What will become of the Internet?

Humans are driven and respond viscerally to the universe, each life experiencing and influencing in its own unique way. The fleeting moments of time that make up the day to day often fade into obscurity, until eventually after enough time has passed they disappear from history as the people who housed memories of those moments cease to be.

Since the dawn of humanity people have understood the fragile nature of knowledge and experience, as evidenced by cave drawings, rock carvings and ceremonial pieces. As technology improved we moved on from ochres and charcoal and gained the use of inks and dyes. This enabled us to capture primitive imagery of people and life and begin recording our language, culture and knowledge en-masse.

The realist movement of the 19th century brought us closer than ever before to realism in paintings and sculptures, not long before the invention of chemical photography and videography. The 20th century came to a close with a plethora of new technologies revolving around connecting our senses on a global scale. Visually we were connected through television, streaming video, digital photography and primitive holography. Aurally we had fixed telephone, broadcast radio, streaming radio and a personal mobile telephones. Conceptually, we had morse code, telegraph, and various proprietary communications systems that culminated in the sending of binary signals over a world wide network - the Internet, which in the early 21st century has arguably proven to be the single most influential technological achievement of the past 50 years.

All of this history leading to this point, and yet it may seem that there's not much to be done with it other than take selfies and laugh at cat pictures. Just where is this great benefit people seem to be going on about?

It may not be obvious to those who never really adopted the "internet culture" for whatever reason, whether it seemed to be a passing fad or something potentially dangerous to civilised culture (and yes, such theories existed). It's also probably lost on people who are young enough that they don't remember a time where the internet didn't exist, so it's all just been taken on board as the way things are and always have been. But what I have witnessed like many others from my generation is a new world emerging.

We went from seeing people from other countries as being quite silly with their funny clothes and weird ways to actually speaking with them online and coming to understand them as humans, as they did us. The true, open Internet crosses borders of language and culture.

It's a world that people can sculpt to their own desires, to suit their tastes. We can form friendship circles spanning the globe, share a moment with a hundred million strangers, and otherwise find ways to make those fleeting moments worthwhile. The technology has evolved to the point where it is becoming invisible and ubiquitous and no longer confined to the computer chair. You can share a bike ride as you're riding and in real time join a race with a total stranger around a virtual circuit someone else plotted in your town or city. You can speak to your personal computer (mobile phone) and ask it to recommend a good dining establishment. Computers continue to integrate more intelligently with our every day lives, and regardless of some of the concerns raised by this in terms of privacy and abuse of personal information, these are problems which can and should be addressed as technology moves forwards.

What I see now when I look at the online world is a blank canvas upon which so much more can be built. Take social networking for instance. We're evolving from the "ochre" of the BBS and the "oil paint" of social networks to the "digital photography" that will be fully decentralised user-owned social presences. Soon, you will not be uploading your photos to a commercially owned server and giving your private details to the same corporation. Instead you will host your data securely on your personal device. You will control who and what can access your details and the nature of that access.

You can also see layers of information being overlaid on real physical spaces. The crude first steps are corporate backed and allow you to hold your phone's camera up and see metadata about the things in the viewfinder, perhaps ratings by people who visited a user. In the mid-term future we will see this metadata transposed directly onto our field of view, and other technological advances will make the experience more seamless.

The end result is that perhaps we, or perhaps our grandchildren will look out upon a world where we'll see not just the physical world around us. Instead there will be layers of visual information augmenting our experiences. Simulated geese (possibly long-since extinct) could follow our boat ride down the river. Footpaths could be laden with fresh grass and flowers. The entire sky could be colored in rainbow hues or the photos of our loved ones looking down on us, transforming our cities from the grey, utilitarian depression wells that they currently are.

We will be instrumental in building these layers, filling in our world minecraft-like with a virtual paintbrush as we join other like-minded folk all over the world. If you're into flowing streams of lava and anguished cries of the damned, I am sure there will be an AR channel for you too. Ever wanted to take a selfie on the surface of another world? That could be your backyard. How you build it is up to you.

And after we're gone, as long as someone somewhere cares enough to save them, our memories will live on. Some may even be saved for posterity. "This here is Alex's Sunset."

On a more pragmatic note, virtual operating theatres will allow the best surgeons from across the globe to work together as if they were in one room. Meetings between heads of state could be conducted without the expense of flights and hotel rooms. Engineers could discuss important plans "in person", reducing the risk of costly or dangerous mistakes. There are a lot of useful primary benefits of the technology that will, as a result, totally transform the world as we know it.

There has been a lot of news lately about how scary technology can be. It's almost enough to make me want to unplug. But then I think about the good stuff that hasn't been done yet and I have hope that we as a species will face these current problems and find a way to move onwards and upwards into a better future.

We've done it before, we can do it again.