I saw an interesting question posed in a video the other day: “How much money would someone have to pay you to give up the internet for the rest of your life?” A professor in the video points out the huge gap between the value of using the Internet and the cost to use it. An implied assumption in the question is that the Internet will remain relevant throughout your entire lifetime, but the more I thought about the question, the more I began to wonder if that assumption is reasonable.

While there are many new technologies, devices, and services available today that did not exist a few decades ago, there is no guarantee that any of them will exist a few decades hence. I recently discovered a company that makes custom tables, and their comment on not integrating technology into their table designs illustrates an important point.

“We are determined to give you a table that will withstand the test of time. For example, if you wanted a music player in your table in the 1970s, you wanted an 8-track tape deck, 1980s a cassette tape deck, 1990s a CD player, 2000s an iPod docking station, 2010s a streaming device, and 2020s small spike that you impale into the listener's tympanic bone, which is now the only way to listen to music, rendering the installation of any of the previous technology a useless scar upon your beautiful table. (No, we don't actually know if that last one is where music is heading, but if it does, you heard it here first.) The same goes for laptop electrical cords. We can install attachments to deal with power cords, but at the rate battery technology is changing, like your cellular phone or mp3 player, you may just have a docking station you set it on at night, rendering the need for cords obsolete.”

I have seen a number of electronic technologies disappear from my own home and work office over the past few years. When I first setup a home office, I needed a fax machine and dedicated phone line for it. Both are gone today. I watched as my VHS tape collection became worthless, and as a result, my DVD collection is a bit more modest – thank goodness because now I hardly ever watch DVDs anymore because I can stream almost anything I want to watch on a demand basis. While we still have the expensive and beautiful cameras my wife and I bought, we never use them because some of the devices with integrated digital cameras are good enough quality, much easier to use, and much cheaper to use. My children would rather text their friends than actually talk to each other.

So, will the Internet become obsolete in a few decades time as something with more or better functions and is cheaper and easier to use replaces it? I am not sure because the Internet seems to embody a different concept than all of those other technologies that have become obsolete. The Internet is not tied to a specific technology, form factor, access method, or function other than connecting computing devices together.

In a sense, the Internet may be the ultimate embedded system because nearly everyone that uses it does not care about how it is implemented. Abstracting the function of connecting two sites from the underlying technology implemented may allow the Internet to avoid becoming obsolete and replaced. Or does it? Some smartphones differentiate themselves by how they access the Internet – 3G or 4G. Those smartphone will definitely become obsolete in a few years because the underlying technology of the Internet will definitely keep changing.

Will the Internet be replaced by something else? If so, what is you guess as to what will replace the Internet? If not, how will it evolve to encompass the new functions that currently do not exist? As more people and devices attach to the Internet, will it make sense to have separate infrastructures to support data for human and machine consumption?

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  • Interesting. The New Scientist has an article along the same lines but is more focused on real threats to the internet as it is known today. The article is: "Welcome to the age of the splinternet" - Openness is the internet's great strength – and weakness. With powerful forces carving it up, is its golden age coming to an end?

    See: www.newscientist.com/.../mg21128211.900-welcome-to-the-age-of-the-splinternet.html

  • This post is amazing. I think that, as you suggested, the definition of the Internet will be what changes over the next few decades. That is, its underlying infrastructure and ostensible use cases will change (think about what Web 10.0 will let us do). However, data's mass accessibility/storage/transmission over long distances will be important and useful until we can figure out a way to genetically engineer people who already know everything and can communicate telepathically.