Why Eric Schmidt's connected future isn't a total pipedream

The internet's going to get awfully crowded

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Eric Schmidt is a great man for making predictions. Remember his 2011 prediction that, by mid 2012, "the majority of the televisions you see in stores will have Google TV embedded in [them]", or his promise that by the same date the majority of developers would code for Android first, not iOS?

So perhaps we should take his latest one with a pinch of salt too. By the end of the decade, Schmidt reckons, "everyone on earth will be connected."

He's wrong, of course - by the end of the decade significant numbers of people still won't have access to clean water or adequate nutrition, let alone mobile data connections, and infrastructure will remain a problem for many parts of the world for many years to come - but he's making bold statements as part of a publicity campaign for his new book, so of course he's over-egging it somewhat.

In fact, some of Schmidt's words would work just as well for a Schmidt parody Twitter account - the bit where he writes "In Tunisia we met with former revolutionaries. After ousting longtime dictator Ben Ali, they decided to channel their energy toward becoming Android developers" had me laughing like a drain - but his basic argument is sound enough: over the next few years billions of people will get online, and that's going to have far-reaching consequences.

Waiting for the crackdown

Schmidt's book doesn't just portray technology as a beautiful freedom fighter: while phones and internet-enabled devices can be enormous forces for good, technology can also be used by repressive regimes. As Schmidt points out, "everything a regime would need to build an incredibly intimidating digital police state - including software that facilitates data mining and real-time monitoring of citizens - is commercially available right now."

And regimes don't need to be repressive to crack down on online freedom: right now in Japan, ISPs are being ordered to block the Tor anonymity service as part of a crackdown on cybercrime, and in the UK it seems we've narrowly escaped legislation that would regulate what bloggers can print online.

What's really interesting about Schmidt's 2020 prediction is that we only really know one thing, which is that in seven years time the internet population will have doubled or even tripled. What we don't know is whether that future internet will be a good internet or a bad one, a global network where everybody's equal or a collection of loosely connected, heavily policed national or trans-national networks.

The reason we don't know is because, of course, internet years are like dog years: seven years into the future is an impossibly long time away.

Seven years ago we didn't have iPhones, Android or Kindles, nobody knew what Twitter was, everybody was running Windows XP and global internet penetration was 16 per cent. Internet penetration's at 41 per cent now and we're heading towards not just an internet of people, but an internet of things.

If you thought the last seven years were a rollercoaster, you'd better fasten your seatbelt.