Welcome to episode 208 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
For our podcast topic this week, we’re going to explore the variety of reasons why we might be looking at the end of the web as we know it, and we feel fine. At least as an open global phenomenon, the end of it. This episode is inspired by an essay that was part of a series of predictions put forth at the beginning of this year by NESTA, which was formerly known as the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts. It’s a UK innovation foundation that explores trends, social movements, and technological breakthroughs, and funds innovation opportunities.
This essay about the “splinternet,” we’ll give them a clever point there, had some pretty interesting takeaways I think, and they were kind enough to provide us with some audio as well. I will play a short clip of the main thesis of this end of the web as we know it.
With domestic and geopolitical tensions rising, governments are finding it increasingly hard to function amid a constant barrage of uncontrollable information and potential cyber-attacks, making them grow more wary both of the internet’s influence and their ability to control it.
The fallout from this means we are facing the prospect of countries around the world pulling the plug on the open, global internet and creating their own independent networks. We might be about to see the end of the World Wide Web as we know it.
With globalization under attack, the ultimate bastion of borderlessness, the global internet, might very well be one the biggest scalps taken by the newly emerging world order heralded in by Brexit and Trump. If a global orthodoxy of free trade, soft power, and international organizations is overpowered by belligerent nations and isolationism, the web will inevitably be swept away with it.
That’s a pretty big statement, but one that we’ve explored in various iterations on The Digital Life, and we’ll get into some of the specifics around the difficulties with the open web in a little bit, but just as a thesis, Dirk, has it come to that? Everyone was I think a little surprised by Brexit and further surprised by the turn that America has taken with a more self-centered look at what our country should be.
I’ve never really imagined the internet as a bastion of globalism, but when you think about it, it really is that open free exchange of information that I suppose in some sort of utopian sense we thought would provide that level of information to people in countries who couldn’t necessarily access the same sort of freedoms that we have here. In a lot of ways, that open internet is, for better or for worse, representative of that kind of thinking, so does this resonate? Like just on a top level, Dirk, does this thesis resonate with you from the folks here at NESTA?
Yeah. I think it’s something that the trends … If you look at the trends and hypothesize where they could lead, this is one conclusion that is fairly logical. They predict it happening in 2017. I think there’s no chance of that. They also predicted in a very frothy way, very exciting, and I think the reality of it for most people would be far less mundane.
Right now, I can get Wikipedia.com. If I’m, whatever, searching someone German, I might instead be taking the Wikipedia.de and reading the biography in German, and then my browser is translating it for me. The “closed internet” that we’re talking about is one where I don’t have access or easy access in the same way to Wikipedia.de like that its own thing. It’s not in this gigantic stew of everything, analogous to … It used to be with television channels like we had access to ABC, CBS, NBC as old guys when we were young, but we had no clue what the hell was going on in Great Britain, in Germany. Like it was just a different communication network there.
I think what we’re talking about is more similar to that. Does it really matter if we don’t have access to all of those “channels?” I don’t think it does. Now, in more totalitarian regimes and other governments or places around the world, they might be a little stickier than that, but I think for us in the United States, I think for most people in the free world, if the set of circumstances that ended up balkanizing the internet would take place, I don’t think it will be that big of a deal. It sounds a lot scarier and more oppressive as well as impressive in the framing from NESTA than it would be in reality.
I’m going to play the second clip, which talks a little bit about some of the ongoing problems that we’re experiencing right now with the open internet, and then we can ref on that for a little bit.
Many cyber-security experts warn about the lackluster defense of everything from air traffic control towers and voting machines to nuclear plants. One well-placed attack could do more damage than the most aggressive of traditional military campaigns, at a fraction of the cost. Because of the high degree of uncertainty surrounding cyber-capabilities, “know your enemy” is a hard adage to follow if potential culprits and their capabilities are so tough to track, it has become impossible for governments to completely shield their countries from cyber-attacks.
The growing urge to control the internet has also become apparent over the influence of so-called fake news. Distorting public opinion and fact as a manipulation technique is nothing new. It’s been used since Roman times, but the relentless pace and scope with which the internet allows information to disseminate is quite unprecedented. Governments and the media, who have themselves often swapped truth for clicks, are having an increasingly hard time stemming the flow of biased or misleading news stories, so the democratic process suffers.
I like the way they frame up those two very significant problems that we’ve covered at length here at The Digital Life. The first one being the idea that cyber-warfare, low-grade constant cyber-attacks, cyber-criminality, that this is only beginning to take shape.
A fine example of that is the denial of service attack that happened on the East Coast last year based on a malware-infused botnet. Just essentially DVRs, and clocks, and cameras, and who knows what else attached to the internet and used as slave bots to send all this traffic and take down the servers from a company called “Dyn,” which provides domain name services, but we’re talking here about a growing level of uncertainty that comes along with the internet being open. I think this was an international-based attack, and it makes it almost seem rational that you would have an America-first internet. I hesitate to call it that, but that’s the trend line.
That is the trend line, right? Another factor that they pointed out in this essay, which is frightening, is that the NSA has baked into it, cyber-spying some of the hesitation from other countries for sending their traffic through servers in the United States, so the NSA has access to the pipes that move the bits and bytes from other nations.
All of a sudden, when you’re sending information across the United States to get where it needs to get, you are subjecting yourself to the cyber-spying capabilities of the NSA. That’s one bucket there, so let’s talk about that a little. Is it time to create the … We can point to the Chinese with their great … the great firewall of China where they keep everything under wraps and well-controlled. Is it time for a war … not a war, a wall on the southern border of the internet?
Yeah. What China is doing is different I think than what NESTA is talking about. What China is doing is basically censoring, filtering the internet. They have not nationalized the internet where they’ve closed it off and there’s a Chinese version of the internet that’s native, and specific, and limited to China. From that perspective, I don’t think the Chinese model is the one that we’re looking at. They’re coming from the perspective of the internet being used as a weapon, right? Whether it’d be on cyber-warfare, cyber-terrorism, or things. I guess you could call things like fake news cyber-terrorism. Yeah, it’s just a different flavor.
They’re talking about trying to address that by walling off your stuff basically, which for countries who are not the United States would also allow them to wall off from the NSA among other foreign and potentially malignant actors. We’ve talked about before on the show for years now the way to be safe on the internet is to get off the internet, and that doesn’t mean just nationalize it because look, if we talk about terrorism, most terrorism in the United States is domestic terrorism. It’s not done by someone who snuck in from Syria. It’s done by someone who’s pissed off in Oklahoma.
The nationalization at that level I don’t think is going to get us there. It certain from a risk-mitigation perspective is going to eliminate some international actors, but if the history of terrorism is any guide, that’s not going to solve it. What we need is to be separated, is to be in a context where … The metaphor I’ve used in the past is just like people who are dealing with viruses in real life. You get into a special suit. You go into a safe room to get prepped. Then, you go into the dangerous room. You do yourself in the dangerous room. Then, you go into the safe room, and you’re totally washed off. That’s not a sophisticated way of communicating the technology, but then you get out of your safe suit again and you go back into the normal space.
Even a nationalized internet isn’t going to behave that way. Like to make the internet really safe is going extra steps, extra steps that turn the internet, and this is … I think the more interesting insight I don’t think was part of the NESTA piece that turns the internet into something that is not instantaneous, that your stuff is going through a filtration and a washing process before it gets to you or before it’s gone from to someone else on a level where it’s truly washed and truly chapped for lack of a better word. It’s not happening now.
Yeah. From the standpoint of fear and risk-mitigation, nationalization strategy is a possibility, but what we really need is to eliminate the instantaneousness of the internet. If safety is our goal, if we’re saying, “We want to eradicate cyber-warfare and cyber-terrorism forever,” get ready for a world that’s not instantaneous in terms of our access to information.
Yeah. I think the last point they were making in that audio clip we heard earlier was that interestingly that democracy can suffer as a result of misinformation. Whether we’re calling it “fake news,” “propaganda,” however you want to frame it, that information is not necessarily sunshine if it’s not true information.
I don’t think that I’ve ever viewed closing off information flow as a good thing or even as a potentially good thing, but the connection between information, free information flow and the ability to find whatever it is you might need seemed like good. In today’s atmosphere, finding whatever information you want, especially if it’s … especially tailored lies to your particular taste, that is obviously not such a good thing.
Yeah, but Jon, that freedom is an illusion, right? All of the free internet that is out there is some subset of all of the possible things that could be out there, right, necessarily. When we have a conversation, you are giving me an edited portion of all of the information you can possibly giving me. You’re not telling me about the luxurious shower you took this morning. You’re telling me about something different, something that …
Something that for you, you think is more appropriate to the context of our relationship. I think it’s already a myth that there’s this free open internet and changing it is this crush on democracy. Yes. There are some manifestations of closed, walled approaches to internet like infrastructure that would get into the despotic and the dystopian, but I don’t think it’s inherent in doing so because the internet as we know it now is edited, is limited. There’s content that we don’t have access to and content I don’t need access to, right?
The government. Let’s go to the extreme. The government is relentlessly preventing child pornography from being on the internet. I think that’s a good call. I think it’s protecting people. It’s content that I don’t think people need to see in terms of being psychologically healthy, but somebody’s made a decision, and somebody is taking that content, and they moved it the hell off.
What we’re talking about is a different level, different flavors, different types of censorship, but let’s not kid ourselves. Censorship is happening already. It’s total illusion that it’s free, open, wonderful. It’s not. It’s not. It’s not. Yeah. What we’re talking about here are further limits, further edits, but maybe those edits aren’t bad. Why do we assume that the things that are going to happen with it are not in our best interest? It certainly won’t be the end of democracy as we know it. I don’t think, unless the zaniness that’s happening at the highest levels of our government gets a hell of a lot worse than it is today with the president’s shenanigans.
Yeah. I think there’s an interesting secondary element to this, which is almost a … call it “cyber-nationalism,” right? The creation of independent networks based on physical world geographies that correspond to cyber-space. Now, in theory, we have some of these already, but we also have international sort of server farms. You don’t really know where your data is or … I mean, most of it anyway. There are certain laws in Europe that require health data to be handled in a certain way within the borders of European nations, and there are other countries that have laws like that as well.
From an infrastructure standpoint, I don’t think that we have the same level of attention that we would to geographic orders, and I see that the physical world manifestation of nationalism is in some ways infecting or influencing the way the next level of digital life is going to evolve. As unexpected as I found this recent trend against globalism, I find this cyber-bifurcation also to be unexpected. Very interesting, I always thought that both globalism and call it cyber-space would be the driving forces of our future. Now, I’m seeing nationalism and geographic space as being at least counterpoints if not more influential at least in the short-term.
It may have positive unintended consequences though, right? Hundreds of years from now, the EU is going to be one entity. You’re not going to have Germany and France as separate countries. It’s going to be one thing. It’s just a question of, “How long of a time mark is it before that happens, and what are the triggering events?” Something like this is one of the things that could start to accelerate things more in that direction where people are like, “Look.” The Germans look at the French and the French look at the Germans. They say, “We don’t need our whole separate things. Look, let’s get one EU thing. We’re going to get the EU internet.”
That’s one unintended consequence of this that could actually help to diffuse nationalism. Make no mistake. Nationalism. I would posit nationalism was the most destructive ideological force of the 21st century, and it’s one that’s been on the decline. Recently, it’s been a little bit on the up rise. We’re getting a little bit of pushback with Brexit, and America First, and right wing things in some other countries.
In the long now of things, nationalism is on the decline. It is going away. Maybe things like this will bring countries that are already moving towards coming together in multinational structures to do so more aggressively, more wholeheartedly, more holistically. It may not work out that way, but it may, so I’m not concerned. I’m not scared if the internet goes towards the more nationalistic scheme, A, because I think for most people in the free world, the consequences of that are likely to be de minimis, and second of all, I think it could be a trigger that reduces nationalism as compulsive countries come together in that way and possibly in additional ways as a consequence.
Yeah, that’s an interesting take. I think I’ll wind up with this final thought that one of the huge fears of security around the internet of things comes precisely because of malware and botnet, attacks that are not necessarily from your country of origin. I don’t know whether a US-only internet would provide a better infrastructure for some of the promise that comes along with the internet of things, making some of that more secure and more possible connected devices and sensors being at least somewhat protected, but there’s certainly the possibility that a more sheltered, more controlled internet could provide the underpinnings for that as well.
Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real-time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com. That’s just one L in “thedigitalife,” and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich-information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.
You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM, and Google Play. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter, @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That is G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?
You can follow me on Twitter, @dknemeyer. That’s @-D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, and thanks so much for listening.
That’s it for episode 208 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.