Web 2.0 Techno utopian types love their earthy metaphors. The web is a new planet that's being "terraformed" before our eyes, one advertising consultant likes to say. Or the "web is a garden", if you believe Sun Microsystem's director of research.
Even my overgrown garden doesn't have something like this lurking in the corner, and I hope there isn't such a horror in yours.
But enough with the hot-tub psycho babble. The future of computer networks is both a lot more promising and a lot more ominous than anything you'll hear at the "Web 2.0" conference in San Francisco this week, where some of the web's horticulturists will be gathering for an evangelical uplift.
There's every reason to be optimistic, now in 2005, that computer networks can begin to fulfill their potential. They can even start to be really useful - but it's only by dispensing with such utopian nonsense - so we can really begin to see what these tools can do for us. Here's a reality-based guide to what's happening - and if you hear a futurist omit more than one of these in a presentation, send them to the Exit toot-sweet, with a firm smack on the backside.
1. I for one welcome SkypeBay and GoogleNet, our new corporate overlords!
The Web has become so synonymous with inter-networking that people forget what we really have is a variety of computer networks of different kinds. The most popular messaging software in the world runs on one of these closed networks: it's called SMS.
In the 1990s, people found it useful to think of One Internet because thinking of a single, unitary computer network appeared to imbue the technology with its own agency and purpose. The One Internet is popular with today's Californian hive mind set, who view technology as a short-cut around all kinds of messy social and political problems - and that's the thinking behind Web 2.0 utopianism, too.
But out in the real world, it doesn't work like this. Limits are invariably imposed on technology by economic or social factors. For example, the reason dark fiber isn't exploited, and that we don't have terrific gigabit speed ISPs here in the US (after billions of dollars were invested laying the fibre) is simple. It's because a) it isn't economic for a private company to exploit it - there's no money in it - and b) because there isn't a consensus for the state to subsidize their operation, either. In South Korea, where government directs capital more explicitly, things are different, and you can see a tentative change in attitude to this here, with the growth of the Muni Wi-Fi movement. Limits are also imposed because the public finds a technology unpalatable: nuclear power and GM food are good examples. The only sure thing is that limits are, eventually, imposed.
In the last month, even the most utopian of Californian technology evangelists have begun to realize that the ugly reality behind the economics can't be wished away. Google may be embarking on owning a network infrastructure of its own, and eBay splashed out $2bn on VoIP leader Skype.
Fifteen years ago, the rights holders were told that it would soon be possible for secure, and reliable and speedy delivery of content to people's homes - Video on Demand. Instead the internet came along, which was anything but secure, reliable and speedy. The Wintel lobby jumped to the front of the queue, elbowing aside the consumer electronics manufacturers, and said "Sure! We can build it for you!"
And the impasse has existed ever since. Few people would have objected if a zero-cost box alongside your VCR allowed you to choose one of 50,000 movies tonight. The rights holders still want to this, only by borking your computer. People quite rightfully responded with, "Get the hell out of my PC!"
One is an acceptable balance, the other isn't. Maybe GoogleNet thinks can succeed where everyone on the open, PC-centric internet has failed. We shall see, but we know a lot of people are going to keep trying.
So last week, even Supernova conference organizer and deregulation advocate Kevin Werbach noted the trend, with some disquiet:
"The threat of vertical integration from the bottom of the stack has been with us since the earliest days of the commercial Internet. Now, surprisingly, it may be coming from the top as well," wrote Kevin in a post entitled More thoughts on the fragmenting Internet.
"I just can't help thinking that we're moving away from the common platform that defined the Internet for the past decade, and we haven't really examined what that will mean."