of borders, and new “nations” of those with shared interests may emerge online and exist beyond the capacity of current nation-states to control.
  • An Internet-enabled revolution in education will spread more opportunities with less money spent on buildings and teachers.
Emerging Risks
  • Dangerous divides between haves and have-nots may expand, resulting in resentment and possible violence.
  • Abuses and abusers will ‘evolve and scale.’ Human nature isn’t changing; there’s laziness, bullying, stalking, stupidity, pornography, dirty tricks, crime, and the offenders will have new capacity to make life miserable for others.
  • Pressured by these changes, governments and corporations will try to assert power – and at times succeed – as they invoke security and cultural norms.
Societal Adaptation
  • People will continue – sometimes grudgingly – to make tradeoffs favoring convenience and perceived immediate gains over privacy; and privacy will be something only the upscale will enjoy.
  • Humans and their current organizations may not respond quickly enough to challenges presented by complex networks.
  • Most people are not yet noticing the profound changes today’s communications networks are already bringing about; these networks will be even more disruptive in the future.
  • Foresight and accurate predictions can make a difference; “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” The IoT is emerging as a common feature in most future visions and scenarios. The result of the proliferation of sensors and the embedding of intelligence and connectivity in a range of objects from domestic appliances and clothing to street signs, anywhere from 50 to 250 billion objects could potentially by connected to the internet over the next two decades. The World Economic Forum warns that the IoT: “Will have profound social, political and economic consequences, and increasingly form part of our everyday lives, from the cars we drive and medicines we take, to the jobs we do and the governance systems we live in.”

This extreme level of “Hyperconnectivity” would make globalization seem quaint on a comparative scale of impact. The same principles that minimized the Earth’s cultural and economic barriers will now do so in a way that engages inanimate objects in the Global Village. The social and economic impact could be far-reaching across intertwined networks of people, places, processes, transform markets, supply chains, living patterns, and the nature of work.

Microsoft’s June 2014 report Cyberspace 2025: Today’s Decisions, Tomorrow’s Terrain seeks to aggregate these diverse drivers and identifies three scenarios for the possible evolution of the internet and the resulting implications – Plateau, Peak and Canyon:

  • Plateau – This scenario is characterized by asymmetry. Political, economic, and societal forces both bolster and hinder technological progress and cybersecurity. Some governments have inconsistent policies and standards with varied levels of stakeholder participation and international cooperation, while other governments form clusters of open trade and foreign direct investment (FDI). Some countries are able to leverage technology to advance economic and socioeconomic development, while other countries are left behind technologically, unable to fulfill the potential of ICT. This fragmented and uneven approach to governance and the economy leads to a less than optimal global cybersecurity landscape.
  • Peak – This scenario is characterized by clear, effective government policies and standards across economies, and strong collaboration between governments to support open trade and promote FDI. This is a scenario of innovation, in which ICT fulfills its potential to strengthen governance models, economies, and societies. The actions of governments, businesses, and societal organizations foster the widespread and rapid adoption of technology. Political, economic, and social support leads to accelerated economic and technology growth and improved global cybersecurity.
  • Canyon – This scenario is characterized by obstructionist government policies and standards, protectionist stances, and isolation. These significantly restrict trade and FDI and undermine relationships across industrial sectors within countries as well as between countries. In this scenario, economic and technology growth is slower, with limited adoption of ICT and deep failures in cybersecurity.

These and other internet scenarios highlight the multitude of choices and possible paths that could enhance or impair its societal and commercial value. When we go beyond the near-term horizon a number of even more dramatic possibilities start to emerge such as being able to email physical objects, the integration of holographic technology into social interactions, books that feature “sensory fiction”, direct connection of our brains to the internet, and the networking of our thoughts and dreams. We are in a phase where the speed of advance is such that developments we think are a hundred years away could be delivered far sooner.

The scenarios and future possibilities raise fundamental questions about how customer preferences and product cycles might adjust in response, what our strategies should be, how we evolve business models, and how frequently we will need to update them. What is the most effective way of designing our organizations to respond where 20 years of technology—less than one generation—could drive a century’s worth of social change? The ramifications will be immense for consumer profiling, marketing, advertising, and customer relationships.

The quest to make the internet a central life support system The major players have all embarked on strategies to deepen the penetration of the internet into our everyday lives and into the fabric of commerce and government – thus strengthening our dependency upon it. Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google, argues the ubiquitous Internet’s future will be “part of your presence all the time”. Given Google’s strategy of branching out into everything from life-extension biology to self-driving cars, AI, robotics, and augmented reality, it is clear to see why it would want the Internet to be part of us all the time. Interestingly, as the present incarnation of the Web is so woven into ordinary life, Vint Cerf, the “father of the internet” warns of dire consequences once today’s open technology yields to more proprietary versions of the internet. He fears a “dark age” if we don’t ensure that our collective online store of digital information (pictures, messages, experiences) is transferable to future iterations of the Internet. If this digital history is lost, the risk is that future generations may view our time on earth (1950-2050, perhaps?) as an empty void.

That the Internet will continue to expand and transform is a central tenet and assumption in the Masters of the Universe narrative. A major focus for these would-be cyber-overlords is making internet access universal. Though it is one of their key talking points, obstacles persist. These firms are undertaking or planning a range of initiatives to extend internet access across the planet through satellites, mobile devices and so called “walled garden” applications which would restrict the access to what the provider chose to offer. While the firms claim they are serving the needs of humanity, other observers suggest this is simply an attempt to lock an ever growing audience into a proprietary version of the Web over which the provider has total control and surveillance.

A Facebook study found that, in the developed world, 76 percent of the population is online, compared to just 29.8 percent in developing countries. Developed markets are reaching saturation and 2014 saw a declining rate of growth in the number of global internet users for the fourth consecutive year. Hence, reaching this unconnected 70 per cent is central to future strategy as it would provide access to a further three to five billion potential customers over the next two decades. Is the universality of the internet a fact of life or a narrative imposed on behalf of those who stand to gain from its expansion?

Bitcoin, blockchain, Ethereum and the battle to reclaim the Internet

The Internet, though “free,” is still effectively controlled by the companies who control the data. Meanwhile, it is clear that a backlash against the controlling power of the internet elite is taking shape. Several of the most exciting emerging and anticipated technology breakthroughs will challenge the currently centralized nature of the internet. The cybercurrency Bitcoin brought this in to sharp focus with its decentralized payment mechanism that enabled users to buy and sell goods services via the Bitcoin network, without the need for a central banking system. The most interesting and disruptive aspect of Bitcoin is the underlying use of blockchain technology. This provides a secure mechanism for encoding transactions and a continuously updated distributed public ledger that records them.

A more recent venture called Ethereum builds upon the blockchain concept with a goal of decentralizing the communications, contracts, and transactions that occur in both the physical world and cyberspace. It provides tools that enable users to program self-activating self-managing smart contracts. Some suggest that this could lead to a more secure, transparent, and democratic internet that could outstrip the current one in scale and usage.

Another wave of potential disruption could come from what Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince calls The Second Crypto War: “Companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, and others have acted as a centralized repository of user data that law enforcement could turn to during an investigation. As the second Crypto War heats up, these companies are engineering new ways to lock their users’ data away even from legal process.”

Next generation technologies driving DNA mutations Connectivity – A technology that could have a major impact on connectivity is The Outernet – the idea of taking connectivity to space via satellite and transmitting data in a fashion analogous to radio transmission rather than wifi. This is seen as a temporary fix for universal internet access until more permanent infrastructure can be implemented in developing countries and remote areas.

On a completely different scale, light fidelity, or Li-Fi, offers new avenues for highly localized bi-directional data transmission at theoretical speeds of up to 224 Gbps – which compares to theoretical speeds of eight to 1,300 Mbps for wifi transmission today. As light is blocked by solid objects, like walls, Li-Fi would be limited by physical barriers, providing a more individualized, localized and hence potentially more secure internet experience.

Products and Services – Advances in machine learning, speech and gesture recognition, and other forms of AI will enable micropersonalization– a personality-centric future technology, where “interfaces will be obsessed with meeting your individual needs.” Futurists John Smart and Ray Kurzweil – Google’s Director of Engineering – suggest another highly intimate development could be possible by 2020, whereby our AI “digital twins” or “Cybernetic Friends” might be able to mimic their owners, including sharing the same worldview and expressions, even “hold conversations and have faces”.

AI is becoming an increasingly important internet technology and will be central to concepts such as the semantic Web (see below), intelligent interfaces, and customer service avatars. It will lead to intelligent agents that do our bidding on the Web, and ever-smarter text, image, and video-based search. Proponents of the technological singularity such as Ray Kurzweil argue that by 2029 we could see AI having advanced to the point where it exceeds human intelligence – a turning point beyond which it then becomes hard to predict what might happen. On route to this point of departure, the expectation is that AI will increasingly enable us to draw on a collective intelligence in the cloud, where all human knowledge will gather.

For a number of the most promising developments to take root, it will be essential to raise society’s trust and comfort levels – with both products and providers – around using and transacting with technology. The shift is happening as more and more services become digital-access only and a born digital generation grows up assuming ever-greater penetration of technology. For example, a Pew internet study found the majority (65 percent) of technology experts think that mobile payments will be the norm within five years. The next iteration could see a range of biometric payment options from fingerprint recognition to “paying with a smile” via a facial scan.

Smart Objects – Over the next few years society will become increasingly accustomed to and potentially more accepting of an environment populated by “smart” things, mostly connected through the IoT. We will also see the gradual transformation of inanimate objects (20 billion or more, excluding PCs, tablets, or smartphones) with the ability to know and express information, as well as gather data from their environment—including data about us. In February 2015 Samsung generated considerable debate when it launched a TV with built-in voice recognition, where our conversations could be recorded and shared with third parties. Cisco’s projections suggest the Internet of Everything (IoE) has the potential to reach $19 trillion of value by 2022. As the social fabric is redefined by IoT and IoE, the implications – like DNA mutations—will be adaptive and evolutionary. Objects will play a much more active role in daily life.

Work – The DNA or work itself could evolve as a result of the push to connect essentially everything via online workflow software that manages every stage of activity – encompassing “companies, systems, technology, apps, and people.” Experts predict workflow software will help to “. . . solve the big data problem, the cloud security problem, and many of the roadblocks facing software technology today”. We are laying the foundations for the fully automated enterprise – companies that are effectively a giant distributed rules-based engine with little or no human intervention once the business rules have been defined.

Platforms such as Ethereum are catering for the emergence of these Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) and Decentralized Autonomous Corporations (DACs). This gives rise to the notion of Corporations as Technology and the Fully Automated Busines Entity. In this environment, stakeholder requirements will change.

Customer expectations will be different. So will the expectations and needs of those who are still employed or contracted in to perform specific tasks that the DAC cannot as yet automate. What will work become when software enables most of it to be done automatically, almost intuitively? The companies that arrive early at solutions to these major puzzles could thrive and / or face a major potential public backlash at the notion of an entirely digital corporation.

Knowledge Management – On the horizon is the notion of the Semantic Web – increasing the intelligence and intuition of the Web, by annotating its content with self-descriptive information to enable more precise searching based on the context as well as the terms of the user enquiry. Inventor of the World Wide Web Tim Berners-Lee created the concept, foreseeing “. . . a number of ways in which developers and authors, singly or in collaborations, can use self-descriptions and other techniques so that context-understanding programs can selectively find what users want.” A number of developments are underway in this domain and a range of platforms are beginning to incorporate basic semantic technologies, for example:

  • Google’s Knowledge Graph – providing information on “entities” such as people and places and the relationship between them.
  • Hummingbird – drawing on your geographical location, search history, social activity, and other cues to personalize the search.
  • – a collaborative, community activity with a mission to create, maintain, and promote schemas (cognitive frameworks to help present and interpret data) and a common vocabulary for the capture and use of structured data on the Internet, on Web pages, in email messages, and beyond.

An interesting aspect of the Semantic Web is that it will require new partnerships involving creative, humanistic, and emotionally intelligent participants to harness its full potential. Some of the most powerful applications are expected to come in domains such as travel and leisure, incorporating richer descriptions and multi-sensory information to enhance the presentation of content to would-be travelers. The sector is expected to embrace semantic search powered by AI and it could become standard in travel customer service by 2020.

Care Giving – The expectation that, technologically speaking, society evolves with each step forward is threatened by the sense that many products and services come at too high a social price. One of the truths casting a harsh light on the future of the internet is that as we become more highly connected, we also become more highly observed. Becoming overly managed by our devices is one concern: the notion of “Big Mother” telling us how many calories to eat, reminding us of important social engagements, and introducing us to possible love interests.

Our smart homes will be capable of conducting surveillance to the point of knowing how strong a batch of coffee should be brewed (based on how late you stayed out last night) or a bracelet that vibrates when the baby wakes in his crib. Now more than ever, we can see how technology can transform social roles and relationships, especially when it mimics the work of caring for others. When roles that were traditionally, inextricably based on human interaction are taken up by machines, there will be a blurring of gender, family and social roles like never before. Again, the DNA comparison seems appropriate—technological change is reshaping who we are.

Home and Family – The home is the prime staging area for many significant developments related to the future of the internet. Semantic, ethnographic and media research studies are becoming critical to developing the next generation of products and services for the home.

Some examples include:

  • Like-a-Hug: a jacket that inflates every time someone “likes” us on Facebook.
  • Facebook’s Coffee Table: a smart object that uses real-time speech analysis to pick up keywords from your conversation to pull up corresponding Facebook images.
  • Google’s Latitude Doorbell: chimes a different tune for each family members when they are nearing home.

A key concern is that most of these smart objects are being developed independently so there is no industry standard for how they work, much less a clear pattern for how they will work together. Samsung has announced plans to invest $100 million in developing IoT solutions, with the goal of setting future systems standards. 189 However, the notion of dominating the IoT rests on several assumptions, the main one being that it’s what the public wants at all.

Risks – An all-knowing all-seeing internet informed by networks of smart things opens up a range of possible risks such as the hacking of wireless pacemakers. On a broader scale, concern is rising over the potential expansion of ransomware opportunities and the associated costs of dealing with “malware that seizes data until targets pay up within a certain time frame”. The appeal of rewriting societal DNA will extend beyond innovators and their investors, to the criminal element that can see new potential for illicit gain. So far, ransomware is reported to have hit at least one million victims – costing them $1.8 million. Even law enforcement has been impacted—it cost one American police department $500 to regain data seized from official computers.

Clearly these technologies also offer the opportunity to both expand the malicious side of the Dark Web, and – potentially – to control it. Previously the domain of the illicit, the Masters of the Universe are being usurped by government in arriving on the scene. A Pentagon-developed search engine called Memex is claimed to be able access 95% of the information that a Google search can’t, reaching “the deep, dark recesses of the World Wide Web”. Recently, the Global Commission on Internet Governance (GCIG) said it anticipates fragmentation in criminals using the Dark Web, making it even more challenging to investigate. Some of the strategies planned by GCIC include monitoring of customer data, semantic analysis to track future illegal activities and “marketplace profiling” to gather information about sellers, users, and goods. Though these measures are meant to catch criminals, it is important to consider how legitimate businesses might get wrapped into the extra surveillance needed to combat crime. Particularly as the IoT is implemented, it will be important to figure out how to keep our “things” (and our most personal information) out of the hands of bad guys, and possibly the good guys too.

Protection of the Common Good – Alongside its murkier inhabitants, the Dark Web also serves as the “unofficial” internet, placing a destabilizing pressure on Masters of the Universe – acting as source of ideas, innovation and developments that lie outside their control. Furthermore, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) attempts to track hidden cybercrime rings could yield wider positive outcomes: “Aside from going after human traffickers, terrorists, and other criminals, DARPA says Memex can become particularly useful to government, military, and commercial organizations in finding and organizing ‘mission critical’ information on the Internet. Emergency responders, for example, can quickly find information on the worst hit areas in the event of a natural disaster.”

There are several new perspectives that support the notion of the internet as a common good. Tim Berners-Lee argues: “Affordable access to the Internet should be recognized as a human right.”It could also be a tool to fight injustice, providing a guarantee of online equality and rights. If used fairly, in ways that enhance social justice, it might become the key technology that emancipates society from living at the mercy of imperfect political and economic systems. This is the line of thought being pursued vigorously by those involved in Ethereum and other similar decentralized developments. They argue that the transparency and security of the blockchain could provide new levels of openness and protection for citizens and lay bare the details of decisions and transactions that might otherwise be hidden from them.

Conclusion – whose net is it anyway?

As the analysis above suggests, in a constantly evolving environment with an accelerating pace of technological development and ever greater potential gains, there are inevitably far more questions than answer right now about the future of the internet. At the heart of the matter is the issue of ownership.

A fundamental question for business and policy leaders alike is whether the internet can be both a “right” and a for-profit product or service? Despite the central nature of the question, it is in some respects being overtaken by events, with billions of “things” expected to arrive online within the next five to ten years. Will the Masters of the Universe have sidelined the issue by making the Web so central to our lives that we are willing to trade privacy and access to our personal data in return for rides on their branded internet wonderworld? From where we stand today, the “almost certain probable future” is that, a decade from now, our things will be talking to each other and busier than us moving data around in cyberspace. A lot of that data will be about us.

In this Nextnet, populated by connected things and our intelligent agents, what role will there be for the discussion about rights, morals, net neutrality, and ownership? Will the proponents of net neutrality succeed in their mission to have all data treated equally, or could we see a privatized, segmented net of nets emerge where corporations and governments set the rules and we get what we are willing to pay for?

Will Ethereum and its like have populated cyberspace with a network of DAOs that operate largely unattended and whose transparency and openness challenges the authority of current and would-be Master of its Universe? On the other hand, would removing a human element from the Internet make it a much less appealing place and create the space for a completely new development to take place to fill the need for social interactions?

Might Dark Web 2.0 emerge as the place to escape the “things” and spend time in a human online ecosystem? A place to fly under the radar of companion objects and AI-enabled agents (and the companies that want to know what data they hold) might become a necessary and sought after refuge.

What’s clear is that the scale and functionality of the Web and the underlying Internet are likely to expand dramatically. Innovators will deliver internet solutions that tempt us, rework the DNA of every aspect of society, and challenge our assumptions about the boundaries between public and private, free and paid, open and controlled.

The born digital Masters of the Universe will continue to drive for winner-takes-all dominance in sector after sector – physical and digital alike. In response, the born physical business community will be challenged to rework its DNA and find ways of fighting back and transforming into entities capable of competing and winning when these worlds collide.


  • What new possibilities will the future evolution of the internet create for your business?
  • How is the likely development of the internet being factored into your overall business strategy?
  • How might the emergence of novel internet features change the way we market, sell, charge for and deliver goods and services?

This article is excerpted from The Future of Business. You can order the book here.


Image: by geralt


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