The Internet of Information: Ends and Beginnings

A useful but somewhat unsatisfying definition of “information” is that it is anything that reduces uncertainty.

For some time I have found myself thinking about the conditions under which the internet–I”ll define it here as a worldwide information-sharing network–might wither away substantially, or even disappear from recognition.

Those thoughts have only accelerated for me as it appears that the internet, in its contemporary form, is becoming an ever-more parasitic on itself. ChatGPT, which was likely produced through large-scale bulk collection of as much of the internet as possible, is only the latest version of this trend. There is more incentive than ever to capture information on both the intake side–through super-dominant platforms that host the great majority of the world’s new information that enters the internet each day–and on the archival and retrieval side–where ever-more information is “read” by bots and metadata collection agencies. On the 2024 internet, web activity by bots and automated tools is almost evenly split with the traffic generated by actual humans.

Yes, this network of interconnected smaller networks known as the internet is likely to be kept around as long as possible, since it is has a lot of uses (many of them lucrative) to so many. This is the infrastructure internet, the network that connects things for its own sake, because it is always potentially useful to be able to send a message to a faraway place.

By objective measures the internet is still growing at a considerable year-over-year pace. But is the amount of information on the internet still growing?

The internet took on a new life when it became a series of interconnected documents. When I write “document” here, I don’t just mean text in any specific format (although a lot of early internet documents were in fact plain text). Instead I mean document in the most abstract sense: a unit of information. Information rarely stands alone; it is always based on prior efforts to know or establish something, if only implicitly. Therefore any document owes its existence to others which came before it. The internet can be thought of as an attempt to make as many documents–information–visible and “on the map,” to make the relationship between information units explicit–and to foster the creation of new connections that would not have been otherwise created.

The typical internet growth chart begins in 1990, near the time when Tim Berners-Lee’s research group implemented a version of hypertext for linking documents into a single network. In a 1999 reflection on the fast-maturing internet, Berners-Lee recounts the type of general relationship that he wanted to create with hypertext:

So long as I didn’t introduce some central link database everything would scale nicely. There would be no special nodes, no special links. Any node would be able to link to any other node. This would give the system the flexibility that was needed, and be key to a universal system. The abstract document space it implied could contain every single item of information accessible over networks–and all the structure and linkages between them.

Hypertext would be most powerful if it could conceivably point to absolutely anything. Every node, document–whatever it was called–would be fundamentally equivalent in some way. Each would have an address by which it could be referenced. They would all exist together in the same space–the information space.1

Berners-Lee strove for a decentralized document network: everything could be linked to everything else only because there was no priority between the units. The intention to decentralize the network points to a curious feature of this model: it is a network with infinite extent (links can always be added) and no depth (documents cannot establish priority over one another, only connection). By making it easy to establish links between documents, the modern public internet became widespread at the expense of establishing its authority. To give an example, if you want to know something obscure about the city of Cleveland, Ohio, then the internet is usually the the first and primary (most common) method, and the most expedient one (because it is fast and never closed)–but only rarely does it have the final answer on any issue.2 And yes, this goes for Wikipedia , too.

The informational internet started to come under strain at soon as it began to replace the authorities upon which it implicitly relied. Electronic communication has replaced authoritative knowledge with knowledge that is merely “the fastest” and the “most expedient,” and this in turn has replaced information with “information about information” (metadata). What are the signals on a social media platform–the “like,” the “view,” engagement, etc–other than a way to turn metadata into a public, gamified social signal? Information itself becomes “content,” which is really just a way of valuing the container over the thing itself.

There is no guarantee over the long run that a worldwide public network continues to draw any trust or interest. It is quite possible that there continues to be a network through which Bank A can send a request for funds transfer from Bank B, but that there is nothing of use on that network to the public at large. Most or all of the indicators of activity on the internet today–number of links, visits or reactions–have no connection to its status or value as information. What I wonder is if and how long this continues.

It is possible that the internet settles into a status of quasi-stable dystopia, washed over by regular waves of distracting and entertaining sideshow–maybe this can just continue forever. But it is also possible that the whole thing falls apart over time. This would be the more hopeful outcome, but it would require a painful breaking point: paranoia grows and trust wanes so badly that it becomes clear the only sane choice is abandonment, as deflated and boring as a reality without worldwide connection might look, at first. And what comes after? Who can say, but I doubt it would be a return to paperbook books and snail mail. Maybe a set of more manageable, deliberately regional networks take the place of the worldwide web; maybe what is now called information becomes so rare that a new value attaches to it, and it begins to grow back.

  1. Tim Berners-Lee, Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by its Inventor
  2. To the extent that information on the internet carries authority, it is usually through means outside the internet, like institutional standing, or legal force.

Tags collective action web commons communication