I suspect that the emergence of the internet will mark my generation the same way the birth of personal computing marked my father’s. For a brief period of time, the internet was wild and new, running free and not always so clean with memes and porn and piracy. While governments and corporations continue to push against the tide of piracy with mixed results, users willingly flock to walled gardens of Steam and Apple for the convenience and stability it provides.
The walled gardens have normalized. Steam has perfected DRM, and I’m curious to see if its new operating system will prove more than a gimmick. We would rather be stable and convenient than free. Now, I don’t hold with the hand wringing over this. After all, in the wild internet, we’re free to stumble on porn and viruses from routine searches. We’re free to try and figure out software compatibility on our own. We’re free to watch DDoS attacks and the wisdom of crowds deluge people with fame, harassment, or both.
I don’t know which way the copyright wars will swing. The largest player in online video, youtube, continues to strengthen its preference to major corporations to the exclusion of streamers, Let’s Plays, and the online personalities that constitute my modern television diet. Perhaps Youtube presses Machinima and Yogscast too far, and they take their ball to Twitch.tv. Perhaps we see new media oligarchies arise from the first wave of youtube celebrities, trading their accumulated viewership for exclusive distribution rights. Perhaps the latest renamed incarnation of SOPA/PIPA finally passes, ushering in a decade of repressive internet policies.
Either way, the black market will not go away. It only ever transforms. There is too much demand for it to stay dead. Right now, the vogue is TOR and bitcoins, locked in battle with the FBI on one hand and MtGox to actually get your money out in the other. Both TOR and bitcoins are easy prey for concentrated state actors. The FBI has used its position at the infrastructure backbone to circumvent TOR’s layers, and bitcoin can be destroyed for the paltry price of a few hundred million dollars to execute a 51% attack. I think its more likely, however, that bitcoin will destroy itself through repeated, wildly volatile bubbles. Its a deflationary commodity currency. Massive bubbles and depressions are its literal function, and no amount of cryptography will fix that.
On the physical front, the internet still relies on networks largely owned by a few American interests. Of all my predictions, the one I am most confident of is the balkanization of the internet. Having seen the incredibly capacity of American surveillance to access signals sent through its borders, other nations will institute their own grids (if only for their security services). If you use the internet as it stands, you walk naked before the NSA. This is untenable to countries like China and Russia, and they will divest themselves of these central links. In the worst case scenario, the internet as a global phenomenon dies, replaced by smaller regional and national networks. We’ll see.
Culturally, we are beginning to see the internet integrate into the wisdom of growing up. For my generation, we were left wild on the net. I met plenty of unsavory characters with no supervision on interaction. (I still remember the disgusting moment at 14 when I realized I was speaking to an unrepentant pedophile.) I flamed and was flamed with impunity throughout my teenage years. With the rise of social media and persistent tracking, kids who try that today end up before police and judges.
As the unfortunate examples get martyred for a racist Facebook comment or threat, the rest of the current crop of adolescents run from the social media eyes of their parents to “instant” services like Vine and Snapchat. The kids in my family are well aware of stranger danger, and their parents interact with all their friends to keep tabs on the internet space the same way you would play in the back yard. My Littlest Petshop episodes deal (hiliarious) with the seemingly random aetherial gifts of internet fame and memes, taken away at a moment’s notice. Remix culture has so deeply engrained itself in Youtube that I’m not sure anyone under the age of 25 actually understands what copyright is.
Unfortunately, the law is not so flexible.
Fascinating times. When the internet has vanished as a separate thing, when computers have fully become something that you carry in your pocket, when the grandchildren listen to me talk about the birth of the internet with the same rolled eyes I gave my father about assembly punchcards…I think this will be an interesting period of life to recount.