The early days of the Internet were akin to the myth of the Wild West. There was no rule of law. First tens then hundreds and eventually thousands of little experiments were running simultaneously. Some experiments attracted users and flourished, other experiments failed to attract users and floundered. It didn’t matter much because it didn’t require a lot of capital to put a server online.
Some of the successful experiments became more and more successful. Their success allowed the to push out or buy up their competitors. Overtime they turned into multimillion and even multibillion dollar websites. Slowly but surely much of the Internet was centralized into a handful of silos. Much like the Wild West of mythology, the Internet gradually became domesticated and restricted.
There’s nothing unique about the story of the Internet. New frontiers have a tendency to slowly become “civilized.” The rule of law is established. Restrictions are put into place. The number of experiments continue to approach zero. However, “civilization” is never the end of experimentation. Experimenters simply need to move to a new frontier.
Innovation slows to a crawl and can even stop entirely without frontiers. The Internet is mostly “civilized” at this point. A handful of successful experiments such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google exercise a tremendous amount of control. With a simple statement they can make or break other experiments and amplify or silence voices. Moreover, the rule of law has been established by various national governments and they will only tighten their grips. In order for innovation to continue on the Internet, the next frontier must be explored.
Fortunately, there are several frontiers. The most popular are “darknets,” networks that bake anonymity in by default. If clients and servers are unable to identify each others’ locations, they can’t enforce rules on one another. Other frontiers are mesh networks. While mesh networks are able to access the Internet, they are also able to operate independently. Being decentralized, it’s far more difficult to enact widespread censorship on a mesh network than on the traditional Internet whose users depend on a handful of Internet Service Providers (ISP) for their connection. But the most exciting frontiers are the ones that remain entirely unexplored.
Of course the cycle will repeat itself. The next frontier will become “civilized,” which is why there must always be a new frontier if innovation is to continue.