A corollary of the maxim on historical memory--those who forget mistakes are doomed to repeat them--is that the best way to go forward is to look back--if not at missed alternatives, then at least at the path taken.

 

Will 2014 be a turning point in the future of the internet? Let's review a few points of reference to put the question in context for those who someday might look back.

 

First point: As a context for Facebook's recent acquisition of the WhatsApp messaging service for $19 billion, CEO Mark Zuckerberg tells us in a white paper that his outlook on adding another 5 billion users to Facebook assumes connectivity for global citizens should be "a human right". "The knowledge economy is the future," says Zuckerberg. "By bringing everyone online, we’ll not only improve billions of lives, but we’ll also improve our own as we benefit from the ideas and productivity they contribute to the world."

 

Delivering remarks to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this month, Zuckerberg describes his plan as providing "a dial tone for the internet"; guaranteed access to carrier infrastructure that enables meaningful connectivity in the knowledge economy over a phone. If you have a phone, then you'll have basic access to the internet in terms of "text-based services [(messaging, social networks, search)] and very simple apps like weather".

 

Second point: In a 2014 DC Court of Appeals ruling on Verizon's case against the Federal Communications Commission, Judge David S.Tatel wrote that:

Given that the commission has chosen to classify broadband providers in a manner that exempts them from treatment as common carriers, the Communications Act expressly prohibits the commission from nonetheless regulating them as such.

 

The FCC has three basic rules for guaranteeing an open internet: transparency, no blocking, and no reasonable discrimination. These rules apply to all carriers. Since the FCC defines broadband providers as dealing in "information services" Tatel's majority opinion suspends the open internet rules for carriers that provide broadband services.

 

Of course the FCC need only reclassify broadband providers as carriers and the open internet rules would again immediately apply. So far they have not done it. And in the meantime, carriers are aggressively moving to exploit the difference between "common carrier" and "broadband provider," establishing different classes of broadband traffic with different costs. The big elephant in the room is the proposed merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast; it would create a company that services a full third (33 million) of broadband subscribers in the US; aggressive commercializing of the rate at which data flows to and from such a large base of consumers would be almost impossible to prevent without very clear FCC regulations.

 

Since robber baron maneuvers of carriers have very wide and fundamental implications for access to the knowledge economy, one would expect Zuckerberg and the internet.org would oppose them. Yet in talking about the program to inclusively guarantee the human right of connectivity to current internet users and the billions of currently unwired people, Zuckerberg promotes the idea of up-selling data services to the minimally connected. A (cynical?) image of Zuckerberg's plan could be a large impoverished crowd of people given a little space before an enormous bakery window that pushes out intoxicating wafts to them through tiny holes.

 

Third point: Remember that scene in Minority Report (2002) in which a commercialized public pedestrian passage personally appeals to the main character as he passes through? While the scene's face recogntion technology may imply a ubiquitous computing grid, we can't tell how that grid of the imagined world of 2054 combines public and private services. Does the consumer, John Anderton, receive personalized ads based on data services to which he subscribes? Or does he receive them because vendors pay the owner of the computing infrastructure for Anderton's attention, and Anderton himself doesn't pay to block them?

 

In either case, that Anderton wears no computing device that could refuse the probing of face/iris recognition devices or otherwise negotiate the ads suggests an important implausibility in what Minority Report shows us. Though Google Glass may encounter resistance to its wearable computing technology, our ever-increasingly mediated culture foretells that resistance to wearables (and implants too in the long run) will be futile.

 

Since envisioning is the first step in making new technology real, the blurry edges and omissions of popular depictions of the future have value for choices of innovation in the present. And it may not be just a darkly ironic open question as to the details of the computing grid and user recognition technology that might be in play for John Andertons in the actual 2054.