A computer-generated environment within which users can interact with one another and their surroundings, a virtual world; (more generally) the notional environment in which users of networked computers interact. — The Oxford English Dictionary’s Definition of “Metaverse”
Historical Confluences That Created the Web.
A recent article in TechCrunch proposed that Facebook’s Horizon could very well be the beginning of the end for the Web. Such arguments are not (necessarily) new to many of us who follow technology, especially older technologies. For example, it has been stated (repeatedly) that the death of the printed book is upon us. Gasp! Could this be true? No. In fact, traditionally and Indie published print books are outperforming digital (e)books by leaps and bounds. A publishing industry newsletter, The Hot Sheet, has explained in numerous issues that print, and not digital, publishing is carrying the industry. (An interesting article in The Guardian discusses this fascinating trend as well. Another great article in HuffPost offers some reasons why printed books are still popular.)
Like most arguments, the death of the Web argument is nothing new. Instead, we are seeing a rehashing of a rather old (and tiresome and lazy) argument. Although I don’t want to charge TechCrunch with sensationalism and offering clickbait instead of responsible (and well-thought) titles, the recent article does little more than add confusion over the nature of technological change. Moreover, the title itself is ignorant of how change really works, especially when it comes to the adoption and death of technologies. (Aside: I will admit, though, that TechCrunch’s article does indeed admit that Facebook Horizon is facing an uphill battle when it comes to developing the post-Web future. However, as I said above, the title is (essentially) clickbait.)
What the TechCrunch article’s title ignores are the historical confluences that led to the development, adoption, and subsequent ubiquity of the Web (especially in the Developed World). In other words, propositions, such as the one forwarded by the TechCrunch article’s title, are wholly ignorant of the historical conditions of possibility that brought about the Web as we know it today. Similar arguments, especially those concerning paperwork and printed books, are facing similar issues.
The Web, like many technologies, did not develop out of thin air, or from the midst of a lifeless vacuum. Instead, the Web, like the book, came into existence during a time in which it was needed, sought after, and/or the culmination or confluence of ideas and other (lesser) technologies. In other words, the Web, like the book, had its incunabular period — something used to describe early printed books — , a time period in which the Web developed from a fragile creature into the rather vibrant and problematic technology we all know and love (and hate) today.
A rather interesting argument concerning the surprising life of the book after calls for its death comes to mind here. I remember a book historian, who, I can’t remember now, but I will offer a link if I do remember, offering a rather salient reason as to why printed books hadn’t gone the way of the dodo. The book historian in question offered that print books came into common usage because they offered something society needed. Although many scholars have called for the death of the printed book, or the book altogether, they forget, according to the book historian in question, that society still requires printed books for certain need fulfillments. (A few years ago, HuffPost offered a discussion on numerous studies showing the benefits of printed books over the digital siblings.)
Will the Web die out? Eventually — sort of. Like many technologies, the Web will need to outlast its relevance to our society before it becomes a static (dead) historical artifact. Many technologies usually stick around, despite newer (and better) technologies coming along. Don’t believe me? Consider this. We still have couriers that deliver packages, documents, etc. We still have landline phones. We still have fax machines. We still have printed books. We still have paperwork, despite the promises for a paperwork-free office space. Although technologies, and, yes, I meant technologies, like Facebook’s Horizon, might revolutionize the way we connect, develop products, and the like, it is unlikely that Horizon will be the death of the Web. We are unlikely to be seeing the post-Web era any time soon. In fact, the opposite is probably true. Despite being referred to as a metaverse or as a version of Ready Player One’s OASIS, Horizon is simply a continuation of Web-based technologies. Instead of killing the Web, it could, very well, be ushering the Web into a new era. The best example of this would be Shovel Ready, where the author explores a tiered-Internet system. This new Web model creates some interesting questions (something I discuss below).
Walled-Gardens (or Metaverses) and Cyberbalkanization.
The Internet is broken — and it needs to be fixed, and soon.
What happens to the Internet will be determined by international politics, economic incentives, corporate interests, and domestic policies of countries from China to the United States and even Malaysia (and beyond). The Internet, as we know it today, is in danger of becoming a collection of walled-gardens due to the corporatization (and balkanization) of the Web itself. Moreover, the Web is likely to exist in a sort of balkanized state, especially with the advent of the Great Firewall of China (and there are others across the globe), where parts of the Web are isolated from the seedier and politically problematic portions. These are troubling developments, but many companies, including Netflix, Google, and Facebook are seeing unique business opportunities, despite calling for an open and free Internet in public forums.
The wall-gardens, although good business deals for larger corporations, would kill collaboration, international communication, and the Internet as we know it for individuals and smaller companies. Remember AOL? Yeah, who thought AOL would be a relevant example in today’s world? AOL provided a sort of walled-garden ecosystem during the early days of the Internet. Walled-gardens are fairly simple in their approach. They attempt to keep users within the confines of the garden, especially when it comes to messaging, forums, entertainment, news, etc. Starting to sound familiar? We are seeing the return of such walled-gardens with tech giants like Facebook, Google, etc. Netflix is a sort of wall-garden, where we go to that particular service and stay within it for all of our entertainment needs. It is designed to keep us there, to keep us content. Just imagine, what would happen if Netflix became your go-to for Internet service, social media, entertainment, and the like? We are already seeing this with Facebook. Before I left Facebook back in January (2019), Facebook was my go-to for entertainment, communication, connection, gaming, news, and so (so) much more.
Cyberbalkanization, a term I discovered here on Medium, depicts an Internet where nation-states (and other interested parties) control and break up the Web for various reasons. These include censorship, to protect IP, and even protect against militarized cyberweapons. China is already doing this, to some extent, with its Great Firewall. The United States has attempted to censor Websites for copyright and trademark violations. Companies offer safe havens for like-minded groups hostile toward their polar opposites. My personal favorite, and a total failure, was a conservative knockoff of Facebook. (And, yes, there are numerous conservative-friendly social media sites popping still.)
Although the open Web is in serious trouble, the technology itself is going to be here for some time. With walled-gardens making a comeback and cyberbalkanization sweeping across the Web, the openness we (mostly) cherish about the Web could be coming to an end. We could be living during the last moments of a truly open (and free-ish) Web. That could be both horrifying and yet offer interesting possibilities for consumers, governments, and companies.
Below I have offered at least four potential trends that could be seen facing the future Web. These trends are not comprehensive and some will (likely) overlap:
The Web is divvied up between different (hostile groups). This is pursued as a business model by larger companies looking to turn a profit on political polarization. Moreover, governments are interested in this for various reasons, including protecting IP, copyrights, trademarks, securing infrastructure, and isolating their populations from politically problematic content (among other things).
With the demise of a truly open and free(ish) Web, large corporations, privately owned or even government-operated, could sell walled-garden ecosystems to their customers. These walled-gardens are starting to take place again, despite the decline of AOL. These walled-gardens include Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and many others. The idea behind this is to create an ecosystem that users don’t feel the need to leave. They will spend most of their time in this ecosystem. I see Facebook’s Horizon as providing state-of-the-art walled-garden to consumers.
This idea was inspired by my reading of Shovel Ready, a cyberpunk novel. In Shovel Ready, the Internet, as we know it today, still exists, but on top of that, there is a flashier, more expensive and data-heavy Internet. The idea reminds me of certain hierarchies that exist in the United States, and elsewhere, already. Hierarchies in medical care, for example. Those with more money have access to greater medical advancements, treatments, and technologies. The same would go for the Web. Those with money will be able to pay to play on (say) the future OASIS.
The High-Bandwidth Web.
This vision assumes that bandwidth usage, especially high-level bandwidth usage, will become cheaper and more ubiquitous. In other words, it assumes that governments and corporations across the globe take the issues we are facing today on the Web more seriously. The high-bandwidth Web assumes that the Internet as we know it will become more and more sophisticated with time. That means Websites like Facebook could (very well) turn into portals that users could access from across the globe. These portals would be content havens, where entertainment, news, collaboration, communication, etc. would coexist. This vision also assumes a sort of marketplace of portals, competing against one another for customers.