The Future Internets That Never Happened

NICK DOUGLAS — "A new company is paving the way for a more automated Internet," shouts the New York Times. Oh god. New internets are like perpetual motion machines: they get "invented" all the time, but you'll never find a working model. Here are the most famous, including Cyberspace, the Semantic Web, and Bruce Sterling's Magical Spime World.

Bill Gates' Road Ahead
Now here's a punch in the face. Microsoft's founder predicted a world of "wallet PCs" that could make everyday transactions, hold personal info, and work as little phone-computers in his 1995 book The Road Ahead. The book came with a CD-ROM, which included video of people using these wallet PCs to, say, pay for ice cream in the park.

Gates was looking for a version of convergence, the idea that technologies will meet and the gadgets we carry around will take over each other's functions until one convergent device can do everything. That's arguably what happened with the desktop computer, which can mix sound and video, send letters, calculate budgets, and all those other things John Hodgman and Justin Long do in the Mac ads.

Gates figured all this activity would take place on MSN, Microsoft's network (which included Hotmail and MSN Messenger). But then came the internet, in which Microsoft is just another player. Meanwhile, phones have gotten cameras, media players and internet access, making them the convergent device. And the most sublime of the smartphones? The Apple iPhone, a media-playing wifi-enabled computer-that-happens-to-be-a-phone made by Gates's nemesis Steve Jobs. The bonus: Apple's iPhone will use applications from Microsoft's other big competitors, Google and Yahoo. [Background]

The Semantic Web
The granddaddy of stillborn internets, the Semantic Web was supposed to be machine-readable, so that computers as well as humans could understand relationships between information. This would rescue humans from the tasks of categorizing and searching for data.

This involved a lot of "metadata," which is now enriching Web 2.0 sites (see below) thanks to — wait for it — humans categorizing and searching for data. Flickr tags, Facebook relationships, MySpace favorites — these all in some way fulfill the dream of the semantic web. [Background]

Cyberspace
One conceit of hacker sci-fi (and the Hollywood movies that dumbed it down) was that the internet would become a virtual world full of hip hackers wrangling with metaphorically represented data. Author William Gibson dubbed it "cyberspace" in his book Neuromancer.

The problem is that hackers enjoy the exact opposite: typing white text on black screens. The closest anyone's come is Second Life, a virtual world that mainly gets hacked through replicating objects. Methinks the sci-fi authors of ages past weren't hoping for flying dick attacks. [Cyberspace]

Bruce Sterling's Magical Spime World
Sci-fi author Bruce Sterling coined the term "spime," meaning an object that can be tracked through space and time thanks to embedded technology. The best way to visualize it is like this: Imagine googling "Where are my shoes?" and getting an answer. (I blogged one of Sterling's spime speeches last year at the SXSW conference.) Sterling may seem like the L. Ron Hubbard of futurism by buying into his own sci-fi, but give him another decade or two. RFID technology could make spimes a reality. [Background]

Web 2.0
Okay, Web 2.0 — the collaborative iteration of the web that lets users treat it like a platform, as explained by tech publisher Tim O'Reilly — only "never happened" in the sense that philosopher Jean Baudrillard said, "The Gulf War did not take place." Web 2.0 is not being built so much as it is evolving out of Web 1.0 as site-makers make their tools more sophisticated and internet users fill it with content.

Also like the Gulf War, reporters are mucking up the history of Web 2.0. The companies making Web 2.0 possible aren't just Flickr and its partners in a Newsweek cover story. Sites like Craigslist, Metafilter, and thousands of internet forums have been doing this stuff since the 90s. And what internet nerd didn't have a Geocities homepage back in the day? Other Web 1.0 sites have "upgraded" too: Amazon now uses tagging, wikis, and an ecosystem of commenters to add value to its sale pages. [Background]