VICE Future Week

The Future of the Internet

By Sam Clements

Did you know you can already wi-fi-enable your plant? It’s so it can contact you on your phone when it needs to be watered or requires more sunlight. Maybe one day it’ll also contact you when it’s feeling a bit lonely and glum. Prepare to have to deal with your inanimate objects, because very soon they’ll all be bitching at you; everything from a microwave to an electric razor will be as needy as a fucking Tamagotchi, and I bet whoever designs the things will give them the ability to pester you with emoticons.

“A washing machine already has a computer in it," Simon Gill of marketing and technology agency LBI told me. "The difference was that, say, ten years ago, it was just about looking after the washing machine. In the future, it'll be connected to the internet, so will know how many washes you’ve made and the weight of those washes, and you’ll be able to turn it off and on remotely. If you look at the modern home, they’ll just be everywhere and they’ll be doing things we don’t even realise.”

This technology won’t just be in our appliances, it’ll be embedded into everything we do and everything we interact with. We’ll be able to control and monitor everything we own, which will totally freak out anyone who is currently above legal drinking age. The things we wear, the food we eat, where we go and what we buy will be amalgamated and provide a wealth of detailed information about ourselves. It’s the digitally revised road to self-discovery, and the chances are it will be impossible not to discover how much you hate yourself for filling your gut with bad food and evenings with shitty TV.

It’s not just the byte-sized information of your home appliances that will be giving advertisers a steamy wet dream, either. Their job – to sell you stuff you don't already have – revolves around alerting you to just how unfulfilled you already are. In the near future, their vast databases will be able to analyse your internet usage to better exploit your most intimate feelings of limp inadequacy.

Regardless of what you're doing online – even if you spend all day funding charitable creative projects on kickstarter and researching highfalutin PhD theses – you are a crop that the corporations can frequently plough, harvesting every lucrative morsel of information they can find. This includes, but is not limited to, the exact timing of every woman’s menstrual cycle, which advertisers can pinpoint just by analysing the shopping you order on Ocado.


The world's internet usage.

“There’s a story in Australia about how this guy went mental at a shop because they were sending his daughter pregnancy brochures. The thought being: if you buy four specific products, it’s likely that you’re pregnant," Gill told me. "It turns out that they'd profiled her purchases and had figured out she was pregnant long before the father did, which was all based on trends from other people applied back to this girl. So, actually, marketers really can work out a lot about us."

Marketing men knowing your teenage daughter's pregnant before you do: welcome to the future of the internet.

The industry is able to track our every movement online, seeing which websites we visit, what products we buy and where we click through to after that. Gradually, advertising will be based around our GPS location and services will tie all this information together into one huge panoptic database, allowing companies to offer you products you don't even know you need yet – haemorrhoid cream, for example.

“It may be a service using Bluetooth that detects when you’re nearby and has access to a database that has your location history, so they know where you’ve been, where you’re likely to go based on previous habits, your web browsing habits, your consumption habits and maybe even your shopping habits. All of that data is worth a huge amount of money to those companies,” Rik Ferguson, from internet security firm Trend Micro, told me.

All of this is because we do everything from our phones – mobile computers that have conveniently condensed all the different technologies we use into one trackable entity. But the smartphone wouldn’t have come about without the internet; it’s the reason why all of these gadgets exist. Well, that and the Chinese slave labour assembling them in Foxconn factories. As the net gradually amasses more and more of the world’s population online, it’s creating a pulsating and throbbing digital entity, where we will continue to become more like Star Trek's Borgs, functioning as drones of the hive.


Tech enthusiasts of the 80s, including father of wearable computing, Steve Mann.

“The first thing that young people do if they want to do up a tie is go online and look at how to do it. It’s not something you learn from your family or your dad any more, it’s something you learn from the internet. To some extent, that’s kind of turning us into a literal Borg collective,” Amber Case, a cyborg anthropologist, told me. “We all have the ability to be connected and we all have this hive-mind going on. When something happens – the death of Michael Jackson, say – everyone across the world can almost instantaneously understand that it happened without really talking to each other.”

When you look at it like that, it becomes clear that the internet is basically a mass of the same actions and reactions; its users a swarm of bees concerned with being aware of the most up-to-date information as possible before some new story takes over. Look at how everyone instantly tweets about the same news story and how hacktivists combine to attack a target together – it’s a massive digital nest, a global society acting like one collective entity.

But when it comes to integrating ourselves further into the internet, Amber believes that, although there’s an argument that we'll inevitably become full-blown cyborgs, we will avoid invasive technology and instead opt for wearable tech. Implants are permanent fixtures to the body, so if you thought that being bombarded with weekend work emails was irritating, imagine having those all sent directly to an implant in your brain. 

Amber continued: “I think technology will get closer and closer to us, reducing the time and space it takes to do an action like take a photo, share something or get a piece of information. And, in doing so, we will become more and more Borg-like. We won’t look like Borgs, but you will have these devices that retreat in size and increase in power.”


The BrainGate chip, implanted into brains to help with the use of prosthetic limbs.

As the internet increasingly becomes a virtual extension of ourselves, the gadgets we use to access the net have become a measurement of our value. Not in the sense of bitching about people wearing Crocs in a Facebook status, but how we react to new devices that people use to access the web. They reflect how connected and current we are. So, while vintage style may always have its disciples, don't expect to see anyone but the most luddite cupcake idiot "rediscovering" the charms of a 1930s typewriter. 

“Unlike the Star Trek Borgs, who are very scary-looking, we have very well-designed prosthetics. If you look at phone adverts nowadays, they’re almost like car ads. The car is a physical extension of yourself, a phone is a mental extension of yourself, and all these electronics and prosthetics now make us sexier. If you have an old phone, it turns against you. If you have a new phone, people can tell what demographic you belong to. There will be two tribes of people: those who are really interested in technology and those who just don’t want to use it.”

While there might be this extended mass of interconnected Borgs communicating and sharing on one level of the internet, Rik also suggests that the net may break into tiers. As desperate governments move in to clamp down on cyber crime, a sanitised net for the masses – who may have to register for an internet license – will be born, followed by separate factions that will be populated with rebels, techies and cyber criminals.

“There’s a lot of disagreement in whether people should have an internet license, which would allow for tracking of who's using the internet and what they're using it for. But, of course, if you’re a criminal, you’re not going to simply accept that you have to become traceable, so you'll take your chances. So we’re definitely talking about a two-tier internet at that point, or possibly even a three-tier internet – the accessible, everyday internet for normal people, the undernet – where there’s an internet that piggybacks on the legitimate one but is used without consent – and perhaps a hidden equivalent of today’s dark web.”

Besides the fact that everything you do online might be monitored in the near future, another great piece of news is that the tools for spewing out spam or DDOS-attacks on websites are becoming incredibly easy to use. People are making and selling idiot-proof kits that allow novices to start a new life of cyber crime – kind of like flying an aeroplane with a PlayStation controller. In years to come, we could all moonlight as digital scammers. Something that – compared to street crime – is far more profitable and much easier to get away with.

“It’s certainly perceived as a lower-risk crime, that’s for sure,” Rik told me. “Another long-term trend is that the skill and financial necessities are much lower. You don’t need to know much and you don’t need to spend much in order to get started. But now all of the criminal tools are very much designed as point-and-click interfaces, so the skill barriers of entry to the world of cyber crime are gone.”

Maybe physical crimes will slowly evaporate as the risk-reward ratio is displaced online. Underground markets no longer act as just a local Walmart for cyber crooks, but places like Silk Road on the Tor network offer the purchase of drugs, weapons and anything else illegal from conventional crooks. If drug barons are already onto the tricks of internet anonymity, it won't be long before the masses catch on.  

Follow Sam on Twitter: @sambobclements

Illustration by Marta Parszeniew.

More from VICE Future Week:

Things That Need to Die Before British Culture Can Move Forwards 

The Future of Drugs

The Future of Guitar Music

The Future of Crime

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