The Internet is just a few decades old, but in that short span of time it has experienced significant changes. It grew out of a hodgepodge of independent networks into a global entity. It serves as a platform for business, communication, entertainment and education. And you can connect to this enormous network through dozens of different devices.
What's next? When you can call up minute trivia about the most obscure subject you can think of with a couple of taps on a smartphone screen, where else can you go? The answer isn't entirely clear, but the possibilities are exciting.
One thing that seems certain is that data transmission speeds will increase globally. According to Akamai Technologies, which publishes a quarterly state of the Internet report, the average global data transmission speed in late 2009 was 1.7 megabits per second [source: Akamai]. Compare that to the record for data transmission speed set by Bell Labs: 100 petabits per second [source: PhysOrg]. That's equivalent to 100 billion megabits per second. At that speed, you could transmit 400 DVDs worth of data every second.
That's an enormous gap between what's currently possible and what's commercially available. But as time passes, the costs of producing ultra-high-speed networks will decrease. Eventually, the average consumer will be able to download a high-definition movie in a second or play cloud-based video games without a hint of lag.
Even as wired connections reach unprecedented speeds, wireless technology continues to evolve. Technologies like LTE and WiMAX give us the ability to access the Internet wirelessly at speeds comparable to broadband connections. It also opens the doors for portable devices like smartphones, laptops and tablets to plug into the Internet without the need for wires.
We believe that the Internet will be faster and more pervasive. What else might the future hold?
Net Neutrality and Proprietary Platforms
A battle has been brewing over the last couple of decades. That battle is being waged by advocates for and opponents to the concept of net neutrality. Net neutrality is an umbrella term that covers many concepts. Among those is the idea that everyone should be able to access everything on the Internet equally, no matter what service they use.
Some Internet service providers (ISPs) oppose this philosophy. It gives them less control over their own services. If an ISP could strike deals with content providers, it could give preferential treatment to its partners. Let's look at an example.
You've subscribed to ISP A. This ISP has struck a deal with Web site X. Under this agreement, ISP A's customers can visit Web site X using the fastest connections in ISP A's network. Web site Y is a competitor to Web site X. As part of the deal, ISP A slows down -- or perhaps even prevents -- traffic to Web site Y. Customers will tend to visit X over Y because they can get there faster. As a result, Web site Y suffers due to low user traffic.
If we extend the example, it gets even worse. Imagine an Internet in which the sites you can visit depend entirely upon which ISP you have. In some markets, you might not even have a choice of ISP -- one company may dominate the local market. That means you're stuck with whatever access the ISP decides to grant you. That's antithetical to the spirit of net neutrality.
Proprietary platforms may also be a threat to the Internet. Devices like video game consoles, smartphones and entertainment systems are attracting developers to create Internet applications. But while these applications give devices additional functionality, they also are creating divisions on the Internet. As each platform becomes more locked down, developers have to choose which platforms to support.
Ultimately, that means that the owners of these devices will each have a different experience when accessing the Internet. If this trend continues, it may become difficult to have a meaningful conversation about the Internet -- each person's perspective will be shaped by the devices he or she uses.
It may turn out that open platforms get the most support and outlast their proprietary counterparts. But that could be a long-term outcome. For the next several years, we'll likely see more locked-down systems accessing the Internet.
How might the Internet change us?
The Internet and Human Intelligence
Nicholas Carr wrote an article titled "Is Google making us stupid?" In it, Carr said he had noticed that as his reliance on the Internet for research and entertainment increased, other faculties seemed to atrophy. One of those was his concentration or focus. He hypothesized that because the way you navigate the Internet in general -- and the World Wide Web in particular -- you're always leaping from one piece of information to another [source: The Atlantic].
Could the Internet affect the way humans think? On the one hand, we have unprecedented access to an enormous library of information. Answers to questions ranging from "What is the Big Bang theory?" to "How long should I let dough rise?" are just a couple of clicks away. But does that information come at the cost of our own ability to think?
There does seem to be a correlation to the way we record and access information and the way we think. As we develop systems that allow us to save our knowledge for posterity, we unload that burden onto an inanimate object. That doesn't necessarily mean we become less intelligent.
Not everyone agrees with Carr's hypothesis. The Pew Research Center performs a survey each year about the future of the Internet. The research group polls a group of experts and industry analysts on a series of questions. For the 2010 report, one of the questions asked the respondents if they thought Carr was right about Google -- and the Internet in general -- making us stupid. Eighty-one percent of the experts disagreed.
But it's true that access to information doesn't equate to intelligence. You might be able to look up a fact, but that doesn't mean you understand what the fact means or its context. The Internet is a tool that we can use to help us learn -- it doesn't replace learning itself.
Optimists hope that the Internet will teach us about ourselves. The reach of the Internet is creeping into countries and cultures that have been segregated from the rest of the world. Some hope the Internet will provide the common ground that allows various people to learn and understand each other, possibly bringing about an era of peace and cooperation.
Ultimately, the Internet could begin to erase traditional boundaries between countries and cultures. But that sort of global change isn't trivial. It might take decades before we see a noticeable difference in the way we think of one another. Cynics may think even a tool as useful and pervasive as the Internet won't overcome the hurdles we face in becoming a united world.
Learn more about the Internet by following the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Akamai. "State of the Internet." 2009. (April 27, 2010) http://www.akamai.com/stateoftheinternet/
- Alcatel-Lucent. "Bell Labs breaks optical transmission record, 100 Petabit per second kilometer barrier." PhysOrg.com. Sept. 29, 2009. (April 27, 2010) http://www.physorg.com/news173455192.html
- Anderson, Sam. "Is Chatroulette the future of the Internet or its distant past?" New York Magazine. Feb. 5, 2010. (April 27, 2010) http://nymag.com/news/media/63663/
- Carr, Nicholas. "Is Google making us stupid?" The Atlantic. July/August 2008. (April 28, 2010) http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/6868/
- Freepress.net. "Future of the Internet." (April 27, 2010) http://www.freepress.net/media_issues/internet
- Moyer, Michael. "The (good and bad) future of the Internet." Scientific American. Feb. 22, 2010. (April 27, 2010) http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=the-good-and-bad-future-of-the-inte-2010-02-22
- Rainie, Lee. "The Future of the Internet: Expert-Survey Results." Pew Research Group. Feb. 19, 2010. (April 27, 2010) http://www.pewinternet.org/Presentations/2010/Feb/The-Future-of-the-Internet-IV.aspx
- Stewart, William. "The Living Internet: The Future of the Internet." November 2009. (April 27, 2010) http://www.livinginternet.com/i/ia_future.htm
- Zittrain, Jonathan. "The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It." Yale University Press. April 2008. (April 27, 2010) http://futureoftheinternet.org/