Most of us take for granted that the future can be extrapolated from the present and the recent past, and, that the future is based on a narrative of expanding borders and scientific progress, growing economic prosperity and human wellbeing. The place of the Internet in the world of tomorrow is by default taken to be ”it’s current role +1”.
Some take this notion to the extreme and propose that we will soon (within a few decades) colonize the asteroids, create computers that are smarter than humans, be able to download our minds into silicon and live forever, or alternatively to repair our bodies and have them last for a thousand years or longer (Kurzweil 2005, de Gray and Rae 2007, More 2010). These ideas seem hyperbolic and strange to most of us, but the less outlandish notion of scientific and economic progress in small incremental steps forever, or at least for a (very) long time into the foreseeable future is on the other hand part the ”operating system” of modern societies. A world of possibilities is a world where 3G (2001) mobile phone services are followed by 4G systems (2011-2013) and ubiquitous information services, and then by 5G systems (≈ 2020) and more advanced services, and presumably later by 6G systems and 7G systems. The recent financial crisis, with its economic fallout still being felt in many rich (or ”indebted”) countries, is interpreted as a temporary setback in a world economy slated to again pick up speed within the next few years.
This narrative of endless possibilities can be contrasted with a competing narrative of humanity now facing non-negotiable limitations. According to the competing and equally grand narrative, humanity now finds itself at a breaking point, facing several concurrent crises (climate, environment, economy, energy, resources, food, water), together demanding totally new ways of thinking about the future (Meadows, Randers and Meadows 2004, Jackson 2009, Rubin 2009, Greer 2009, Heinberg & Lerch 2010, Fallon & Douthwaite 2011). From now on, technological change will not only switch gears, but will more importantly change direction. Technology and other societal structures will ”collapse” in the sense that societal and technological complexity will decrease over time (Tainter 1988, Diamond 2005). This will primarily be an effect of 1) energy (fossil fuels) becoming more scarce/expensive in combination with 2) financial and economic problems mounting in a no-growth or shrinking world economy. These two forces, acting together and strengthening each other, will lead to a breakdown in the assessments of risks and concomitant rising costs of acquiring capital and servicing debt, fluctuations in price, and the cost of production and transportation steadily increasing over time, exerting stress on the modern globalized high-tech, high-energy regime. In many areas (for example food, energy provisioning, low-tech), complex supply chains and just-in-time delivery will be replaced by simpler, less complex and more energy-stingy national, regional or local solutions.
So what if the place of the Internet in tomorrow’s world is not to be found in today’s high-tech, high-energy, high-maintenance and highly specialized research laboratories, or even in today’s ubiquitous access to connectivity and computing resources? What if previews of tomorrow’s widespread use of computers and the Internet instead are more fruitfully to be searched for among the young, the poor and the marginalized and in less affluent environments such as low-income communities (Dillahunt et. al. 2009), among homeless young American’s use of personal digital technologies (Woelfer and Hendry 2010, Woelfer and Hendry 2011), or among the poorest Internet users in Mexico (Wang and Brown 2011, Contreras Montero 2012)?
This paper sketches out what a world of limitations could mean in a context of access and use of computing resources. The purpose is not to predict the future, but rather to question taken-for-granted “truths” and to open up new vistas of thought as well as to outline under-researched areas that are of relevance to a post-collapse computing paradigm.