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The Internet at 50: The future and “dissolving containers”

This is the fourth article in a series reflecting on the Internet at 50. For the first article on the four developments that created the world wide web, click here. For the second on the dot com bubble burst, click here. For the third on the night the Internt was born, click here

In 50 years, the internet has grown from a basic experiment that connected two computers in 1969 into the pervasive communications tool we use today.  And as described by Harlan Lebo, author of 100 Days: How Four Events in 1969 Shaped America (Amazon,Barnes & Noble), the only thing that will remain constant about the internet is its unceasing state of change.


There is a story about the internet – actually a true incident – that vividly illustrates how swiftly events can evolve in the online world.

The story goes like this: in 2003, two historians who studied the dot-com industry in the wake of the bubble burst decided to write a book about the future of the internet. They talked to a publisher, who told them, “if you can make a case for transformation to come in the internet, I’ll buy your idea.”

But the historians could see nothing on the near horizon that seemed like major transformation to come. So they gave up their idea for a book, thinking that the internet, as far as they could see, would thrive – but without major variation – for the foreseeable future. 

Instead, during the next five years came Facebook (2004), YouTube (2005), Twitter (2006), the iPhone (2007), and the Android operating system (2008) – five developments among many that would, yet again, profoundly reshape the internet in the American experience.

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Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter and other social networking applications created unprecedented opportunities for online interaction – how users communicate and present themselves to the world.  They have opened new gateways to communication and expression for billions of users worldwide. Yet at the same time, the three services have become lightning rods for controversy about privacy, personal intrusion, and political confrontation that says much about the shifting and conflicting nature of the internet and its role in the American experience.

On their own, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter had potential as broad services for communication and social contact.  But their value skyrocketed with the arrival of the principal breakthrough digital tool of the 2000s: the smartphone.

One can imagine, 50 years ago, just how magical the prediction of a smartphone would have seemed: a replacement for a conventional telephone, computer, flashlight, wallet photo insert, credit cards, calendar, books, audio and video players, and magazines – all in a device that also offers internet access and fits in a pocket.  A single smartphone today has far more processing power than all of the computers at the Johnson Space Flight Center 50 years ago that managed the Apollo missions to the moon.

In 2019, more than 2.7 billion smartphones – either Apple’s iPhones or an even larger number of devices employing Google’s Android system – are used worldwide, now as a seemingly-permanent physical fixture in the internet landscape. The smartphone has become the current manifestation of the power and influence of the internet in the lives of its users.

But the smartphone is already beginning to advance beyond its current stature, as it represents only one example of how the internet and the tools that use its capabilities will continue to transform. 

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Fifty years after the internet was born, where is the technology going in its middle age? First comes recognizing that such questions no longer refer to the internet as a single entity. The expansion of the internet now encompasses the broad range of hardware and software defined as “digital technology,” as the online realm grows, changes, and then changes again.

Advances to come in digital technology have been foreshadowed by shifts that are already occurring.  Among the developments with the greatest impact on users are “dissolving containers” – as described by digital strategist Brad Berens to mean the demise of a physical item for using content (such as a DVD) that has given way to intangible files, or to new devices that are more sophisticated, specialized, or smaller.

“The vinyl record album became the CD, which became the mp3 file,” said Berens, principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. “Photographs that were previously shot with film and printed on paper are now jpgs that are captured on a memory card and then stored in the cloud.  “Similarly, the desktop computer shrank into the laptop, which became a tablet, and now many people increasingly use their smartphone as an routine alternative to a larger computer.” 

And as technology dissolves into other digital devices, trends suggest that the object we currently call a “smartphone” represents only the current capabilities – and not the future – for how we create digital connections.

“Most of us consider the smartphone to be a primary communication tool in our lives,” said Berens.  “But the smartphone as we now know it may soon dissolve into a different kind of device that is even more comprehensive in function that our current phones. 

“For example, we’ve already seen the smartwatch replace some functions of the smartphone,” Berens said. “The smartphone may dissolve until it is merely a tiny processor in your pocket that controls several sensors for communication that we carry or wear.

“By then,” said Berens, “the physical form of the ‘phone’ will no longer be relevant.”

As the smartphone changes, that evolution will be typical of the broader progress to come in how online communication and information gathering will expand aroundindividuals – by some predictions filling a person’s physical environment.

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“Why do we need to have a physical device we hold in our hand to communicate just because they aren’t physically near us?” said Marcus Weldon, president of Bell Labs and chief technology officer of Nokia. “It won’t be long before we will not just connect people more intuitively, but we will actually connect everything– your environment, buildings, cities– so that we can actually optimize you in your world.

“The future won’t be about Fitbits or smartwatches,” said Weldon, “but about adding, embedding, or even ingesting sensors on – or in – everything.”

As a result, said Weldon, “We will be able to eliminate mundane tasks, live more complete lives, be more productive, and do more creative things. I think that's a very interesting new reality to hope for – human beings perfectly assisted and augmented by machines.”

That type of monitoring would also include voice recognition that would identify an individual at any location. 

“Computing and digital technology should be useful to me wherever I go,” said Leonard Kleinrock, the UCLA computer scientist whose lab was the home for the first connection between computers 50 years ago that is recognized as the birth of the internet.  “I should be able to reach out to any computer without a privacy breakdown, so it recognizes me and allows me to use it.”

But if continuous monitoring seems like a troubling specter of “Big Brother,” designers  emphasize that the control of information is a key.

“It won’t be a creepy, ‘Big Brother’ way of gathering information,” said Weldon, “but rather done in a way that users are in control of their own information – a friendly ‘Little Brother’ or ‘Sister’ – a supportive personal assistant. That’s the world we’re moving towards.”

If the idea of continuous monitoring seems far in the future, note that the technology in some forms has already arrived: for instance, auto insurers such as Allstate, Progressive, State Farm, and others have created software and monitors that are embedded in a car or activated with a smartphone app that transfers data to the company to judge driving performance. 

The reward for using the software – and driving safely – is lower insurance rates. The opposite, of course, also applies: rates go up when a pre-determined number of rules about speeding or other infractions are broken. 

“It’s easy to see the extremes of continuous monitoring,” said Berens. “As a positive, for example, a sensor that monitors diabetes that sends information to your doctor and activates the release of insulin in your body is part of a benevolent network of support that keeps track of you, takes care of you, and gives you objective choices about your life. 

“However, the dark perspective is that continuous monitoring seems like a constant observation of your behavior and violating your privacy at every moment, as larger forces beyond your knowledge are monitoring everything you do.”

But monitoring with digital technology is already viewed by some as a positive. An early example occurred in July 2017: employees at Three Square Market, a technology company in Wisconsin, were given the opportunity to have a tiny chip the size of a grain of rice implanted between their thumb and index finger.  The benefit of the chip was that users no longer needed a staff identification at work, and they could buy lunch from the company cafeteria without cash or credit cards. Fifty of the company’s 80 employees agreed to the implant.

However, not everyone is so enthusiastic: the Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg followed up Three Square Market’s project by looking at the issue in a survey for a national audience, asking, “if a digital chip could be put into your finger that is painless, invisible, and removable, and that allows you to eliminate all keys, IDs, boarding passes, credit cards, passports, and all possibilities of fraud, would you consider it?” More than half said they would probably or definitely not. However, 19 percent said they would probably or definitely consider an implant. 

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Exploring the future of the internet – or rather digital technology – also requires new definitions for long-standing ideas. For instance, in 1970, when a parent asked a 13-year-old in the next room what he was doing and the reply was, “I’m watching television,” that response meant he was likely watching a weekly program on one of the three television networks, or perhaps one of the few local channels. Ask the same question in 1990, and “I’m watching television” meant not only the television networks, but dozens of cable channels accessed through a set top box. 

But by 2010, the definition of that reply had altered dramatically: “I’m watching television” could describe television networks, or cable, or subscription services such as Netflix, or millions of programs on YouTube; today, add a rapidly-expanding number of streaming services to those options.

The evolving definitions in the American experience of the digital world takes on even greater importance when exploring how they affect individuals and the relationships in their lives. 

“The internet is changing the fabric of our social relationships,” said anthropologist Genevieve Bell. “We connect with each other differently because of social media, but we also define those connections differently.”

For instance, how do we define a friend – and how is that definition shifting because of the internet and digital technology? 

“Social media has dramatically expanded our connections to other people, but they have also redefined how we perceive friendship,” said Berens. “In terms of how we develop our relationships, our definition of ‘friend’ is vitally important.” 

Views about friendships – and the perceived roles of those friends – can have profound emotional effects when the internet is part of the mix. As just one example – several studies have shown that merely viewing social media such as Facebook can lead to depression, because when users see the momentary emotional peak experiences posted by others – parties, trips, family events – those highlights lead viewers to amplify the less-exciting routines in their lives. 

“On Facebook,” said Jeffrey Cole, “everybody appears to be having a better life than we are.” 

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Such issues about the role of the internet in the American experience will continue to emerge, as will the wide pendulum swings between the unlimited possibilities and the dark corners in the digital realm. After all, the same online tools that educate millions across the globe or let friends swap chocolate cake recipes also serves as a conduit for plans to produce 3D-printable guns or to deliver messages of hate. 

“We need to be mindful,” said futurist Rishad Tobaccowala, “that the technology that was a key part of Barack Obama’s election strategy also helped the Russians influence the next campaign that elected Trump.”

The internet has long been on a path of constant reinvention, with flux being the sole constant. The biggest question of all is: where will digital technology go next? 

“Nobody saw the internet coming as we know it today,” Kleinrock said almost a half-century after the events in his lab occurred that sparked online technology. “Fifty years ago, no one considered the idea of search engines, or websites. And when they came, they were surprises, and explosive. We created this tool called the internet that is constantly shocking us with surprises. It will continue to surprise us.”