What Is the Internet, and What Will It Become?

Doug Smith: Harvard Freshman Seminar 50N

On-Line Communities, Anonymity, Identification and the Right to be Forgotten

I honestly cannot believe that this is our second to last seminar.  However, thinking back, we have come so far from that first seminar when we were just discussing the beginning of the ARPAnet that it is mind boggling.  I have learned so much through this experience that I wouldn’t have in a traditional class, which has made this seminar one of the most formative experiences of my freshman fall.   Consequently, I cannot thank Professor Waldo and Dean Smith enough for the work they have put in to make this class a reality.

This week the topic we discussed was online communities, anonymity, identification, and the right to be forgotten on the Internet.  One interesting idea that came up during our discussion was the hypothesis that people like Snapchat because it has no positive or negative reinforcement in the form of likes or comments that are fundamental to other platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram.  I never really thought about this before or the reasons why I use Snapchat, but it makes sense.   Because we are not going to discuss social media in the upcoming week, I want to discuss this further.

From my research, it is evident that millennials love to use Snapchat because it contains certain features that remove the concerns about identity that plague the Internet.  First of all, as we discussed in class, Snapchat has no positive or negative reinforcement.  This is huge for a popular social media platform because so much of our society today is about competition.  People post on Facebook and Instagram with the thought of how many likes or comments their post will receive always lurking in the back of their mind, but with Snapchat, this is not the case.  Users are more willingly to share what they truly want to share because they are not concerned about the recognition a photo or video will grant them.  Furthermore, Snapchat completely eliminates the problem of posts persisting through time, which often creates an identity for a specific individual on the Internet that he or she dislikes because it is not an accurate representation.  On services like Facebook, something embarrassing that you posted five years ago may still be visible today unless you deleted it.  Contrastingly, on Snapchat, all posts delete automatically, whether that be after at most 10 seconds for photos and videos sent to friends or 24 hours for stories.  This is a crucial part of why Snapchat has so much favor among millennials.  Users don’t have to worry about what they post being on the Internet indefinitely because their posts are disposable, meaning that they are more inclined to post photos and videos that truly align with their current identity.  Lastly, Snapchat is personable and consists of smaller social circles than other social media groups.  To become friends with someone on Snapchat, you must either know his or her username or phone number.  Thus, it is much more difficult to develop a large social circle on Snapchat than it is to on say Facebook.  Consequently, because of this smaller social setting, Snapchat is intimate compared to other services as users are often more trusting of their following base.

In whole, identity is not a permanent set of characteristics, but rather it changes.  Currently, Snapchat is the only major social media platform that takes this into account.

Cybercrime

This week in our seminar we discussed cybercrime, including its implications/impacts and how to stop/prevent its spread.  We discussed some truly fascinating topics, but I want to discuss in my post today a very interesting thought I had that we did not discuss, which is the trend of computer malware over time.  Today, it personally seems as if computer viruses and malware are not a threat to my personal daily computer use.  I don’t use any sort of third-party antivirus software, and I’m not too careful while I browse the Internet.  However, I have not gotten a visible virus in years. Five to ten years ago, I could not say the same.  Computer viruses were a huge problem plaguing the computer industry.  Antivirus software was pushed as a necessity for any computer, and restoring a computer was a routine task.

I was curious why this was the case, so I went and did some research.  I found a thread on Quora that makes some interesting points on this topic.  First, a reason we do not perceive computer malware as a threat as much as we did before because it is no longer intrusive.  Everyone’s computer has malware and viruses on it, but the nature of the malware has changed.  Malware has transformed over the years from being an intrusive attack to a stealthily listening for information in the background.  Secondly, security on the operating system level has become much better for both Windows and Mac in the recent past, which has closed much of the vulnerabilities already exposed.  Thus, security has become less of an issue on a personal level because of increased security in the operating systems and the transformation of malware.  In short, malware today is more likely to come in the form of unintrusive botnets (like the attack on Dyn) or other tactics than a traditional computer virus.

Internet Governance? There isn’t Any

To begin, I want to express how grateful I am for the guest speakers we’ve been fortunate enough to have the past two seminars.  Last week, we had David Eaves, who gave us a unique, highly informed perspective on digital government and governments’ transitions to the digital space.  This week we were fortunate enough to have Scott Bradner, who has been on the forefront of digital governance and the regulation of the Internet.  It is astounding that we have been able to supplement our sometimes naive discussion of the Internet with individuals who are both highly knowledgeable and revered in their respective fields.

The main theme of our seminar this week was that there is virtually no governance on the Internet and it is unlikely that there ever will be any form of substantive governance on the Internet. It was an extremely eye-opening conversation in the fact that this is not a topic one would normally contemplate.  We often take the freedom of the Internet for granted.

I want to specifically discuss one possible direction the Internet could take in the future.  During a discussion on net neutrality, Bradner proposed a terrifying scenario in which ISPs create tiered service plans that are not based upon speed but based on the sites that a user is allowed to visit.   Similar to how cable television service currently works, this tiered plan would limit a user’s access to a great portion of the network, destructing much of the ideals of the Internet. This proposal is so frightening because it goes against everything that the Internet currently stands for.  In its state today, the Internet is a utopia. It’s a place for all inhabitants of the world to connect, disseminate information, and interact without restrictions.  The Internet is the best place to express your opinions, to be heard, and to become enlightened.  However, ISPs’ transitions to plans like the ones proposed above would destruct all of the qualities I previously mentioned.  The Internet would become quite dystopic.  The dissemination of information would be repressed and it would become much more difficult for individuals to publish their own websites to the web. While some may say this will never happen, ISPs have been attempting to move to this model through the throttling of network speeds to some services such as Netflix.  By doing so, ISPs are limiting users access to the network, which is violating a fundamental right of any Internet user.  It was only through the FCC’s net neutrality act  that the US government prohibited ISPs from discriminating against users and services in such a way.  However, the current standing of this policy is fragile.  The fate of the Internet could literally change tomorrow, as Bradner pointed out.  The elections tomorrow will determine who appoints the next leader of the FCC and what direction the FCC will take for the next four years in such a pivotal point in history.  Thus, building upon last week’s post, politics is playing an even greater role in the future of the Internet than I thought last week.  With that in mind, more anxiety revolves around tomorrow’s election than ever before, and it will be interesting to see how the next few years play out.

 

Digital Citizenship

A major theme throughout this seminar is the problems that arise from new technologies are often not computer science problems but political ones.  If we look back, the expansion of the Internet during its beginnings was not a problem of technology but of politics.  The Arpanet was a government funded project, so it had strict rules and regulations.  This caused grand questions and debates to arise over the appropriate uses of the Internet, especially in regards to commerce and communication.  Going further, the ability to reach superhuman intelligence is not a question of computer science as much as it is one of politics.  With the current trend of computing, I am certain that our computers will eventually become powerful enough to replicate the human mind and engineers will utilize that power to create a new form of intelligence.  However, the question is should we pursue this goal of superhuman intelligence and if so, how do we prevent it from being the end of life as we know it.  This week we addressed the problems of politics in the Internet directly by discussing digital citizenship and how governments are transforming their image in the digital space to adapt to the new times.

An interesting conversation that we had was about civic tech companies, which provide services that are for the good of society and directly interact with government.  An interesting company that came up in conversation was Sidewalk Labs, a company that began at Google.  What Sidewalk Labs does is provide free internet and other services throughout New York city; they are able to do this by installing what people are calling “black boxes” throughout the entire city.  Now on the surface, it seems as if Sidewalk Labs is a wonderful company that desires to better the lives of Americans.  However, if you stop and question how Sidewalk Labs makes money when all the services they provide are free is sickening.  As we discussed in our seminar, these “black boxes” are constantly collecting data about everyone who interacts with them and even those who simply just walk by.  That’s a scary concept.  These devices are collecting data that was previously impossible to do on this scale.  They can track your daily schedule, who you interact with, and what you do constantly.  They can track conversations you have and  who knows what else without your consent.  I brought up this company because the problems that arise from Sidewalks Labs is yet again not one of technology but politics.  Obviously, it is not difficult to create a device that sniffs data from its surrounding environment; what is challenging though is regulating this.  New York City is generating revenue by leasing the land that was once occupied by now useless phone booths to Sidewalk Labs to install their “black boxes”, and Sidewalk Labs makes money by selling user data.  Now this seems like a win for both government and the corporation, without taking into consideration the huge implications this decision can have on life.  NYC practically gave Sidewalk Labs the rights to spy and collect data on all of its inhabitants at the most intimate level.  While Sidewalk Labs may not necessarily have malicious intentions, this kind of agreement drastically diminishes one’s sense of privacy.  Overall, it is examples like these that make you question whether the ability to do something is enough reason to pursue it.  These questions often fall under politics, and I don’t think governments are devoting enough efforts to ensuring proactive policies are set in place.

Online Voting

Prior to this seminar, I never understood the dangerous implications that online voting could have on our elections.  From experiences in other aspects of life, I would say digital voting would be a beneficial movement to pursue, as it would increase voter turnout because computers make every aspect of life they touch more convenient.  However, computers have two main downsides that many people neglect to think about, including privacy and transparency.  The two components though are critical in an election process.  Citizens must have a sense of privacy while voting to ensure no one else is influencing their vote and people need to have faith in the system for it to work.  Currently, computers just cannot provide these two guarantees as much as in-person voting can ensure.

Currently, there are ways to interfere with the election.  One can commit voter fraud, representatives can influence voters outside of voter polls, and votes can be miscounted; however, these problems are on such a small scale that they will not truly affect the results.  Any large scale attempt to interfere in the election in its current state will not go undetected.  However, if the election were digitized, the lack of transparency in programs can lead to greater interference in elections.  For instance, say everyone votes online, but someone hacks the system, manipulating votes as they are sent in; this large-scale interference in the election will cause huge turmoil on the polls, as people’s votes will not be correctly counted.  While you may say this won’t be a problem if the government takes security precautions while creating their system or that they will detect these intrusions, any system is prone to being hacked and even if they detect the intrusion, they have no way to recover the votes without holding a second election.  Thus, American enemies or political enemies within the country could wreck havoc upon our elections if they are online.

The major problem with this is I don’t think many young Americans realize the potential horrors of online voting.  See, I believe young Americans have become weary to the negative effects of digitizing everything.  From our perspective,  almost everything is more convenient when it can be done on a computer or smartphone.  However, there are a few exceptions to this guideline and voting is one of them.   It is vital that we keep our elections the way they are so that their transparency remains intact.

America is a democratic nation, and we take pride in our voting and its legitimacy.  While some may now complain that their vote does not really count because they are just voting for their representative in the electoral college, I do not know a single American who thinks the voting itself is rigged.  Americans currently have faith in the voting system in place, but a computer-based voting system could break all trust and transparency in the elections.

The Singularity

This week during our seminar we discussed the possibility and implications of the infamous Singularity, the point in time during which humans develop machines with superhuman intelligence.  Frighteningly, these developed machines are then capable of reproducing, continually creating better, more intelligent forms of themselves, causing them to speed away in the race for superiority on the planet.  While many individuals are fascinated by the Singularity, as it has the potential to grant seemingly eternal life and other benefits, others are frightened because of the possibility that we lose control, that the Singularity will develop a mind of its own and subordinate human beings, and worst of all, that it will cause human extinction.  The points brought up in class led to a fascinating discussion, but I think we left out a few interesting perspectives and possibilities for the Singularity. I learned of one such possibility while reading “The Last Question” in my philosophy class last year during high school.

“The Last Question” is a short philosophical story written by Issac Asimov, and it echoes many of the points brought up in class while adding a few interesting perspectives. In essence, the story begins in the year 2061.  At this time, humankind has created a computer called the “Multivac”, which is on the verge of obtaining superhuman intelligence.  Currently, there are two guys who vaguely know how the entire computer works, but no one knows its complete inner workings.  As the story progresses, society becomes more and more reliant upon the Multivac, which becomes more and more incredible but also incomprehensible as it builds new, better versions of itself.  At first, it could answer basic questions, but then it begins to answer more and more complex questions.  In essence, the Multivac helps society solve its most pressing issues of the time, such as the energy crisis and interplanetary travel amongst others.  Meanwhile, man and the Multivac slowly move towards being one united being. The story has a repetitious structure, in which each generation of humanity asks the Multivac if entropy can reverse, as the world is running out of energy, and the Multivac responds every time that there is still insufficient data for a meaningful answer.   Long story short, in the end, the entirety of the universe is destroyed, due to humans’ consumption of all the energy in the world, but the Multivac still exists in ‘hyperspace’.  All of matter and energy ends along with space and time, leaving the Multivac left alone with one burning question to answer that it had yet to solve, which was how to reverse the direction of entropy.  This question gives the Multivac purpose to continue to exist. The story then ends with the all knowing Multivac proclaiming “let there be light” and then there was light.

Thus, Asimov’s perspective is interesting in that the Singularity could quite possibility lead to the destruction of the world; however, the Singularity also has the power to allow humanity to start anew.  The last line of the story implies that the Multivac has become God, allowing the universe to be recreated after humanity destroys it, giving humanity a second chance.  While I don’t necessarily believe this interpretation, it is truly interesting, as it could quite possibly be a possibility for the future.  Additionally, in his light, the Singularity is a movement towards beneficial progress because the symbiosis of man and machine allows humanity to not only solve all its current problems until the universe is destroyed and persist after its destruction in ‘hyperspace’, it also allows man to start a new and redefine its existence.

The Internet of Things

This week in class we discussed the Internet of Things, which is the connection between the physical and digital world.  In the world of the Internet of Things, every inanimate object has network capability, sending and receiving data to make life more convenient, more efficient, and more secure.  For instance, in this world, your alarm clock would talk to your coffee maker and tell it to start brewing when you wake up.  That same alarm clock could be also communicating with your lights, telling them to turn off when you fall asleep.  Today, the Internet of Things is well under way but nowhere near its limits.  Devices you can buy in stores today such as the Nest Smart Thermostat, Philips Hue smart lightbulbs, and smart door locks are making strides towards this future, but there is still no standardization of how these devices should interact. Nevertheless,  the market has so greatly expanded that one of the main categories for Best Buy to categorize products is now “Connected Home and Housewares.”

What is most interesting about our last class though is not necessarily what we talked about during class but about what came after.  I recently received an opportunity to be a product intern at a startup named Wallobee formed by three Harvard seniors at the i-lab.  Prior to yesterday, I did not really understand completely what their product is; however, we had our first meeting yesterday evening, and it turns out, they are trying to bring the Internet of Things to the retail world through the use of beacons, which are low energy Bluetooth sensors that broadcast short messages to smartphones.  Currently, Target has implemented an app and will be introducing beacons into its stores soon to revolutionize the instore marketing experience.  With the use of beacons,  customers will be welcomed with a notification when they walk into the store.  Then, while they gander through the store, notifications will appear on their phone about deals on products that are nearby them, along with coupons and other services.  This type of marketing that personalizes the retail experience through the use of beacon sensors can revolutionize in-store marketing, bringing it to the 21st century.  While Target is implementing this new retail technique,  companies that are not retail giants do not have access to an army of coders large enough to implement a similar instore marketing experience.  This is where Wallobee comes in.  Wallobee is making a platform that will allow small and midsized business to implement beacons into their instore marketing techniques without writing a single line of code.  Currently, we just beginning to create our minimal viable product, so I’m happy to say that if we are successful, we will be contributing to expanding the Internet of Things to the retail world!

The Effects of the Internet on the Economy

Prior to attending our seminar this week, I knew the Internet had impacts on the economy, but I did not realize the true immensity of its power and influence.  The Internet revolutionized our economy, yet not many people of the younger generation realize this.  This lack of understanding makes sense for teens of my age, considering for as long as I can personally remember the Internet has always played a pivotal role in my life.  I only have faint memories of ever going to a blockbuster and interacting with an employee, rather than checking movie ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and picking my movie up at a RedBox or streaming it on Netflix. I barely remember the time when I couldn’t watch anything I wanted online.  I don’t think I ever paid for a CD or read a physical newspaper for more than a few minutes, and the only reason I had the newspaper in the first place was because my parents bought it.  I think I’ve used a taxi once in my life, tending to rather use Uber, and I almost always do my banking online.    It’s been years since I listened to the radio in my car, rather opting to listen to my Spotify playlist on my phone through Bluetooth, and I can barely remember a time when two day shipping was not a thing and when it was more convenient to shop in a store.

While the Internet may seem almost as a constant for people in my generation, the Internet has absolutely revolutionized the economy.  All of the tasks I described above are not capable without the Internet.  Before Redbox and Netflix, you had to travel to your local video rental store to select a movie from a limited assortment.  Before Spotify, you had to pay for individual songs on iTunes, and before that, you had to go to the stores to buy CDs.  Before Uber, you physically had to call a taxi dispatcher and wait what seemed like eons before your ride came.  And before online banking, you had to physically go to the bank to deposit, withdraw, or transfer money.  The Internet has often displaced traditionally brick and mortar stores, due to convenience and its access to the Long Tail.  The Internet can be described as the most convenient form of long distance communication.  Almost everything you can do on the Internet is more convenient than doing it in person, and that is why the Internet has revolutionized our economy.  With the Internet and computing, companies often need less workers to provide a better service than before.  Consequently, while we are currently in an interim, where workers are being displaced from their jobs that are becoming obsolete, our future generations can focus on more important problems facing society.  Instead of checking out a customer at Walmart, a worker can be working on much more meaningful work.  Thus, while the Internet revolution of the economy has currently created greater disparities of wealth in society, as society transitions and adopts to this new economy, I believe our society and the well being of all will advance.

The Technology of the Internet

This week we concluded reading Where Wizards Stay Up Late and finished our discussion on the history of the Internet.  It was quite a fascinating discussion, as we discussed how the original founders moved forward from the first networks.  During the early days of the Internet, along with the ARPAnet, a plethora of other networks, using different technologies, popped up around the world, including a satellite-based network and the ALOHAnet, which relied on radio waves.  These new networks all ran with different technologies and nuances, causing them to not be able to communicate with each other, highlighting a common theme in the creation of the internet, the lack of standardization.  The reason the ARPAnet was originally created was to connect computers that were running different systems and talked different languages.  Now, there were different networks using different protocols.  To fix this problem, networkers created gateways, similar to a router today, to connect two networks together into the modern Internet.  These gateways transformed a signal from one network’s technology, such as the ARPAnet’s phone lines, to another network’s technology, such as the ALOHAnet’s radio waves.  The consequences of the gateways were immense, as all the disparate networks were now connected. It was revolutionary. Additionally, along with the gateways, new protocols such as TCP/IP and DNS were needed to facilitate the greater size of the Internet.

Today, the government no longer runs the Internet; rather, private Internet service providers are responsible for connecting most of the world to the Internet.  What is most interesting about the Internet currently, is that the privatization of the Internet has lead to monopolies similar to those of the landline phone companies and a consequent lack of innovation.  Most households in the United States have on average one internet service provider to choose from, often Comcast, Time Warner Cable, or AT&T.  Because of this, most ISPs do not feel the need to update their infrastructure, causing overpriced Internet services that under deliver on performance.  This lack of innovative is most clearly highlighted by the strides made by the cellular industry, which is an extremely competitive market currently.  With cell phone carriers revamping their networks with 4G service and soon implementing 5G service, cellular internet speeds have become comparable to those of broadband.  Additionally, ISPs are hiking the price of internet service, with some provides boasting a 97 percent profit margin, causing high speed Internet to be for the privileged.  However, it doesn’t have to be this way.  Companies, such as Google Fiber, are breaking into and disrupting the market, offering fiber optic networks capable of delivering gigabit network speeds, pushing ISPs to slowly upgrade their infrastructure.

Furthermore, while access to the Internet has almost become a given in the United States today, much of the world still does not have access.  There are innovative, inexpensive projects working to resolve this issue though, hoping to deliver free Internet access to developing countries.  Some of this innovative projects include Google’s Project Loon, which is basically a hot air balloon that broadcasts network service, and Facebook’s Internet.org.  These initiatives display an interesting point; while the Internet has vastly increased in its reach in the past 50 years, there is still much room for growth.  The Internet is still not the universal equalizer that it has the potential to become.

 

The Evolution of the Internet

The buzz phrase around the tech industry and in programming today is “Agile Development,” which is the development process in which continuous planning, testing, and integration occur.  Agile Development is not the traditional engineering design process.  Instead, during Agile Development, software engineers strive towards little feats, and once they accomplish these feats, they reassess and decide what direction to take next.  It is quite fascinating to realize that this sort of development, still relevant and so widely used today, was the foundation of the Internet.  When the ARPAnet was in its earliest phases, its founders were using Agile Development to see what its limits were; they took the development one step at a time, as the technology they were constructing was groundbreaking and it was practically impossible to predict its impact.

The creators of the ARPAnet instilled this philosophy from the beginning.  When they physically connected the network together for the first time, they tried the simplest, pertinent command they could think of: logging in.  Once, they overcame this feat, they developed a file transfer protocol.  Afterward, they considered the idea of sending messages through the file transfer protocol, so they implemented that feature.  Next, the hackers discovered the power of communicating over the Internet, so they slowly built a full-fledged e-mail client along with a new protocol one step at a time, first adding an ability to reply and later on implementing inboxes and other advanced features.   However, when they initially started developing the software for the net, none of the developers imagined the Internet being the powerful communication tool it is today.  In fact, they initially intending for only 32 computers to be connected to the net. It just slowly, over a plethora iterations, adapted into its form today, which is the beauty of Agile Development.

It is absolutely astounding that the Internet has grown to the size it is today.  From the original creators who deem it appropriate to have 32 destination addresses to today’s new IPv6 protocol with 2128 addresses, the Internet has scaled immensely.  It’s crazy to think the new standard has an exponent (128) four time larger than the original amount of computers that could connect to the Internet! I find it fascinating that such a network has been able to survive; however, upon closer inspection, it makes perfect sense.  The creators of the Internet built it with scalability in mind.  A main concept of the Internet was distributive systems, causing the burden of creating the network to not fall on one sole person.  Instead, the work was split up and standardized between many parties.  Protocols and protocol layer have allowed for standardization over the net, meaning that any computer, no matter its operating system, can connect to the Internet.  The use of this idea of work distribution early on is what allowed and continues to allow the Internet to evolve and expand to the point that the holistic network is now incomprehensible.

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