The 3 ways in which we are building the next internet

The internet triggered one of the biggest disruptions in information sharing and ingesting since the printing press. We’ve become used to it since then, but those of us who remember the pre-internet era, will probably still be able to relive that awe and amazement of the seminal days.

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October 21, 2022

And though it has been the source of many positive changes, it also has some pretty dark facets, which took on a life of their own and are very hard to control. The latest evolutions in the current iteration of the web can be divided into three categories, the first of them specifically designed to battle this dark side:

1) Web3: This is the evolution that is supposed to counter the typical data-misuse of the current (Web2) iteration of the internet. It’s a new type of infrastructure that will bind all information to its user, instead of putting it into the hands of companies. One that promises an “internet built, powered, and owned by its users instead of a few major tech companies”.

2) Metaverse, Brain Computer Interfaces and the IoT: At the same time, we are experiencing a group of changes that are enhancing the one-dimensional interfaces of the current online world.

3) Ubiquitous connectivity: Though there are still many places in the world without internet and phone access, several players like SpaceX, T-Mobile and Apple are investing in access through satellites in every corner of this planet.

The combination of these will more than probably result into something of which we will “overestimate the effect in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”, as Roy Amara would have put it. Indeed, Web3 and the metaverse are still being built as we speak, with a lot of use cases proving more gimmicky for the moment than utterly transformative. But this is also definitely the time to experiment and find out what these technologies could mean for your company.

New fundaments: blockchain & Web3

The biggest shift in this online area is probably the one from a centralized and unequal Web2 – where companies own and control our data which enables them to influence our behavior – to the decentralized format of Web3 where users can decide what happens with their online data because they own and control it themselves.

The technology supporting this new Web3 internet is called the blockchain, which:

  • Is more efficient and empowering (for users): It is decentralized and therefore moves the web from a middle men (big tech) model to a direct user-centric model.
  • Is more secure and private (for users): It allows to record information in a way that makes it difficult or impossible to change or trick the system because each transaction is duplicated and distributed across the entire network of computer systems on the blockchain.  
  • Is more interoperable: If users own their data, then separate siloed platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook would be able to “speak” to one another and exchange.
  • Is more community-driven: Decentralized Autonomous Organizations or DAOs could change how we organize ourselves from a hierarchical into one that is bottom-up community driven.

If you want to know more about Web3, you can read my fun introductory blog right here.

Basically, what you need to remember from this is that the ‘dream’ of the new internet is that it will be an ultra-secure, private, empowered, efficient and ‘free’ space where companies will no longer be able to manipulate users into thinking, doing or buying anything without their consent.  

But that’s the utopian version, right? We experienced these hopeful feelings too, with Web1 and Web2, remember? Not wanting to rain on the parade, here, (just a smudge, maybe), but the reality might be different, as we are seeing quite a few companies moving into industries where users will probably offer access to their data to (tech) giants because the use cases offer them many benefits. In fact, if you look carefully, you can see a lot Web2 or even traditional phoenix companies quietly preparing themselves for that data-less era in different ways (and yes, not always by finding ways to harvest data):

1) Some of them are moving into useful and valuable data industries like healthcare and smart home: Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Bytedance (parent company of TikTok) and even Uber (with Australian patient transport service Uber Health) and Walmart to name but a few. Their goal might be to gather as much data as possible to create some kind of ultraconvenient lock-in so consumers will practically be forced to give up their data when Web3 happens.

2) Social media giants like Facebook and Instagram have been investigating interaction models that are changing from user-directed to computer-controlled: so no longer determined by their network or even the preferences of the individual user but by the most popular content.

3) Paid instead of free services: Recognizing that the data + advertising model might be reaching completion, and pushed by privacy laws (and measures from companies like Facebook limiting tracking), social media apps like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Discord, Telegram and Snapchat have all been investigating paid features.

New interfaces

The race for creating the interface for this next internet is also on. Many are betting on the AR, VR and MR devices of the metaverse, of course, which manifests itself in many ways because of that. It can be fully immersive, where the user is travelling through a fully virtual environment through the use of VR goggles. It might take a few years before the user experience is up to speed here, and the goggles ubiquitous, though. For now, it’s mostly about games, e-sports, concerts, events and some brands like Nike, Christie’s, Coca Cola and Balenciaga experimenting there. Maybe some early stage education and work projects. But this might become big one day.  

A less radical and (for now) more practical metaverse bet might be augmented reality or AR, where users are wearing “regular” see through glasses, placing them firmly in reality, but offering them a useful information over-layer. Many are very curious about the AR glasses Apple has been working on in stealth mode, but Google, Xiaomi, Bose and many others have been focusing on this type of device as well. Next to optimization of the user experience, a big challenge here will be privacy.

But let’s not forget the holographic approach either. True, most companies are dabbling in AR and VR and this seems to be a less popular area, but there are some bigger names conducting experiments in that area. Scientists at Cambridge and Disney Research, for instance, have been working on “holobricks” that can stack and tile together to produce large 3D images that can be viewed from multiple angles in a much higher resolution than the disappointing holograms we are used to.

But where the metaverse is now mostly focused on the sensory experiences, and mostly on seeing (though others - like touch (haptic devices) - are investigated as well), brain computer interfaces are bypassing those sensory ‘middle men’ allowing our brains to directly interact with computers. A popular example is Elon Musk’s neurotechnology company Neuralink that develops implantable brain–machine interfaces to directly connect humans and computers. This type of invasive interface will probably first be used by paralyzed or epileptic patients, offering them control over devices that they cannot touch, but just image how our world will change if we can access information or even trigger actions (like opening a smart door) by just thinking about it. As a side note: Musk is apparently feeling that Neuralink is not progressing fast enough, having approached brain chip implant developer Synchron Inc about potential investments. Meanhwile Meta researchers have developed an AI model that can decode speech from noninvasive recordings of brain activity, which could lead to completely new ways of controlling technology.

I do not have a crystal ball, but this is something I wonder: the evolution in interfaces is usually that they tend to become increasingly “invisible”. Zero interfaces is what we used to call them, by which we meant that screens were disappearing. Now, if we compare BCIs with the metaverse, BCIs are the ones that are the best fit for this “natural” evolution, while the metaverse puts the users basically in an even bigger, 360 degree screen. Web3 actually follows this same evolution from a middle men model (interfaces are middle men, too, right?) to a direct model. So that might be another argument for that direction. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the metaverse is a fad. (Would we organize a tour to Paris on the topic of the metaverse if that was the case? No, we would not.) I’m just wondering which will “win” in the long run. Or if they will exist simultaneously next to one another, but for different purposes: for instance one for more factual information gathering and one for entertainment.

It's already clear which one will prevail according to Amazon, which is placing all its bets on what it calls Ambient Intelligence, with which it wants to weave its products invisibly into our life: "Think of it as the opposite of the metaverse: Instead of asking people to venture into an artificial virtual world, Amazon wants to weave its computing products, whether it builds them itself or licenses the technology to others, into our homes and cars, to the point where the technology seems invisible, even as it switches on gadgets, alerts us to home intruders, and figures out what we want to watch or read next." (source: Wired Magazine)

In that same Wired article, Amazon’s hardware chief, Dave Limp, explained how their strategy differs from “the others”:  “Our view isn't that you start with the phone and emanate outwards. Instead you start with intelligent devices that are placed throughout the house or the car, that when they interact together, they act better. They're always there.”

They understand that IoT devices in our smart homes and smart cities are interfaces, too. They are often less “active” (in the way that the user knowingly interacts with them) - with sensors measuring our behavior and for instance automatically making sure that traffic lights adapt to the traffic situation - but they too allow users to (unconsciously) interact with computers. The more sensors and machines with image recognition (like smart doorbells and vacuum cleaners), the more of these types of ‘silent’ interfaces we’ll have. And the smarter these sensors and seers will become – being able to read our emotions is for instance a big area of interest – the bigger the impact. In fact, this type of interface is just as immersive as the metaverse (in the sense that we are walking around in a world filled with them), though we are a whole lot less conscious about it. I’m not going to zoom in on the privacy and power balance issues that might come with that, because this is not that kind of article, but you might want to think about that for a while.

As a sidenote: I do realize that if the metaverse will fully mature, its impact will probably be far greater than just offering a new type of interface. Because new interfaces tend to come with certain pioneering use cases (like VR has a natural connection with games) which push certain types of behavior, which tend to stick around when other use cases surface. In the case of the metaverse this will probably be about real time interaction, community, creator economy, interoperability, continuity of data and empowerment (very possibly in combination with Web3).

New physical infrastructure

Last but not least, a new wave of projects — including those by Starlink, OneWeb, and Amazon’s Project Kuiper — are using satellites in low-earth orbit to provide a different kind of internet access.  

It’s about adopting infrastructure in space - instead of the big underground arterial system of cables we’re used to now - to offer ubiquitous connectivity. Up till now, the internet (well, connectivity in general) still had a lot of dead zones, both in large nature domains as well as in more rural regions with less or even no cellular towers. But this may be a thing of the past. Although, to be fair, in a first phase, this might mostly be about emergency access in very remote areas because of the limited capacity on each satellite, as Benedict Evans explained in his newsletter.

SpaceX and T-Mobile recently announced a plan to use the rocket company’s satellite constellation technology Starlink to expand cellular service to “dead zones” by the end of next year. Apple announced a forthcoming satellite connectivity feature called Emergency SOS via Satellite at its iPhone 14 launch event, to help people communicate when their cell service isn't working. And the day before that Huawei announced the Mate 50 series, which also holds the ability to send texts via satellite communication. Ok, both Apple and Huawei are ‘only’ about texts, but let’s consider this phase one of opening up connectivity, while internet access will follow later.

It might be a while before all of these fundamental, interface and connectivity technologies fully mature, but it’s clear that many people are investing a lot of money in this to win the race for dominance. I’m very curious to see how this will all pan out. Or how the maturity of other exciting technologies, like quantum, will influence this.

Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence has more than 10 years of experience in marketing, communications and disruptive innovation. Passionately curious, she is fascinated by the impact of technology and science on the way we work, consume and live our lives.
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October 21, 2022