Taking the Net for granted

Employees and customers take photographs using mobile devices during the opening of the Apple Inc. Omotesando store in Tokyo, Japan, on Friday, June 13, 2014. Apple opened the company's third Tokyo store today. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg
Employees and customers take photographs using mobile devices during the opening of the Apple Inc. Omotesando store in Tokyo, Japan, on Friday, June 13, 2014. Apple opened the company's third Tokyo store today. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg (Bloomberg)
Posted: June 15, 2014

In four years, the Internet will start to disappear.

(Actually, it is already well on its way.)

Cisco's authoritative annual Visual Networking Index (VNI) - the company's forecast of who's going to buy what for their networking needs in the future - says that by 2018, about half of everyone on the Internet will connect via laptops and desktops (they still make those?), while the other half will connect via mobile devices, tablets, wearable technology, and other "Internet of things" stuff, like dog collars, thermostats, TVs, and cars. (By then, each car will have about four links.)

For the first time, most traffic will run through devices other than PCs. Nonmobile devices, desk and lap, will no longer be the "main" way we link. Wi-Fi traffic will surpass wired. HD will sprint past SD.

Sure doesn't sound like the Internet's going to disappear, does it?

Neither does this staggering projection: In the next five years, the total yearly Internet-provider traffic will triple, to 1.6 zettabytes. The prefix zetta denotes a factor of 1021 - yes, 21 zeroes. One and a half trillion gigabytes. In 2018 alone, there'll be more traffic than the total between 1984 and 2013.

So how can it be that the Internet will disappear?

It's not that the things we call the Web and the Internet will disappear. What will begin to fade is our consciousness of the Internet, our awareness it is "there," a thing about 40 percent of the rich, industrialized world engages repeatedly every day, all the time.

It'll be the Big Forget.

The Web/Net will be in our clothes, our appliances, our phones. Some of us, and our pets, will wear personal locator devices. Connectedness will become so much a part of our worlds we will not think about it.

Take the verb phrase to go on the Internet, as in "I'm going on the Internet" or "I have to go on the Internet." Still heard a lot as late as 2000 or 2001, it's a locution we don't hear much these days. Fading away. We're always on the Internet, many of us. We're more likely to say, "I went on Facebook" or "We saw it on Netflix" or "I got there on Google Maps" or "I heard it on Pandora" or "I sent him a text/video/photo/mp3." All "on the Internet."

Even "I just called" has changed. In 2000, the U.S. wired network peaked at 186 million landline phones. One hundred million of those are now gone. Around 40 percent of us make almost all our calls on broadband/mobile. We do not say, "I am calling on my mobile device via broadband." We just call .

When a technical innovation reaches everywhere, it becomes a flower in our mental wallpaper and is rarely remarked. Who ever says electric light now? (They sure did in 1880.) We would have spoken of a rayon shirt in 1920, but seldom today, because rayon, now cheaper than natural cotton, is everywhere, no big deal, not an exception but a rule. The Google Books NGram Viewer graphs frequency of word usage based on large numbers of printed sources. Invented in 1905, rayon wanders along until the postwar period, when it spikes, since such semisynthetic fabrics were much needed. But after that, as rayon went everyplace, the word's usage plummeted.  

Internet may already be declining. According to the Google NGram Viewer (bit.ly/1pgqfAI), usage of Internet peaked near 2002 and has been falling since.

 We habituate, to use that word exactly once, to our technology. As well we might. You tap a little box and get whisked right to Twitter, more aware of your ends (Twitter) than your means of "getting on" Twitter. For many, many uses, that means is already all but invisible.

Are there issues with the Big Forget? Oh, yes. So much will depend so heavily on the unspoken-of Internet that there'll be that much more for cyber-crooks, - pirates, -spies, and -idiots to steal or foul. Dependence carries other risks. In bad weather or natural disaster, landline phone networks are more dependable than either wireless or the electric grid. Does a "smart" house go dumb when the safety Net falls?

As tech systems become bigger and more sophisticated, they fail less frequently, but when they do, it's a doozy. (Remember the Northeast blackout of 2003?) When "the Net goes down," as it will from time to time, as of 2018 we will lose capacities we had taken for granted, many more than we have now. So we can either freak out - or be prepared, when outages hit, to return to those rough and tumble pioneer days of, say, 2004.


jt@phillynews.com

215-854-4406 @jtimpane

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