the Internet Disappears:
The Future of Networks
Computer scientists envision a wireless world of constantly evolving
"biological" computer networks merged into the omniscient/omnipotent
"Omninet" that will affect every aspect of our lives.
This paper explores these predictions and how they will impact
As an aging baby
boomer, my dissolving memory is often re-composed by the likes of Thesaurus.com,
Dictionay.com, Refdesk.com, and other repositories of "facts"
that can be instantly consulted. Reflecting on the implications of the
reliance on this digital crutch, I sought out and read articles based
on the future of networks, and found that the societal implications
for what-is-to-come is not only fascinating, but frightening. And perhaps
I am already damaged by relying on a network outside the one that connects
my own brain cells:
Already there are studies which indicate that current
technology such as PDAs are causing some deterioration in the
memories of those who rely upon them to track important dates, phone
numbers, addresses, and events rather than storing at least some
of that information internally ("Omnipresent and Omnipotent,"
My original idea and title for this exposition was Will Hard Drives
Be Replaced by Networks? But after researching the topic, that question
became moot it is just a matter of time before optical networks
offer applications and services that will supercede our need for localized
storage. "You ought to have worldwide storage," says Culler
(David Culler, a Berkeley computer science professor and an expert on
computer architectures and networking). "The idea of having your
disk and backup and remembering where your files are that's baloney.
In the future, you've got one great big ocean: All the data is out there"
We have already seen a trend where computers are physically getting
smaller. Eventually, this will cause a decline in the "desktop"
as we know it, and applications will move off the hard drive and onto
Regarding the decline of the desktop, we might see an increase in wearable
computers and a decrease in OS-based desktops. This follows
from a move to networked systems, where PCs could be simple, stripped-down
network computers that rely upon network operating systems and network
software to run. PCs may no longer be filled to the brim with
various software applications, but may be specific, toolkit-oriented
machines that serve a few functions, hence the movement towards smaller
computers. This is seen with Microsofts recent introduction of
its .Net software, which automatically determines what software you
need and downloads it from a server on the Internet and/or from your
hard drive. There would be no need for stand-alone software, and having
a full-blown desktop would not be necessary (Purola, 2000).
Reading topical articles led me to explore this expansive view of future
networks, one that includes the concept of the Internet "disappearing"
altogether from the standpoint of its total integration into our daily
lives, when "computation and connectivity become so pervasive that
you forget they are there" ("Omnipresent and Omnipotent,"
2002). The focus of this exposition will be to give an overview of what
future networks are predicted to be like and their ramifications not
only on the future of computing, but on our individual and collective
lives in a society interwoven with networked technology.
The ocean metaphor with plankton serving as a minute basis for
the entire food chain encompasses how future networks may actually
be modeled. Computer scientists envision an evolutionary world of computing,
where systems begin at the microscopic (or even the atomic) level and
change by the minute, constantly re-constructing and reforming connections
as new information and growing databases feed the entire network structure
new information. This "biological" or as some call it a "DNA"
like network will be amorphous, constantly evolving, and part
of all we do in our everyday lives.
An ongoing project at Berkeley named Endeavor (after Captain Cooks
first ship) touts the ocean comparison in their public relations material:
"The sea is a particularly poignant metaphor, as it interconnects
much of the world. We envision fluid information systems that are everywhere
and always there, with components that flow through the infrastructure,
shape themselves to adapt to their usage, and cooperate on the task
at hand'" (Johnson, 2000).
Furthermore, basing the invention and application of new machines on
animal or human processes has precedent. Although I have never seen
it written down anywhere, it seems to me that the computer is based
on the Atkinson/Shiffrin Memory Model, with the sensory registers corresponding
to input devices (keyboards, mice, and microphones), the short-term
store being analogous to random access memory, and the long term store
equaling the hard drive. In fact, when explaining how computers work,
I have found that the memory model analogy is easily comprehended by
people with scant knowledge of how a computer actually functions. And
to extend the Atkinson/Shiffron example, these future networks will
also be based on qualities of the human brain.
"People can take a bullet through the brain and still have
the ability to have thought processes," Katz says. "The super
complex system of the future has to be able to organize itself so it
can be more robust in its behavior, deal with failure, and then pick
up the pieces and move on." So the Net will be like an ocean,
the air, a biological system (Johnson, 2000).
Now that Michael Crichtons new book Prey has been
released, the news magazines are running stories on nanotechnology (technology
based on the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules to build
structures to complex, atomic specifications), which will be the "plankton"
piece of this network, evolving in the new sea of atomic-level technology
that will eventually become a part of our lives, though it is my feeling
that the speed of the process will be determined by consumer demand.
Telephones, for example, were around for a long time before they became
an integral part of human activity.
Telephones have made a huge difference in our lives, but the change
didn't happen all at once. The advent of the first telephone in your
home town might have made front page news in the local newspaper, but
didn't significantly change the way you conducted business or lived
your life. But now that the telephones are essentially ubiquitous, they've
become part of the way we work and live. The point is that it's the
density, not the number of connections, that makes a real difference.
The same is true of computer networks (Poor, 1997).
This statement leads me to ask: what is the level of computer "density"
at this stage of technological history? It is my belief that they are
much more prevalent that the average person realizes. For example, if
I asked the question "how many computers do you own?" most
people would count the PCs or Macs in their possession. A few
would count their PDAs if they owned any. But in actuality, we
probably own dozens. Computers now regulate the fuel and electrical
currents that power our automobiles. They run our kids gaming
machines, supplement our thermostats and heating/air-conditioning units,
power our digital watches (some of which have wireless connections to
radio waves that update them with regularity to atomic clocks), run
our microwave ovens, and even power "singing" greeting cards.
One thing that is hampering their dramatic growth at the moment is the
fact that we are still relying on wires. But when wireless technology
becomes as practical and "dense" as telephones, we will literally
be covered up in computers:
Well, a wireless world does foreshadow the next prediction that computers
will be everywhere in the future. Since with wireless you can communicate
from any place (and thus, take computers everywhere), computers will
be miniaturized and possibly used for specialized functions, including;
personal identification chips, heart rate monitors, networked
appliances, and miniature pagers and cell phones connected
to an ear piece that plays voice messages or an eyepiece that displays
text (Purola, 2000).
And once again, like the memory model comparison to computer functionality,
the concept of "networking" itself relates directly to human
physiology and social activity. As far as the former is concerned, we
are from brain to nervous system to the skeleton a network.
"Our human bodies are the most efficient, mobile wireless network
of all" (Purola, 2000). Although we are not plugged into an outlet,
the fact that our brains run on electro-chemical energy and our synapses
are powered by the same belies the "wireless" statement, but
I understand Purolas contention. John Guares play Six Degrees
of Separation pointed out our social networking scheme by showing how
each of us is connected to every other human being on the planet by
no fewer than six mutual acquaintances. "Networking marketing"
and getting business or jobs through "networking" are so commonly
used they are passé.
Therefore, it is "natural" that networks will begin to follow
a biological direction as we tend to build things resembling or selves
or our theories. For example, the Bible says that God created man in
His image, but perhaps like ancient Greeks we (Judeo-Christians)
created God in our image, lacking the ability and imagination to create
being incomprehensible to us.
What will this "biological network" look like? Walter van
de Velde, in a piece entitled "A Tail [sic] of Parallel Worlds
and Parrots" (1997) likens it to an electronic jungle:
Imagine a world parallel to this one and populated by numerous digital
creatures. It is a society much like ours - a virtual one, yes - but
as large, dynamic and varied as this one. Some of these creatures are
your friends, some others you may like or not, many of them you don't
even know. You couldn't care less if only there was not this one annoying
thing: they want you to listen to them as the clever ones spit out their
information - useful or not - offer you some service - need it or not
-want to ask you something, or tell you the story of their daytime.
You're imagining the future of computer networks: a huge collection
of active software agents, each of them pushing to do their thing with
you. How to deal with this? After all you don't need everything and
your attention is limited.
He goes on to imagine a new species of (digital, I assume) "parrot"
that rides on your shoulder and whispers into your ear the things you
need to know to get through your busy day. Connected to other parrots
and networked beings in this digital jungle, your mascot is constantly
being updated with facts and information as it learns your "personal
context" and gives you "leads" that are "useful
to you at the moment" because it not only shares your reality,
it is a "personal lens into the virtual world."
Software agents, otherwise known as "intelligent agents" scan
your habits, likes, dislikes, attitudes, purchasing decisions, ad infinitum,
and help you make decisions. If you have read Phillip K. Dicks
short story "Minority Report" or have seen the Spielberg movie
of the same name, then you are already familiar with intelligent agents.
As the main character walks into a mall of the future, a loudspeaker
pipes up: "Mr. Anderton, would you like to buy a pair of pants
like you purchased the last time you visited the Gap?"
My imagination of this networked world does not include parrots, but
something like a pair of stylish glasses with a transparent monitor
for lenses that you can scan with your eye and, at the rudimentary stages
say five years from now you can either whisper, blink,
or think "open browser, go to half.com, scan trouser sales, size
forty waist, herringbone, cotton and poly mix 60:40, compare prices,
output store name and nearest directions, I dont like to buy clothes
without trying them on" and the computer built into the eyeglass
frame flashes out the information while you are driving to the daycare
to pick up your child and so you stop at the store on the way home and
make your purchase after the nanny-bot bounces your kid on its fake-flesh-covered
knee while you are zipping up in the dressing room.
Later, when your brain is implanted with a wireless receiver, you will
not have to wear glasses, unless you want some respite from the "Omninet"
(a word describing the Internets successor):
As the Internet of today is absorbed by some barely imaginable Omninet
of tomorrow, scientists at places like Berkeley, MIT, Carnegie Mellon,
and other technological powerhouses have come to believe that a better-wired
world will require a communications web as intricate, powerful, and
malleable as its living ancestors. While biological networks are fine-tuned
by the algorithm par excellence called Darwinian evolution genetic
variation and natural selection the clunky, human-made networks
of today are built top-down in the creationist mode, engineered not
by omnipotent gods but by mere mortals. If the next few decades unfold
as the more visionary computer scientists expect, the line between the
natural and the artificial will blur, then fade away (Johnson, 2000).
These scientists imagine computers becoming an integral part of our
material world: "Your environment will become alive with
technology, says Leonard Kleinrock, the UCLA computer scientist
responsible for setting up the first Arpanet node three decades ago.
The walls will contain logic, processors, memory cameras, microphones,
communicators, actuators, [and] sensors" (Johnson, 2000).
I guess that means you could tell your wall what color you wanted it
to be on a particular day, and it would change to suit your mood. When
we discussed these possibilities, my wife became wildly optimistic,
speculating that my bathroom would one day be clean at all times if
the walls and floor could suck up male crud minute by minute as nano-bacteria
eaters chomped happily away twenty-four seven, creating an anal-retentives
As the theory goes, when the Internet morphs into
the Omninet and becomes a part of everything we do, we will not even
notice it anymore:
The [Berkeley Endeavor] project leader, Randy Katz, imagines a day,
maybe even by the end of the decade, when the Internet disappears,
when computation and connectivity become so pervasive that you forget
they are there. No longer will the network simply be a vast
expanse of nodes strung together with dark, gaping holes in between,
but rather an all-pervasive presence firmly entrenched into our culture
and society. According to another Endeavour leader, this Information
Utility will eventually become a giant, largely invisible infrastructure
that makes your life better (Johnson, 2000).
That is the part I have serious doubts about. I would certainly enjoy
the extra time I would have with my wife if she were freed from cleaning
chores (I am not considered thorough enough), and it would only take
me only a nano-second to turn lawn care over to the mow-bot, but the
aspect of having virtually everything we lay our hands on being tied
to an Omninet is frightening.
Concerned about intruding hackers, I installed a Netgear router for
my home network. How would I cope with constant surveillance? Also,
my brain appears to be shrinking now because I rely on the Internet
and spell checkers and computerized calendars. If every decision
from the trivial to the consequential were turned over to intelligent
agents, how long would it take before I became a drooling, slouching
(sieg heiling!) member of the Omninet human corps? After all, once the
all-pervasive network is in place, those who control the "facts"
would be in control of the populations hearts and minds.
And what if these networked parrots and intelligent agents and other
artificial life forms start taking on a consciousness of their own,
ala HAL in 2001 A Space Odyssey? If the network is truly "biological"
and evolves on its own, who is to say it will not morph into a collective
force that is not only omniscient, but omnipotent, and beyond our control?
If we are to proceed with the development of such potentially overwhelming
technology, we must be tentative at every step and spare no expense
in risk management in order to guarantee the security of individuals,
nations, and entire cultures. Unfortunately, based upon our track record
thus far, we have not yet developed this precautionary attitude in the
software and technology industry. The current practice is to get it
out quickly and fix the mistakes later, an attitude we can ill afford
to maintain as the technology we develop has a dramatically more significant
impact on our very existence (Johnson, 2000).
I do not doubt that these new technologies are possible and are on their
way to fruition. But unless we think through the consequences of our
decisions and proceed with caution by building in redundant checks and
balances, a self-perpetuating and constantly evolving network of machines
will compete for control of our humanness and dominion over the planet
that provides for our existence.
© Michael Scott 2003
Johnson, George (2000). From swarms of smart dust to secure collaborative
zones, the Omninet comes to you. Issue 8.01, Only Connect. Retrieved
November 8, 2002 from the World Wide Web: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.01/nets.html
"Omnipresent and Omnipotent," 2002 from the World Wide Web:
Poor, Robert D. (1997). High-density networks. MIT Media Laboratory.
. Retrieved November 22, 2002 from the World Wide Web: http://www.media.mit.edu/pia/Pubs/HyphosSlideShow/index.html
Purola, Jeremy (2000). The Future of Networking :A sequential look at
DNA, quantum, and optical computers. Retrieved November 28, 2002 from
the World Wide Web: http://www.ashtabulaart.com/jp/Papers/NResearch.htm#shape
van de Velde. Walter (1997). A tail of parallel worlds and parrots.
Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Retrieved December 1, 2002 from the World
Wide Web: http://www.i3net.org/ser_pub/services/magazine/november97/comris.html
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