The Future of the Web: The good, the bad and the very weird

The Future of the Web: The good, the bad and the very weird November 29, 2022

The vision of the internet as a free and open space for exchanging information and innovation was perhaps never much more than that – a utopian dream.

In reality the internet was in many respects a lucky accident, one with its origins in a collection of US government technology projects, that somehow grew into a global network. And the values of some of the early enthusiasts — who believed in open flows of information, freedom of speech, limited regulation — seemed, at least initially, to spread as the internet grew.

 But that was a long time ago.

As the internet (and the world wide web built on top of it) started to gather momentum, that optimistic if somewhat amateurish ethos started to give way, or rather was elbowed aside, by more powerful forces — mostly to do with money and power.

“The era of the global internet is over. Washington has worked closely over the last three decades with the private sector and allies to promote a vision of a global, open, secure, and interoperable internet, but the reality of cyberspace is now starkly different. The internet is more fragmented, less free, and more dangerous,” warns a recent report from the influential Council on Foreign Relations

The dotcom boom-and-bust made both entrepreneurs and governments aware of the opportunities and threats offered by this new network.


The rise of big technology companies over the last two decades has made the internet more usable for most people, but has also lead to the creation of a series of ‘walled gardens’ controlled by them, within which information is held and not easily relocated.

As a result, a small number of very large companies control what you search for online, or where you share information with your friends, or even do your shopping.


A platform that was once about openness seems to be dominated by big tech.

For their part, governments have realised the power of the internet and have become keen to harness it. And while the internet has largely been a US invention, and at least tacitly controlled by the US since, that’s changing now. Some governments enact laws and regulations which are understandable and benign, aiming to protect the rights and privacy of their citizens. Meanwhile, other states try to protect their power by preventing people from accessing information and services. Internet shutdowns, where states decide to simply switch off the internet in times of crisis, are increasingly common.

As a result, the internet is increasingly fragmenting into zones of influence – the so-called ‘splinternet’ effect.


“A world in which digital protectionism creates a ‘splinternet’ will be a world in which people in different countries lose the ability to learn from each other and interact with each other — a world in which people will be poorer in every sense of the word. For economic, political and cultural reasons, it is vital that data can continue to flow freely across borders, and that governments work together to make this possible,” said financial services industry body TheCityUK in a recent report.


Projects such as the Great Firewall of China, which blocks access to many services and data sources hosted in the West, are the most obvious manifestations of this. Russia, too has made efforts to distance itself from the broader internet, cutting off Russians from services like Facebook.

The Council on Foreign Relations points to moves by Beijing and Moscow, in particular, which are trying to create a vision of cyber sovereignty based on state control over the internet. “The international competition for power is accelerating the fragmentation of technology spheres,” it warns.

Concepts like Web3 promise a decentralised vision of the internet whereby the power of the big tech companies is broken. Instead, it’s the individual web user who will once again have the power over what they share and when, and who profits from it. Web3 would use blockchain technologies to effectively create digital assets which you are then able to exchange or trade as you see fit.

Of course, the reputation of NFTs, blockchain, Bitcoin and much of the De-Fi world has taken a hammering recently, being widely viewed more as a source of dismal get-rich-quick schemes and projects with major security flaws than the future of the internet. However, it’s clear that beyond this messy current situation lies the potential for significant disruption.

Virtual reality and augmented reality could allow the digital world to become visible around us — overlaying everyday reality with fantastic creatures or simply serving up reminders of useful information (what was his name again?).

But big tech companies also see the emergence of these metaverse technologies as another opportunity to build their next, and perhaps the final walled garden. Whoever wins out in this new virtual world could find themselves with a permanently defensible near-monopoly on access to this digital universe, where they are making the decisions about what we see and do, and collecting all the money.


Image: Gartner

Just as virtual and augmented reality could mean the digital world is always in our eyeline, other tech trends may increasingly render the internet invisible to us.

Ambient computing aims to embed computing power in the world around us, so that we don’t need to be permanently glued to our screens. Smart homes that adapt to our behaviour without us needing to ask are just one example of this.

Again, while there could be big benefits it also means we are again handing over lots of intimate information about our lives. That means privacy and security need to be stronger than ever, which will be a challenge as new innovations always create new security threats — and we haven’t dealt with today’s security challenges particularly well. From this perspective the risk is that we are building new technologies on top of an already wobbling stack — a high-risk digital Jenga, where a false move could see everything come tumbling down.

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