Let’s build a new and better kind of Internet

The case for why the world needs my unwritten book, The Internet is Just a Prototype.

I have been nursing an idea for a book, The Internet is Just a Prototype, for at least five years. I now have what I feel are the core insights and a conceptual framework to hang them from.

The key questions I am asking myself are:

  • What kind of society and world do we wish our children and grandchildren to live in (or to avoid experiencing)?
  • What is the role of “smart and sensory” distributed applications in bringing about positive (and negative) futures?
  • What kind infrastructure capabilities favour the most benevolent (or undesirable) applications for humanity’s development?
  • How can we practically build the best possible infrastructure with the right capabilities (and what are the gaps to fill to get there)?

Based on my tentative answers to these questions, I believe that a remarkable story of a good future is waiting to be told.

We have built a successful Prototype Internet

This tale of a better kind of infrastructure builds upon the achievements of today’s successful Prototype Internet. We can celebrate how it has helped us to explore many of the possibilities, benefits and pitfalls of an information society.

A new and novel infrastructure will support a wealth of desirable applications that are currently infeasible. Finance, transport, healthcare, education, entertainment and many other industries can be reimagined. Even better, many valueless activities can be removed, as the purpose of life is not to toil but rather to talk, dance and sing. Even to make love. No, especially to make love!

But that is only the beginning. For if we really raise our game, we can transform society for the better in ways few have dared to hope for. This means we have to shift our focus as to what technology is for, and how we use it. It is not a techno-utopian charter, but a pragmatic view of how the job of building a truly “civilised civilisation” is only partway done.

For instance, we have transformed mass illiteracy into mass literacy through tools like the printing press and mobile phone. Many more such revolutions are possible, giving us “superpowers” in multiple domains. Our collective lack of imagination from the “end-of-history illusion” prevents us from easily seeing them in our near future.

For example, just as the hypertext world needed a new presentation layer called the Web, so will the hypsersense one of augmented reality. The work I did with Kelly Fitzsimmons for the Hypervoice Consortium addressed one central issue: how to protect our hybrid physical/virtual identity. The resulting Guardian Avatar concept sets the stage for a new “browser for the metaverse”.

From ‘by accident’ to ‘by design’

For this positive vision to be realised, we need an infrastructure that is engineered “by design” to make it possible. Today’s “by accident” Internet has serious limitations that inhibit its utility when delivering the applications of the future.

My strong belief is that to continue on this present technology path is full of risk: technical, social, environmental and political. Indeed, the Prototype Internet is “unsafe at any speed” (to steal an old phrase). Its poor scalability, unreliable performance and high operational complexity are just a few of the many reasons we need to change vehicle in order to change destination.

What we have built is unintentionally optimised for state mass surveillance and corporate harvesting of human identity. Its economic model concentrates power in unhealthy ways to a few select application platforms. It is a risky monoculture of protocols and providers.

Notably, the Prototype Internet is utterly insecure and permanently insecurable. Its backwards security model is also replicated in most private networks. The cataclysm of cyberwar (and the collapse of core utilities and supply chains) puts billions of people in danger. This is not acceptable.

A basis of solid science and excellent engineering

We need to rethink the future of the Internet, learning from the lessons of the past, from the ground up (often literally!). A “by design” ethos needs to start with having rock-solid scientific foundations. The present Prototype Internet provably lacks these, to its manifest deficit.

A new Internet must work at all scales, from personal networks to planetary ones. Privacy, security, management, trust, identity, performance and many other requirements need to be considered as part of a single technical framework. We also need to support an even greater diversity in deployment and execution.

Not least, tomorrow’s internet will need to be “moral by design” as well. In particular, I believe our present obsession with artificial consciousness will need to morph into a fight for what we might call artificial conscience.

Such an advance will help us to achieve greater harmony with our bodies and minds, each other, our communities, and even the natural world. With the right forethought, the future can be biased towards human freedom and flourishing.

A “Gödel, Escher, Bach” for the cybercentury

An improved and reimagined Internet will build upon ideas and advances in many domains: management theory, computer science, economics, mathematics, psychology, sociology, technology, art, and more. I believe that we can only attain the necessary leap in capability by linking deep theory to a broad view of history.

This is a tough intellectual task both in conception and delivery. It demands uncommon polymath skills and unusual life experience. By the way of many accidents, as well as the fruits of past endeavours, I find myself in an uncommon and unusual place.

So I am going to give it a go.

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