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the underlying TCP/IP architecture was built around trust—because why would anyone at an ARPANET-connected university want to abuse their idyllic little network?—which meant there were no built-in arrangements for authenticating users.
“One of the early flaws in that ’60s design was anonymity,” Metcalfe says. “The intelligentsia of the internet has from the beginning believed that anonymity should be the default, and that’s backwards. Anonymity should be the exception. And that’s the cause of our privacy problems, our security problems.”
We’ve fought back with stronger passwords (which people can’t remember and don’t use) and all varieties of firewalls and malware-detection software (which are stuck in reactive mode, never able to get ahead of the hackers). But cybercrime will continue to be a huge friction point, adding to the costs and hazards of using the internet, until the advent of some form of unbreakable and ubiquitous security, such as quantum cryptography.
The internet will also be an arena for clashing ideologies about freedom of communication. It’s one of the miraculous stories of our time that the internet, an American invention based (for better or worse) on principles of trust and openness, has spread across the world so quickly, even to countries where the media are controlled by authoritarian regimes. But governments are learning how to tame it. In the name of “cyber sovereignty,” China has swung to the opposite end of the security spectrum, virtually eliminating anonymity. It has blocked services such as Google, YouTube, Facebook, and WhatsApp, and promoted its own heavily surveilled alternatives, such as Weibo and WeChat.
Computer scientist and Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Gilmore, who famously said, “The Net treats censorship as damage and routes around it,” may have been wrong after all. China’s Great Firewall could be a harbinger of a fragmented internet where borders stop not just people but information.
“We may well find nations that will cut [the internet] off, that will close, that will restrict themselves from interacting with others,” says Donald Norman, the University of California, San Diego-based usability engineer and author. “We already see that happening.”
And the internet is as vulnerable to physical challenges as it is to political whims. As global warming breeds greater weather extremes and more “natural” disasters like coastal storms and inland wildfires, both the major internet nodes and the connections between them could be disrupted. Underwater landslides along thawing coastal slopes could snap undersea cables. Hurricanes and cyclones could regularly inundate underground fiber conduits and urban data centers, as well as the landing points where undersea cables come ashore. Space junk could destroy communications satellites.
Future-proofing all of this infrastructure would cost hundreds of billions of dollars, almost guaranteeing that much of the needed work will be put off until it’s too late. “We’re extremely dependent on technology but at the same time it’s also quite vulnerable to any kind of environmental or climate change issues,” Georgia Tech environmental engineer Hermann Fritz told Popular Mechanics in 2018.
Will we invent preventive measures or better technologies before the internet spins apart under the forces of nationalism, greed, and decay? Can we build a cybersphere that’s more resilient and more accessible to everyone, and that’s not as filled with hate and mistruths?
The answer depends on who you ask. Back in 2011, Norman wrote a column about corporate dominance on the internet called “I Have Seen the Future and I Am Opposed.” I recently Skyped him at his home in San Diego to see how he’s feeling about the internet’s prospects today.
Norman is no Luddite—the advocate for human-centered design went to MIT and worked as Apple’s (NASDAQ: AAPL) first user experience architect before writing the book for which he’s best known, The Design of Everyday Things. But he does frequently play the part of Cassandra from Greek mythology, warning of the ways poor design choices and short-term thinking are keeping the internet from fulfilling its potential.
Norman worries, for example, that after 50 years of investment in software built around TCP/IP, it will be nearly impossible to rebuild the internet in a way that protects personal data, reduces spoofing and fakery, and holds all users accountable for abuses.
“The fundamental infrastructure was built with this kind of trust and openness available in mind,” he says. “Now that we’ve let everyone in, people discovered that they can steal data, they can modify documents, they can spoof identities, they can produce fake news. And once you have this infrastructure in place all across the world, you can’t change it easily.”
One of the more serious proposals for change is the idea of content-centric networking. But as if to prove Norman’s point, it’s been slow to gain a foothold. On the traditional internet, each piece of content is hosted in a single place, and a router’s job is to forward content requests to that host and then pass bits of the content back to the requester. In content-centric networks, routers can keep track of past requests and store frequently requested data, so that over time content moves closer to those who need it. Encryption and authentication are built in, theoretically making it harder for anonymous users to post fake or misleading information.
Researchers at Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) built the first major content-centric networking platform in the late 2000s, and in 2017 it was acquired by Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO), which says it wants to deploy the concept in 5G mobile networks. Other companies and research groups are pursuing the idea under broader labels such as named data networking (NDN) and information-centric networking (ICN). But it’s still at odds with the whole client-server model that defines today’s internet and cloud computing infrastructure, and it’s not clear how a content-centric model could be grafted onto today’s network without great expense.
Still, it may be time for something new, Norman says.
“I think we have to start over,” he says. “We may need very separate networks. The notion that there is one network for everything maybe is wrong. We used to have separate networks determined by the technology—hence radio was different than telephones, which was different than television, which was different than printed books. Today, we say, ‘Nah, it’s all information,’ because on the internet you can do all of that. Well, OK, but the content is really what’s important, not the technology.”
Norman, a student of evolution, notes that organisms tend to become more fit for their environments either slowly, over millions of years, or all at once, after a catastrophe.
“Often the biggest innovations come when some event happens that destroys half the life on the planet—meteors or volcanoes or whatever—and new life comes out,” he says. “That’s not a good way to change.”
What’s needed on the internet, he suggests, is a way to implement radical improvements before disasters force them on us.
Metcalfe didn’t just co-invent Ethernet at PARC and co-found a company, 3Com, to sell Ethernet networking hardware. He also formulated Metcalfe’s Law, the idea that the value of a network grows in proportion to the square of the number of connected users. Once you’ve planted a flag that large, you’re likely to be a lifelong believer in the internet’s basic beneficence.
And indeed, Metcalfe—whom I reached in Austin, where he leads innovation initiatives for the University of Texas at Austin—says he sees pathologies such as spam, fake news, and privacy breaches as temporary blips, artifacts of the internet’s unexpectedly rapid spread.
“I think that the thing that’s made these pathologies, has created them, is that connectivity has grown so quickly it has temporarily outstripped our ability to handle it,” Metcalfe says. “So, we’re catching up.”
Problems such as Facebook’s difficulties handling fake news or Google’s travails reining in hate speech on YouTube will inevitably be resolved through regulation or free-market competition, Metcalfe believes. The point is that monopolies “come and go,” he says.
“Right now, it’s Google and Facebook screwing up,” he continues. “Last time, it was the government that helped us break up the AT&T and IBM monopolies so that we could build the internet. That might happen again, or it could just be competitors. Microsoft could come back [in search and other areas]—Bing is going better than I thought!”
And while whole industries such as journalism, advertising, and retail commerce have been remade by the internet, Metcalfe believes that we’ve only begun to witness its power. Next on the list are healthcare, education, and energy. “They’re the big ones, much bigger than the [markets] the internet has already disrupted,” he says.
In healthcare, the mess of kludgy and disconnected electronic medical record systems will be standardized, Metcalfe predicts. “The internet is very good at connecting things,” he says. “So, all those incompatible health record systems will be crushed into a decent system. And the internet is going to allow us to shift our emphasis back on health, instead of being preoccupied by the administrivia of healthcare.”
In education, more and more career-critical material is available from organizations such as Coursera, Udacity, edX, Lynda.com, and Khan Academy. In the big picture, the internet is gradually “replacing bricks-and-mortar education,” Metcalfe says. “You can get an MBA or a master’s degree in mechanical engineering without even showing up on a campus. And the cost of an education is plummeting. Predictably, the education system is in denial, with professors running around saying how important it is that they have personal interactions with their students. Meanwhile, more and more students are getting their degrees online.”
Even century-old energy markets—assuming a few fundamental advances in energy storage—will be remodeled to imitate the internet’s model, he argues.
“We’ll be switching power packets around from random sources [based on] demand and time of day,” Metcalfe says. “Remember, when the internet was started there was no [data] storage. But look at the internet today—it is a big, distributed storage system. Even the storage on your cell phone is huge. So, energy storage is the big needed technology, and then it can be switched among consumers and producers.”
Metcalfe says he agrees with Norman that the internet itself needs an upgrade, but that “starting over is really hard,” thanks to the enormous momentum behind standards like TCP/IP and Ethernet. In the end, though, he thinks the internet will successfully disrupt itself, not to mention today’s most sclerotic industries.
“Connectivity is so powerful that it’s going to overcome those resistances,” he says.
The Hopeful Pessimist
But not all of the internet’s builders are so sanguine about its future—especially after the debacles of the last few years.
“Something like the internet was inevitable, and now society can’t survive without it,” says Perlman, whom I reached in Washington state. “And two years ago I would have said the internet is fantastic. It’s given everybody access to high-quality college courses. You can easily communicate with all of your friends and family. You can have a successful business without a store, and you can reach a global audience. If you want to buy an obscure product, you don’t have to travel 400 miles to find it. All of these things are fantastic.”
Now, however, the tradeoffs involved are more visible. “Everybody is … Next Page »