In its short life, the internet has gone through a number of geological ages. Terms like “Net 2.0” have been coined to place markers on these transition points. Another one is starting to make its rounds, and unlike most of its predecessors it is coined more from a sense of foreboding than hope. The new term is “splinternet.”
The concern expressed by the term is this: that the internet’s development is so multi-directional, not only in terms of the types of software and coding standards used, but in the development of physical technologies that interface with them, that the internet is going to essentially “break apart.” Instead of being a cohesive whole, the internet is going to “splinter” into small islands that can only easily communicate with each other, goes the theory.
Sounds like scary stuff, doesn’t it? It might be if it were grounded in a rational worry. It is not.
Break the word down
One way to make the case that this isn’t a problem is to look at the word itself. “Splinternet” is actually a generalized term to refer to a number of changes that affect only part of the internet. This may make them seem similar enough to describe with a single term, but like the word “sanction,” which has come to mean essentially opposite things (to allow and to penalize), these changes actually cancel each other out. In doing so, they reveal the concept’s underlying contradiction.
The first of these changes we’ve discussed here at length: that is the proliferation of different, for lack of a better term, “speakers” and “listeners” (broader, a bit than “output” and “input”). The “speakers” can be referred to as anything which is part of the process of creating and transmitting the data. This would include operating systems at all levels, data encoders and anything which sends this data out, like a video camera. “Listeners” would include anything which accepts the data and does something with it. This would include web browsers or any similar data translating environment, and just about all hardware. Most software would probably fit into both categories.
The fear, in a nutshell, is that companies are moving towards making speakers and listeners that only understand each other, forcing customers into little pocket islands of communication. The response, in a nutshell, is that this is an absurd worry.
There will never be a single standard. And that’s good.
This fear is refuted by the fact that this worry has existed already for decades and has never come to fruition. Apple and Microsoft, two of the biggest offenders in this category, are famous for trotting out new standards that don’t play well with others. Sometimes these developments do successfully push users to them. Other times they push users to create things like Linux. Still other times, they push users to create things on Linux that work with Windows. No company has ever had success at making the entire internet bend exactly to their will on a whim.
Furthermore, the very problem that we are complaining about we are also helping to create. If you create “standards,” then by their nature you run the risk of giving inordinate power to whoever is responsible for maintaining them. One commentator addressing this problem noted that “Google works because it is standardized.” Well, not everyone wants Google to find them, something we’ll discuss more in a second.
You can’t complain on one hand that companies like Microsoft have too much power, and then on the other that Google doesn’t have enough. Insisting on standards means that you are eventually going to have a single authority in control of them. Single authorities are not what the internet is about.
This brings us to the second definition of the word.
More than one way to skin a Splinter
The other definition of the term refers to a more traditional problem: that of countries imposing their own restrictions on the internet, usually to keep out disallowed content. As an example, Wikipedia reports that “digital content available to U.K. citizens via the BBC’s iPlayer is ‘increasingly unavailable to Germans.'” I’ll pause for a second to give you a moment to discover the flaw you get when you put this problem together with the previous one.
Answer: make another player. If you are in Germany, and you want something that you can’t get through iPlayer, there are other media streamers. The web has “splintered”, you see. In fact, Wikipedia also reports that “many people outside the UK circumvent that rule by buying a virtual private network account with an IP address located in the UK.” I have a friend who moved to China who said that he’s able to regularly jump over the Great Firewall.
There’s also a flip side to this that if we thought for a second about, we would quietly cheer. One of the “problems” that has been mentioned in association with this splintering is that marketers are going to have a much harder time figuring out how to play the system to get maximum bang for their buck. As one who remembers the internet pre-advertising, I have to ask how bad this is. For those of you small businesses out there, it doesn’t mean that advertising will become impossible. It will just mean that you’ll have to put thought into who you reach, and how. Again, this is a bad thing?
We choose standards. They don’t choose us.
The premises behind the worries about the “splinternet” are simply flawed. The inability of the internet to come up with a single set of rules that every last person plays by is its beauty. No one ever guaranteed that everything on the internet would be equally available and equally accessible to all people at all times by all methods. In fact, by definition of the internet’s construct, it’s impossible.
Ways of being on the internet have come and gone, and will continue to do so. A long view of it has shown that every problem spawned a solution, even if sometimes it took all of a year or two. The strength of the internet isn’t that we’re all the same. It is that we’re all different, but we’re all connected by a web, which we can come and go from as we please