The future of the Internet - a new dawn or a phantom menace?

So, to Lille today to attend IMRG’s inaugural EbizEU conference. The theme is e-commerce strategy, with a number of speakers looking to the future of cross-border e-retail.

The keynote pitch was delivered by Nils Muller of TrendONE, a ‘futurologist’ who distinguished himself from others who claim that title by delivering a fast-paced and technically demanding presentation about the future of the Internet, supported by a toy box of gizmos from various development labs to demonstrate the points he was making.

Nils walked the audience through his view on the coming iterations of the Internet, including:
– Web 2.0: social media and user generated content
– Web 3.0: immersion and augmented reality
– Web 4.0: internet of things
– Web 5.0: web of thoughts

There were a number of apparent non-sequiturs in the pitch, where the speaker seemed to assume that a magic wand will change the way things are, but overall Nils painted a fascinating vision of the next 10 years. Setting aside the sci-fi vision of a neural lace to deliver Web 5.0, his predictions seemed to be built upon a statement he made very early in the session: that by 2016 we will see the death of privacy. He assumes that we will relinquish control of our personal data and move into a completely transparent environment where we have little ability to establish boundaries over how that data is used.

At the core of this is his argument that a number of ambient technologies, and facial recognition in particular, will turn each of us into a physical hyperlink to our own online data. Augmented reality systems will be able to draw down information about an individual simply by recognizing their image (think Google Goggles on steroids – it’s pretty much achievable today). Other hyperlink identifiers, whether biometric or token-based (for example, distance-readable contactless cards) will inevitably emerge to support this vision.

Whilst the hyperlink concept is already a reality, I’m rather sceptical about Nils’ view of the future of privacy. The idea that we will give in trying to control what’s available online about us seems to be a little nihilistic (although it’s probably a meme that will appeal to the many marketeers at the event).

The defence of privacy in a near future where non-consensual identification is pervasive (think Minority Report) isn’t a futile battle. Quite the opposite, in fact.

I believe that over the next few years, individuals will increasingly and collectively demand respect for their personal information in ways that are not currently available to them. The single most important change will be a shift of ownership away from organizations and across to the individuals themselves: the individual will become the single trusted source of their own personal data.

In this environment, the only trustworthy data is that which has come directly from the data subject. By volunteering information to be held in a network of distributed Personal Data Stores, individuals will be able to grant access to personal information on a ‘need to know’ basis, and retain rights-managed control over how that data is used.

This isn’t a ‘futurology’ vision, but something that is happening now. The government is nurturing a private market for commercial provision of ID services through it’s G-Digital framework. Innovators such as Mydex are piloting Personal Data Stores for the management of volunteered personal information. Research projects such as EnCoRe and PVnets are developing innovative consent management models.

Of course my vision also has a few ‘magic wand’ moments as well. We need to find a way to promote and then protect this new environment; businesses need to establish viable commercial models for the new data architectures; individuals need to understand what this all means, and providers need to find ways to deliver it whilst hiding the technical complexity under the bonnet.

There are of course those who will argue that my understanding of privacy is outmoded – that we need to forget our middle-class, middle-aged views of how our information is shared, and instead think about how we value that information. I agree with that, and believe that the focus of the privacy debate will most likely shift towards accuracy, timeliness and consent as key metadata qualities that consumers and businesses alike will wish to address.

What is important to remember, however, is that the future of the Internet will be driven by the organizations that can most effectively milk it’s value, and the winners will be those companies that correctly understand and address mainstream needs – after all, would you adopt immersive and ambient technologies which you did not trust? Let’s hope that Mydex, EnCoRe and the other enlightened players in this new age can face down the Web 1.0 marketeers and give us the online future we want – and not the one that is being forced upon us at the moment.