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This is just a sneak peek from Anne’s feature in SCENARIO 4:2015. If you are not a current subscriber to SCENARIO or a member of The Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies, then subscribe or get in touch with us here.
We exchange deep and emotional letters, we wish each other happy birthday, we read newspapers, discuss politics, meet new people, stalk and bully each other. All of this happens online in the parallel, virtual life each of us has constructed. For today, the internet is no longer just an integrated part of everyday life; it is our everyday life, for better or for worse.
If Nielsen’s Law of internet speed increase still holds true, the bandwidth of internet connections will increase by 50 percent every 12 months – corresponding to a twofold increase every 20 or 21 months. So by the year 2025, we can expect the internet to be 50 times faster than today. But the internet of the future will not only be characterised by super-fast connections; it will be ubiquitous, predictive, and proactive – as it, to a limited extent, already is, when we, at online marketing sites such as Amazon and eBay, are met immediately with a flow of recommendations based on former purchases and behaviour (our own as well as that of comparable customers).
It is no longer a secret that user data from our online lives is used for making individually targeted digital advertising. Everything we do online leaves a trace that is picked up and stitched into digital portraits of us. ‘Datafication’, i.e. that translation of our behaviour into quantifiable data, is an integrated part of many online business models. By 2020, somewhere between 40 and 75 billion devices with their own IP addresses and access to exchanging data with the internet – twice as many as the number of people on the planet – are expected to be connected to the net in a global Internet of Everything with a corresponding data collection of Everything. By ‘devices’, we mean any object with its own IP address and access to exchanging data with the internet. This covers everything from computers, smartphones, sports watches and smart TVs for cars, to surveillance cameras, energy meters and traffic counters. The ‘smart homes’ and ‘smart cities’ (or the future ‘intelligent’ homes and cities) will make the number of devices on the net explode. For the same reason, the newest IP address protocol, iPv6, is designed to support 340 sextillion (1 followed by 36 zeros) IP addresses, compared to the old iPv4 protocol, which could ‘only’ handle 4 billion addresses. The internet as a place where we find knowledge and communicate with each other is increasingly a qualified truth – if ‘we’ means people, that is.
Nevertheless, the way we are using the internet today – the way we access it, what we are using it for – will also change radically, and numbers alone cannot describe the development we are facing.
Big data adapts the world
Few others play such an important role in the development of the future internet as Google. The American technological giant is behind, among other things, the world’s most popular search engine, globally used services such as Google Everything” Maps, Google Translate, and Google Books, the Android operating system, smartphones, devices, wearables, software for self-driving cars, and much more. For this reason, it is difficult to say anything about the future development of the internet without taking into account the inevitably massive influence of a company like Google. When Google’s chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt in January 2015 proclaimed ”The Death of the internet” – a bombastic way of saying that the internet in years to come will go from visible to invisible, ubiquitous, and no longer tied to our individual devices – it was something that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Google is a key player in the design of the future internet, and thus, any prediction made by them carries a certain weight that can contribute to turning speculation into reality.
At Google’s headquarters in Copenhagen, I meet CEO for Google in the Nordic countries and Benelux, Peter Friis, in a thoroughly playful yet high-tech working environment – complete with a wall of pick’n’mix sweets, flickering screens on all walls and bean bags in the Google signature colours. In front of him, Friis has a large pile of papers filled with blue scribbled notes and squiggles, all of which (I think) is meant to help him describe to me how he envisages the next 5-10-15 years’ development of the internet. This is a quaint little relic from the past in the middle of a talk about the future, and conclusive proof that the future is not here yet. But, it’s on its way. And it will be here soon. According to Friis, the internet of the future will be proactive and predicting. We will surround ourselves with technology that can see and think for us, analyse our behaviour and help us make decisions. It’s an extension of the already existing digital marketing strategies that we know from online stores such as Amazon or Ebay that give us suggestions for future purchases based on our behaviour; the products we have clicked on or showed interest in.
This, Friis says, is only the beginning: “We are all going to live in prescient environments. We [Google, ed.] are trying to give you what is right, like an intelligent rain that falls just when you need it. I can’t image a future that is not adapted to me when I walk out the door. It is the basic value premise of the internet: when we can measure and weigh information, we can also start to extrapolate, which means predicting and being proactive”.
The future development of the internet outlined by Friis is reminiscent of many other technologies that used to be rare, but which we don’t even pay attention to today. For example, a hundred years ago, the prevalence of electricity was something rare and just as striking as free, high-speed Wi-Fi is in 2015. Today, electricity is taken for granted to the extent where it is invisible; we are neither conscious of it nor pay it any attention. In the same way, internet connection, and even the devices we use to access the internet will no longer be something we notice in the future.
“The internet will disappear, or rather, it will just be there, as a utility that makes things around us work”, Peter Friis explains. The disappearance of the internet from our consciousness is closely connected to the development and distribution of the Internet of Things – a notion that refers to the growing number of devices around us that can sense the surroundings and share this information on the internet. The Internet of Things points towards a more natural and straightforward communication with computers and other ‘intelligent’ devices. In the future, this will mean a communication with our devices more similar to the kind we have with other people today. It will also mean that the amount of data uploaded by us to the internet will no longer be limited to our active choice of input, but will increasingly include automatically collected data about our identity, activity, locality and situation. Sensors in the road system will warn our cars about slippery roads, car accidents and traffic jams, the kitchen coffee maker will start by itself five minutes before the alarm clock sets off, thermostats will take care of heating up our homes an hour before we return from our winter holidays, and customised marketing will, even more than today, hit us with tremendous precision.
On the one hand, this development will make life much easier for us, because we will no longer need to explain ourselves as much to machines. On the other hand, it makes possible much more surveillance than we are subject to today – which is already much more than most people realise.