The Growth of the Ubiquitous Internet
The walls will have eyes

Here's the big word that begins with "U" for this week: "Ubiquitous". Something that's ubiquitous is omnipresent, everywhere at the same time. Pretty intense idea, huh? Also something that doesn't exist. This is one of those words invented to describe religious concepts that have never been witnessed. The obvious example is God. God is supposed to be ubiquitous: everywhere at once, looking in and keeping track of everything and listening to 5 billion prayers all at the same time. God pretty much has to be ubiquitous to have all those qualities that people say he does. I mean, God just wouldn't be God if he needed a beeper, or call-waiting, would he?

You may have noticed the internet has begun to reach God-like proportions. Well, there are some who would have that become literally true. They want to create what they call the ubiquitous internet.

To me, this seems like the ultimate in marketing hype. Capitalists have always wanted to convince people that their product is everywhere, that everyone is doing it. But what if that were true?

Here's what is being planned for the internet - it's just in the research phase at this point, but you know how fast the computer industry moves these days. They want to put the internet into everything. It'll be in your car, helping you find out where you are and giving you information about wherever that is. The internet will be in your house, turning lights on and off for you, operating all of your appliances. There won't be any separate TV or computer anymore. It'll be all around you, with displays in every room. The internet will also be there in this way at your place of work. You won't need to sign in anymore, because the building itself will be able to sense when you enter and when you leave. The internet will even be on or in your body in the form of a medical implant or a badge that communicates with whatever internet sensors are nearby.

Wow. Isn't technology wonderful? It really is impressive that they're soon going to be able to do this kind of stuff. I won't deny that the ubiquitous internet could do some really remarkable things.

The question that remains unanswered is why the ubiquitous internet is needed. Do we really need to have a connection to some international communications network to turn on a lamp in our living room, to heat a cup of coffee in a microwave, or play music on a stereo? What's the advantage? Maybe we're developing this ubiquitous internet simply because it's possible. We can have it, so we make it.

I suspect that there's more to this idea than just a love of high technology, though. I see the ubiquitous internet as the logical end of a long-standing pattern of increasingly intrusive market research. In the old days, companies got information about consumer behavior by conducting formal studies with paid respondents. Quite a bit of this sort of research still goes on, but it has been supplemented with electronic information gathering.

Credit cards are useful to market researchers because they leave a trail of transactions recorded by computer that can be studied for patterns in consumptive behavior. This information isn't just interesting. It's valuable. A credit card company can sell this information about your buying habits to marketing firms, who then send out junk mail to you without you having to ask for it. What a convenience.

This system has grown into a tighter net as the power of computers to gather and organize information has grown. Banks are now planning for the near total replacement of untrackable paper currency with electronic money cards. Soon you may not be able to make a single purchase without it going on your permanent record.

The internet is just the latest tool for secretive information gathering about your life. In many respects it already is ubiquitous. Through the use of little programs that they call "cookies", web masters can track all of your activity on the internet. In some cases, even the contents of your hard drive can be read. This is the equivalent of a company being able to look through your personal files.

The scary thing is that all of this intrusion is done without your knowledge, much less your permission. Haven't you noticed how some commercial web pages take an especially long time to load? That's because the web page is busy putting its cookie programs onto your hard drive and downloading the cookies already left by other by other web pages that you've visited.

Microsoft is one of the worst cookie cutters out there on the internet. On practically every page they have some sort of program gathering information about you. This is why it's so dangerous to have Microsoft as a virtual monopoly in both the operating system and web browser markets. With no competitors, nothing could stand in the way of Bill Gates in his drive for the power to find out about everything that you do. With the onset of the ubiquitous internet, nothing would be off-limits to the Microsoft spies. Every minute of the day Microsoft would know where you are and what you are doing.

So what do you have to fear? You never do anything wrong, do you? You never make any mistakes or do anything you don't want someone to know about, right? Do the virtuous really need privacy anyway? What have you got to hide?

Well, it doesn't matter what you have to hide. The fact is that you have the right to hide anything that you want to, so long as it isn't directly related to criminal behavior. This principle is in the Constitution. We are supposed to be protected from unreasonable search and seizure, remember?

Watch out, because that protection is being eroded, bit by bit, with every electronic transaction being made, with every new connection of the internet to our every day lives.

Not to worry, says Bill Gates. The development of the ubiquitous internet is a service being done for our convenience.

The idea that there should be a limit to convenience amounts to heresy in today's world of compulsive consumption. It's a shame that the internet has become a tool for electronic spies, because it also can be a powerful tool for individual expression. Nevertheless, when the time comes for me to make the choice between a convenient Big Brother watching over me and an inconvenient seclusion, I know what my decision will be.

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