Future of the Internet

In the past 10 years the Internet has emerged as a global network that enables instant communications and borderless commerce. The popularity of blogs and the roll out of high-speed wireless connections have already begun to reshape the Web, but what will the Internet look like a decade from now?

The Wall Street Journal Online invited Web pioneer Vint Cerf and tech pundit Esther Dyson to discuss what they expect in the next 10 years. Mr. Cerf envisions an interplanetary network, while Ms. Dyson ponders a loss of privacy and an information glut. Their conversation, carried out by email, is below.

Mr. Cerf begins: Mobility has entered the world, big time, during the past ten years and the Internet is adapting to it. Geo-indexed information has increased in value as users query "where is the nearest..." and get answers because the system knows where you are when you ask, thanks to the Global Positioning System. Combining media in processing information is increasingly common. Voice a question but get the answer back on your laptop's display, the car's navigational display or your mobile's small but high-resolution screen. Take a photo with the phone and send it automatically to your blog which you just dictated.


Vinton G. Cerf is the chief Internet "evangelist" for Google Inc. where he is responsible for identifying new technologies. From

1994 to 2005, Mr. Cerf was a senior vice president at MCI. Mr. Cerf co-designed the TCP/IP protocols and basic architecture of the Internet. In 2005, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work on the Web. He has been chairman of the Internet's regulatory body, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, since 2000.

Esther Dyson is editor at large at CNET Networks Inc., where she is responsible for its quarterly newsletter, Release 1.0, and its PC Forum executive conference. Before selling her business to CNET in

2004, Ms. Dyson had co-owned EDventure Holdings and edited Release 1.01 since 1983. She is a technology investor focused on emerging markets and serves on the board of several start-ups. She was chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation from 1995 to early 1998 and founding chairman of ICANN from 1998 to 2000.Broadband is finally coming, and is highly penetrant already in some communities such as Hong Kong, Seoul and Tokyo. Our experiences with entertainment video will almost certainly change as we tend to download and watch later rather than watching only what is currently being transmitted. Channel surfing will be replaced by menu selection. And advertising will change in very interesting ways as a result -- but that's for another installment.

By the end of the decade, we will have a two planet Internet in operation as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is prepared to serve as a store-and-forward relay to ground-based rovers, a mobile science laboratory and other future missions to Mars. The Interplanetary Internet, serving robotic and manned missions, will grow from this simple configuration to a more complex backbone of interplanetary links as each new mission is launched to the planets and satellites of our solar system. Virtual visits to our near-space neighborhood will be as common as a trip to the local supermarket as we amass enormous amounts of information about the region of space in which we live. Kids will have virtual field trips to visit the Spirit and Opportunity sites on Mars and other places from which we have gathered so much information already and will gather in the next decade.

Ms. Dyson writes: The Internet will have become more ubiquitous but less visible. It will still exist as PCs and monitors, but it will also be all around us in other devices: everything from buses and luggage transmitting their locations so they can be tracked, to friends and children signaling their presence anytime you might want to reach them. Rather than being a separate virtual world, the Internet will encompass the physical world as well; most things will have Internet identities available remotely as well as a physical presence available only if you are nearby.

What will the Internet look like a decade from now? Join a discussion3.For most people and applications, the biggest issue will be not search but filtering: So much will be knowable, but what do you want to know. People will initially be overwhelmed with choices, but vendors -- competing vendors, I hope, rather than monopolies or governments -- will make default choices for individuals. My hope is that those defaults will be socially valuable, but visible and easy for any user to change for himself; "Paradox of Choice" author [Barry Schwartz] has called this "libertarian paternalism."

Mr. Cerf: Esther is spot-on about the Internet of devices: they will be manageable through the network and various services will help us to do that. Entertainment equipment and other consumer electronics will likely be the first to undergo this transformation. Household equipment will be next and then office equipment and the things in our cars and festooned on our bodies.

As to the information glut, we'll use all the tools we've used in the past to cope with too much information. We don't read every book, newspaper and magazine published. We don't see every movie. We don't listen to every radio broadcast. We look for clues from friends, trusted sources, personal experience, interest to refine and select. We'll use all those tools and our automated search engines to help out here.

Ms. Dyson: I think you'll see a fundamental shift in the balance of power towards individuals. Individuals will declare what kinds of vendors they want sponsoring their content, and then those vendors will have the privilege of appearing, discreetly, around the user's content. There will be much less "advertising" and much more communication to interested customers. Advertisers will have to learn to listen, not just to track and segment customers.

So the message to marketers is: If you can't sell your product (assuming it's already in the market), fix the product! Don't try to change the situation by advertising.

Consumers will publish wish lists for marketers to scan. Also, their choices will be influenced by their friends' comments much more than by marketers' messages.

On the other hand, it will be much harder for consumers to get free content anonymously, because advertisers will want to know more about the people they are paying to reach. In many cases, whether email or ads, users may even get a share of the marketer's payments. (See AttentionTrust.org4 or my op-ed on Goodmail5 or my post on Release 1.06.)

This makes sense from advertisers' point of view, but it has a social downside: People who buy Porsches can earn more from marketers than people who buy used cars. People without money will find it harder and harder to get free content -- which means a role for nonprofits in funding access to content for all.

Mr. Cerf: Advertising is going to be different on the network as broadband kicks in. "IPTV" is a sort of misnomer that misleads into thoughts of streaming audio and video when in fact it is an opportunity to download and play later. In addition, it offers an opportunity to download ancillary material that expands on the video, perhaps adds some interactive software that might be relevant to it, or even download advertising material associated with products placed into the video program. One could even imagine freezing the screen (pausing the video) and mousing around to click on objects in view. Some of these might have had advertising material downloaded. And since it might be known roughly where you are and at what time you are watching, the advertising might contain live/Web components that are tailored to these factors.

Ms. Dyson: I'm going to take this in a slightly different direction.

There's a lot of, er, attention being paid right now to the so-called "attention economy." Indeed, O'Reilly [Media Inc.] subtitled its recent (March) Web 2.0 conference "The attention economy." It even featured author Michael Goldhaber, who wrote about the concept some 14 years ago for my newsletter Release 1.0.

But people are generally missing the point; Mr. Goldhaber has trouble getting attention for the mirror he is holding up. Most commentators see the attention economy as the intention economy, where attention = intention (to buy). That version of the attention economy is all about sales leads and monetization of attention, and radical ideas include the notion of users getting paid for their attention, as I mentioned earlier, whether in the form of surfing behavior

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or a willingness to read email.

While adults worry about privacy, kids seek attention. They post poetry, photos, exaggerated tales of personal exploits, music in order to create an online presence that garners attention.

Doesn't this all come down to money in the end? you might ask. Don't kids buy things in order to get attention? Sure. And in the same way, the new financial-industrial economy all came down to food and shelter as we made the transition from an agrarian, feudal economy. But there are new dynamics worth noting. Most users are not trying to turn attention into anything else. They are seeking it for itself.

For sure, the attention economy will not replace the financial economy. But it is more than just a subset of the financial economy we know and love.

Mr. Cerf: This is an interesting observation and frankly I'd not thought about it in quite the same terms that Esther uses. I must admit that the behavior patterns do look as if some of these users (many of them young) feel "paid" when they have lots of "friends" or lots of hits on their Web sites. I wonder how much of this is youthful "I am ME! Look at ME!" Is any of this a kind of search for identity? Is it exploration of different personas (as in the role-playing games)? Some of this might be attributed to a natural desire to feel part of a group (gangs, cliques, teams, etc.).

To some extent, the infrastructure needed to support this potentially self-centered behavior is being paid for through advertising revenues, making it appear to be free to many or most users.

Ms. Dyson: Yes indeed, it is youthful behavior etc. - just as it once was youthful behavior to be obsessed with money and to want more money than you could use, which horrified the sages who cared more about old-fashioned values. The shift is not absolute; it's where society focuses (or where some societies are starting to focus). Indeed, Mr. Goldhaber has been writing about this for many years. In some ways it's an outgrowth of TV as much as of the Net. TV makes people want attention; the Net enables them to get it.

And yes, advertising supports most of it. It's just that the advertisers are not the center of attention the way they would like to be!

Mr. Cerf concludes: The Internet reaches only about a billion users so there are another 5.5 billion to go. It is beginning to include a good deal of information in many languages, but the domain name system needs to be outfitted with a similar capability. Access speeds are increasing but in a very non-uniform fashion. Business models for supporting various parts of the Internet are also in flux with new models being tested almost daily. Mobility is a component of the Internet that is plainly of increasing importance and will drive a variety of new applications. Entertainment media will be augmented with Internet counterparts with results that may not be entirely predictable but which will almost certainly have an interactive component missing from the traditional media. A plethora of "things" will become Internet connected and managed. There will be inventions for the use of the Internet that will come from academic and user settings to surprise us all when they appear, as they have in the past, in unexpected ways -- propagating through viral advertising. There's an Internet in your future, resistance is futile.

Ms. Dyson closes: Let me add just a couple of points:

The Internet so far has existed mostly in cyberspace, linking computers fed data by humans and by other computers. The Internet of the future will be much more tightly linked to physical space. First of all, many of its future users will connect via cellphones, and the net will know more about their physical locations and their identities than it does about those who reach it by computer. Beyond that, as Vint writes, the Internet will link things in space (on Earth as well as in off-Earth "space").

The Net of the future will know much more about the physical world and all the things in it ... and of course that information will be available to human users. The big challenges in the future will be limiting distribution of that information (security, privacy, confidentiality, etc.) on the one hand and filtering it out on the other (not search, but data-mining, exception-reporting, spam filtering, friend recommendations, behavioral targeting and the like). The big questions are who controls the filtering: individuals, organizations or governments? Will it be done transparently?

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