The World Wide Web (WWW) celebrated its 25th anniversary on March 12th. This event got me thinking: the Internet and the WWW have already transformed the world in many ways – some predictable, some not – but what’s in store for the next 25 years as Internet capabilities continue to grow? From my perspective, the future could bring either a better Internet or a worse Internet than what exists today.
As it stands, we're lacking in cooperative international efforts when it comes to Internet governance. Such governance will be crucial, as the Web continues to evolve, if we want to maximize its benefits and minimize its unwanted side effects, particularly in three key areas that could have a big impact on society:
- Healthcare: The ever-growing power of our computing devices will have profound implications for healthcare. For instance, we could see implantable networked devices become commonplace. These devices will offer great benefits, such as detecting and preventing diseases by alerting individuals and their medical professionals of vitamin deficiencies, irregular cell counts, degrading organ functions, or even early-stage cancer. These same devices, however, could do more harm than good – from revealing personal medical information to triggering a heart attack – if they fall under the control of malicious actors.
- Crime Prevention: Surveillance technology and its regulation are already a hot topic today. But we'll have much more to contend with in another quarter century, as Internet capabilities continue to advance. Continuing miniaturization will probably mean that we’ll have effectively invisible cameras nearly everywhere – even embedded in our clothing. On the one hand, recording the daily actions of citizens worldwide may bring a major decrease in crime, as visible crime becomes less likely to succeed. But on the other hand, uncontrolled surveillance may bring forth a flood of intrusive snooping from government agencies, corporations, and other entities. As such, we’ll need to continually and carefully consider how such surveillance technologies should be used, and to consider measures such as mandated transparency to allow us to 'watch the watchers.'
- Technology’s Impact on Manufacturing: Technological advances over the next 25 years are likely to result in widespread adoption of 3D printing, allowing people to print things at home that would otherwise require whole industries. This could result in a boom for home invention, with things like new design innovations coming more quickly to market. It’s possible that the Internet will once again rewrite supply chains, likely to the detriment of traditional manufacturing. We could experience a further shift to an economy based not on the supply of physical objects, but digital ones.
Each new application of Internet technology seems to offer us the choice between a dream and a nightmare. Recent developments, notably the internationalization of ICANN, appear to be steps in the right direction, toward an Internet governed for the good of the many rather than the few and powerful. But the fight for a better Internet will continue, and constant vigilance is required.