Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Building the internet of the future

As someone who is a bit of a sci-fi geek, ever since I first got the internet way back in the mid 90's I have daydreamed about a dystopian future, where those who opted out of internet access due to privacy fears become some kind of second class citizens. (Imagine Arnie in Running Man, but set in Britain with an eccentric anti-hero trying to lead the neo-luddites to revolt, fighting for access to basic welfare......sorry I digress!)

With the recent (and much overdue) ascent to the headlines of the US Protect IP Act (PIPA) and Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) my daydreams of how the internet may shape our future have moved into a more metered and realistic realm. Whilst I may not have the technological know how of some authors who have made predictions about its development, I believe that lay users of any technology may be the best placed to develop such things in new interesting directions.


Obviously I believe the internet to be an amazing invention that has truly revolutionised our lives. Yet like many I am beginning to see the potential for lost opportunities, and the increasing threat of future surveillance via online methods. Such rhetoric can often seem like the fantastical musings of conspiracy theorists, so I will leave this side of the debate alone and suggest those interested check out Jonathon Zittrain's Future of the Internet.

I wish to focus on much more benign areas of the internet, for whilst we may constantly pat ourselves on the back for such a great technological development, yesterday I was reminded of one of its many limitations. The historians mantra, "you can't Google everything." Using any reputable search engine, enter in "Dr Arthur Davies." What comes up? Can you tell me much about Dr (& also Sir) Arthur Davies? Well for for nearly a quarter of the last century he was the Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization (10 points if you found that from just searching his name!)

OK, I understand that it is quite a niche example, but its illustrative purpose is to show that a man who only died in 1990, who served at the highest level of a global UN body for 24 years has virtually no online profile. This isn't a problem, and I'm not advocating the digitising of every historical document. What I am saying is that this should remind us all that the internet is merely one place to get information, not the only place we should use to build a balanced composite view of the world.

Further, I think we all as individuals need to envision what we want the internet of the future to look like. The internet has a great ability to empower local, community, collaborative, progressive, valuable grass-roots resources and thus we need to continue to be creative with such initiatives. For whilst online shopping is great, and online grocery shopping may have become a vital lifeline for those less mobile in society- it is user led initiatives which make me excited about the future of the internet.

Zittrain calls such initiatives, "netizenship" and cites Wikipedia as an example of one such site which has managed to remain true to its original collaborative vision despite its success. I understand both the beauty and the limitations of Wikipedia, but think it is just the starting point for what is possible.

Imagine a website where after your home is flooded you can go online and map onto it the extent of the floods reach in your immediate vicinity. The site then builds a composite map of the floods as more users input data. Over time the site becomes a repository for past flood events, providing a historical picture of flooding in an area. The homeowner can look at past flood maps, read accounts from previous flood victims, and consider how land use change may have affected the risk. There is no longer a reliance on government or insurance company generated flood risk maps, and the homeowner may be able to see the extent of a flood before the new defences were built, highlighting the residual risk should these defences fail.

This is just one basic idea I have come up with quickly. Many future developments may not be a website per se but merely an application, or plug-in attached to a social networking site such as Twitter. Here are some sites already in existence which I think are awesome, and show some of the potential for the future:
  • Weather Spark - Interactive weather graphs that allow you to pan and zoom through the entire history of any weather station on earth. Get multiple forecasts for the current location, overlaid on records and averages to put it all in context.
  • Mass Observation Online - Digitisation of the Mass Observation programme which has captured people's perception on key social issues since 1937.

Screen grab from Weathersparks.com - online interactive weather information. Source
The potential for interactive, locally relevant, and innovative web applications means the list of such ideas is endless. All who work, think, and write within the humanities should consider how their research could benefit the world via the internet. For whilst such websites exist and thrive, those who wish to control, restrain, and monetise every corner of the internet will never succeed.

Let's prove my dystopian daydreams of the future wrong!

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