The fall of the Internet, the death of cyberspace, and the rise of the robot
The Internet is dying…
Not the wires, computers and websites, but the concept. The classic Internet is going down for the count. Remember the original concept? A system inherently self-regulating, which would allow for free, open, anonymous communication, establishing a beachead in the brave new world of “cyberspace.” Cyberpunk SF popularized this vision of a world part real, part virtual – with the virtual the most interesting place to be. Free, open, anarchy, anything-goes.
In late 2003, I have to say, “What was THAT about?”
One sure sign of impending death of our 1990s Internet vision is the increasing desire by just about everybody to control the Internet. Just look at this list!
COMPANIES TRYING TO TAKE CONTROL
Eolas software wins $500 million lawsuit against Microsoft, they “own” basic concepts of the web browser (and we’ll pay)
UN TRYING TO TAKE CONTROL
UN wants to take control of the Internet
ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY TRYING TO TAKE CONTROL
10% tax on Internet access to be paid to songwriters in Canada
Taxes on P2P services would duplicate “cable television” model
SPAMMERS/ANTISPAMMERS TRY TO TAKE CONTROL
1/3 of all spam circulated by virus-infected PCs (it could be yours!)
Antispammers consider “denial of service” attacks against spammers
Spammers launch attack on antispam sites using computer viruses (third time!)
Here’s the response….
New email standard will end anonymous email (you’ll be traceable)
SOFTWARE INDUSTRY TRIES TO TAKE CONTROL
SCO argues that “open source” software is unconstitutional – the death of free software. Note that the basic Internet protocols are “open source” – apparently, George Washington wouldn’t have liked this.
Moore’s Law to end soon – computers will stop getting faster
One of the amazing things in all these articles (compared to those a few years ago) is the complete absence of someone saying “the Internet is inherently self-regulating”, or “the Internet is too open to ever be controlled” or even “the Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” Nobody is arguing for the “pure” cyberspace vision anymore, and classic cyberpunk SF has been proved wrong.
While something called the “Internet” may continue to exist, the 1990s dream of creative anarchy seems doomed to disappear, in a manner similar to the end of free-for-all radio in the 1930s. After all, anybody could put up a radio station in the 1920s, and radios were part of the 1920s tech boom. People talked about radio (and before it, telegraphs in the ‘Victorian Internet’ era) like we talk about cyberspace today. Like the radio and telegraph cyberspace eras, the Internet cyberspace era is ending.
As the original vision of the Internet collapses, I also expect to see the very concept of “cyberspace” to decay. For two decades we have accepted the stuff on the computer screen as a “virtual world” with the same power as the real world. This reaches its extreme in the “Matrix” series in which the real and computer are hard to tell apart.
However, another take on computers is that they are symbol processors, and that “cyberspace” is not real — it simply a collection of symbols standing for the real. Virtual worlds are toys, jokes, posters, and have no separate reality. Imagine a future where the 1999 obsession with computers puzzles the later generation – why did people belive that the real and symbol were the same thing? How could they think there was a world inside that box? It will seem like some kind of false religion full of ghosts and spirits. Cyberspace will have no more power than, say, a billboard.
The real interest will shift from “cyberspace” to communication aided by digital systems – we have an early example of this in the apparent victory of cellphones over PDA for mobile computing. Computers will be another way of putting on clothes – the “skin” you wear while communicating via your super-smartphone will be fashion rather than your spirit-body in an alternate reality.
The Internet only represents the tip of the long-term decline we may expect in belief in the virtual. For the entire 20th century, mass media like radio, movies, and especially television created an artificial reality shared by millions. The contrived world of television, along with the celebrity culture it fostered and the “experiental marketing approach” of commercials – in effect, inviting consumers to enter a perfect world on the TV for which a product was a required prop – functioned as a kind of cyberspace, admittedly one-way. The phone and Internet provided the other side of cyberspace – interactivity – and one-way media was made two way (e.g., talk radio). But the perception was that this was not simply a way to communicate – it was a way to enter an alternate reality. Viewed from this perspective, our belief in cyberspace has been growing for a long time, probably since the end of WW II and possibly longer. If so, we can expect the downside where cyberspace is rejected to be equally long and comprehensive.
Unlike today, people won’t believe that they somehow exist in a game world any more than they exist in “checkers world” when they play checkers. They do in a way, but that way of existing will lose its importance relative to the real world. The questioning of reality,which began strongly in 1960s “world inside your mind” drug haze and mutated to the digital flickers of the Internet, will have reached its end. Indeed, the very reason we used computers to create cyberspace reflected our decades-long head trip at the expense of the real. Now we’re coming down, and we’ll use our machinery for other purposes.
What will replace it? Robots. Unlike the Internet and other “cyberspace” manifestations, robots don’t try to create an alternate reality – instead they try to enter the real world. People are bored when a virtual robot arm grabs a virtual block onscreen, but wowed when a real robot arm does the same thing in the real world. It’s the new tech excitement.
I expect that in a couple of decades, a “virtual” robot arm will have no more meaning to people than a crudely drawn arm on paper – they will both be seen as mere symbols. The real arm moving in the real world will be the thing.
The effect will be generational. By 2030 the post-X/Y “Millennial” generation will be taking control. Children in the late 1980s and 1990s, they will remember their childhood experience of the Internet as another “fairy story.” The real world of robotic technology will be everywhere, and their generation will be the prime movers for its adoption.
The older GenX/GenY group born 1963-1982 will be in the upper reaches of power, but will have ceased to influence pop culture. Late at night, they will still “log on” to communicate with their friends, often deliberately using archaic methods like text-based “chat” to recapture the old vision of cyberspace. The virtual world they meet in will be a secret from the younger generations.
The oldest group, the now Gandlf-like Boomers will also reject cyberspace – they’ll be too busy planning their final head-trip beyond the walls of life.
The youngest group, the child generation born after 2001, will never know cyberspace as we know it. The Internet will be a way to communicate and nothing more. They won’t get to use it for much else – strong regulation will prevent them from every attaining any vision of cyberspace. But many will have grown up with a new friend – a robot first for “entertainment” and later acquiring “companion” status. This robot will be a far safer kind of tech than letting the little tyke run into the scary evil everywhere in networked computers – even though this world will be fast disappearing at the same time.
Cyberspace will be dead. Long live the robot.