future of the internet?

I had the pleasure of attending Jonathan Zittrain’s talk on his upcoming book, the future of the Internet. As expected, he gave an extremely interesting and entertaining presentation. I didn’t have my laptop with me (he is too heavy to lug around) but even if I did, I didn’t feel the need to be posting sarcastic replies to questions on the live question tool. That, by the way, is a great way to pass time without getting oneself entirely detached from the speaker.

I loved his point on how platforms are moving back to sterile ones from generic ones, while weaving in key issues such as access and privacy.

Unlike Jonathan, I am not so worried about whether or not a system is generic or sterile. I view trends in machines as trends in fashion– you wait long enough, and the trend will come back. In a slightly different form, but nonetheless carrying the same basic properties. It is the inevitable fact that there will always be innovators, but there is no such thing as a completely new idea.

What I’m more worried about is access. The beginning of Jonathan’s talk started out with an anecdote(?) on how South Koreans try to float balloons holding radios across the DMZ so that North Koreans can tune in on stations other than those designated by the government. It was a great example of how government can control access of information, but when it comes to such access problems, we don’t even have to go so far as North Korea.

I am worried about the future of the Internet because it is currently based on a physical network. Yes, people may think that cyberspace is an abstract space, but at the end of the day, it is only a connection of wires and boxes. You cut off the wires and oops, too bad.

There are the natural disasters, like that deep-sea quake in the Pacific that damaged huge fiber optic cables embedded on the sea floor, or excessive rain in Cambridge, which severed Internet connection in my house for more than two days. (I felt like sueing for compensation. If you are a person that works at home, no access to the Internet can take a huge toll on your business. Unfortunately, the Internet is too similar to airplane rides in the fact that carriers are not responsible in the case of weather-related causes and that they are extremely arrogant in the process of providing the service because they know that regardless of how crappy it is, we need it.)

Then there are manmade ones. The ones that are carried out under the pretense of “protecting” citizens and observing national security. As mentioned in a previous post about Kim Sun-il, the government could regulate and filter content through the service providers. All this wealth of information gives the pretense of being generated by individuals, but it is channeled through central network providers, so all one has to do is choke the network provider and one has control.

In that sense, I am so glad that cable companies are now playing a large part in being a network provider. In the case of Korea, before, all the government had to do to cut off Internet access was to contact three broadband Internet providers. Now, they have to deal with all the cable companies too. I suppose it is the same with search engines. (I don’t understand why the United States, of all places, has only one dominant search engine.. Why are people giving Google so much power?)

Disorganized as I am with my thoughts, I know that half of this probably doesn’t make sense, but in my vision of the future of the Internet, I see a network that is free from the physical wires, or at least a structure where the control of such wires are impossible. They say that the Internet is global, but it is in fact, so very tied under local circumstances. Going back to the comparison between the Internet and air travel, it’s like if I want to fly from Seoul to New York, now I have the option of choosing a foreign carrier if I don’t want to use Korean Air or Asiana. However, if I want to go to Rome, I don’t have any options because not every city is directly linked by multiple carriers

Totally unrelated to anything regarding the Internet, I was extremely fascinated by the character of Jonathan himself. I often wonder about people who are seemingly very outgoing and cheerful, and if they are always like that. If so, where do they get all that energy? If not, what is the contrast between their hyper and calm characters and is it something that is well-accepted? What happens when the main driver of enthusiasm is taken away?

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