The internet as we know it has revolutionized many aspects of our society. From communication and shopping to education and entertainment, it has significantly changed the way we live, work, produce and consume. Since its birth in the late 1960s, the internet has evolved rapidly and celebrated many milestones. Billions of people are now connected all around the globe through computers, tablets, smartphones, and other devices. For many, life without internet has become unthinkable.
Where it all began
There is no single person that invented the internet. Rather, it evolved through research undertaken by scientists during the Cold War to assist governments in the conflict. During the 1960s, the US Department of Defence wanted to establish a network of computers that could communicate and share data with each other even if hit by a nuclear bomb. They feared that a Soviet attack could quickly destroy the national telephone network, making long-distance communication impossible.
Under the watchful eye of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), American scientists established a network of computers to transmit data via so-called package switching – breaking data down into small blocks and sending them off to their destination individually to increase the chance of a successful transmission.
The so-called ARPAnet sent its first message in October 1969 between the University of California in Los Angeles and the Stanford Research Institute, both more than 500 kilometers apart. The message was short and simple: “LOGIN”. However, only the first 2 letters were received. Arpanet soon began to include other research centres, government agencies and other networks.
Since then, key developments and innovations have led to an exponential growth of the internet.
1970s – The introduction of the transmission control protocol (TCP) and Internet Protocol (IP) allows different networks to communicate with each other.
1971 – American computer programmer Ray Tomlinson develops a programme allowing users to send messages between different computers on the Arpanet. It is the beginning of emails as we know them today.
1983 – The invention of Domain Name System (DNS) converts IP addresses into names. It is the internet’s first phone book.
1989 – The World Wide Web is born thanks to British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee. It enables users to access and share information through hypertext links.
1990 – The first ever website is launched at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland, describing the new world wide web and how to use it. It is still online today.
1992 – Researchers at the University of Illinois develop Mosaic, a browser that allows users to see words and pictures on the internet for the first time as well as navigate via scrollbars and clickable links.
1992 – The American Congress opens up the World Wide Web for commercial purposes, resulting in the birth of eCommerce.
Since the 1990s, the internet has become more and more popular in households around the world. According to Statista, more than 5 billion users are currently connected via internet, meaning around two-thirds of the world’s population are able to surf the web. In New Zealand, around 94 percent of the population uses the internet on a daily basis. Where will these trends lead us? How will the internet continue to change our lives and shape our societies?
New forms of communication
Forget writing text messages, typing Google searches and emails. With its rapid evolution, the internet of the future will be offering new types of communication and ways to interact with each other. Much like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, we will increasingly make use of verbal and auditory communication.
Brain-computer interfaces could also become a reality in the near future. Imagine communicating with friends, family or colleagues simply through the power of your thoughts. Brain-computer interfaces will be able to transmit information instantly between minds without the need for speech or writing. At the same time, new audio implants will allow people to adjust their sound environment or enable on-the-spot translations with respective apps.
Another form of communication can happen through holograms. Talk to 3D projections of a client or customer several hundreds of miles away and bring them directly into your office. This would make conference calls more personal and realistic and provide new opportunities to engage with your audience.
Experts also believe that the internet will become increasingly immersive and interactive over the next few decades, and much more integrated with the physical world around us. Users will be able to experience a greater mix of augmented, virtual and physical reality, blending digital environments with the real world. Instead of displaying information on screens, it will be floating right in front of us through augmented reality glasses and other devices.
From search engines to social media and online shopping, AI-powered technology is already able to solve your problems based on your needs and preferences. Machine learning will continue to evolve, with artificial intelligence software becoming smarter and more adaptable.
Virtual assistants, chatbots and adaptive learning platforms will provide users with a more personalized and interactive experience. Artificial intelligence will also play an important role in protecting sensitive user data as well as detecting and preventing cyber attacks, fraud, spam and fake news.
The rise of 5G
Much more than just an upgrade of the 4G network, 5G has already changed how we comunicate, work, learn and entertain. The next generation of wireless technology will make the internet faster, shorten load times and significantly increase its capacity. Large files will download in seconds, no matter what device you operate. Being designed to be extremely fast and reliable, 5G will also speed up processes such as autonomous vehicles, remote surgery, industrial automation, smart homes and virtual reality.
Often referred to as the next evolution of the internet, the metaverse will allow users to create their own digital realities. Though still in its early days, we can already see and experience examples of this new virtual reality. In online games such as Minecraft and Roblox, users can explore and create virtual worlds, customize avatars and socialise with each other. Social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram and TikTok invite users to share pictures, videos and stories, follow influencers and join communities with common interests. Furthermore, VR devices provide the opportunity to travel through time or explore environments such as space in realistic simulations.
Challenges of the future
The internet of the future is not just about innovative technology. It’s also about how we use it to connect, communicate, and collaborate with each other. But as the internet evolves, so do the challenges.
Security & privacy
One of the biggest challenges that we already are and will continue to be facing is the question of cybersecurity and privacy. How often is sensible data such as a phone number, address or credit card information being sacrificed for the sake of convenience? How do we protect our data and identity from hackers and cybercriminals? How do we balance the need for security with the right to privacy and freedom of expression?
While many countries have made internet usage more affordable and accessible in recent years, there are still millions of people around the globe that are unable to connect and make use of its benefits. How do we ensure that everyone has access to the internet, regardless of their location, income, or capability? How can we make the internet more inclusive and diverse, reflecting the needs and perspectives of different cultures, languages, and communities? How do we promote digital literacy and skills for all users, especially the young and the elderly?
Considering current discussions around climate change and our impact on the environment, sustainability is also a big question when it comes to the internet and its technologies. Consuming power and electricity, we need to ask ourselves how the environmental footprint can be reduced and how we can make the internet more resilient to natural disasters, power outages, and cyberattacks.
While the internet is designed to connect people and bring them together, it can also have negative social and psychological effects that need to be considered, in particular addiction, isolation, and misinformation.
While the exact future of the internet is hard to predict, some trends have already become apparent. The internet will become more omnipresent, accessible, and intelligent. More devices will be connected to the internet and more people will have access. At the same time, the internet will face new challenges, such as cyberattacks, privacy issues, and the need for regulations. The future of the internet will very much depend on how we use it – and how we protect it.