January 9, 2005

The Future of the Internet I


In mid-2001, Lee Rainie, the Director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, approached officials at Elon University with an idea that the Project and the University might replicate the fascinating work of Ithiel de Sola Pool in his 1983 book Forecasting the Telephone: A Retrospective Technology Assessment. Pool and his students had looked at primary official documents, technology community publications, speeches given by government and business leaders, and marketing literature at the turn of the 20th Century to examine the kind of impacts experts thought the telephone would have on Americans’ social and economic lives. The idea was to apply Pool’s research method to the internet, particularly focused on the period between 1990 and 1995 when the World Wide Web and Web browsers evolved.

Eventually, Janna Quitney Anderson, a professor of journalism and communication at Elon, formed a research class for the spring semester of 2003. The class searched for comments and predictions from 400 experts for the period between 1990-1995 in government documents, technology newsletters, conference proceedings, trade newsletters and the business press. Eventually, more than 1,000 people were logged in the predictions data base and more than 4,000 predictions were amassed. The fruits of that work are available at: http://www.elon.edu/predictions. We hope the database will provide a resource for researchers and students to assess the evolution of the internet. Further, we invite readers of this report to enter their own predictions at that site.

This retrospective research effort inspired the survey that is covered in this report. As more and more commentary was examined from the dawn of the Web, it became apparent that it would be useful to return to many of those experts to see what they currently see on the horizon. In September 2004, the Pew Internet Project sent an email invitation to a list of technology experts and social analysts, asking them to complete a 24-question survey about the future of the internet. We also asked the initial group of experts to forward the invitation to colleagues and friends who might provide interesting perspectives. Some 1,286 people responded to the online survey between September 20 and November 1, 2004. About half are internet pioneers and were online before 1993. Roughly a third of the experts are affiliated with an academic institution and another third work for a company or consulting firm. The rest are divided between non-profit organizations, publications, and the government.

Some internet luminaries were involved with the survey, including Vint Cerf, Esther Dyson, Bob Metcalfe, Dan Gillmor, Simson Garfinkel, Howard Rheingold, and David Weinberger. Other experts who responded to the survey shared only their institutional affiliation, the list of which includes: Harvard, MIT, Yale; Federal Communications Commission, Social Security Administration, U.S. Department of State; IBM, AOL, Microsoft, Intel, Google, Oracle, and Disney, among many others. But some of the best comments came from those who declined to dazzle us with anything besides their ideas. These respondents opted not to identify themselves in any way.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project and Elon University do not advocate policy outcomes related to the internet. The predictions included in the survey were written to inspire reactions, not because we think any of them will necessarily come to fruition. We chose topics that have come up in our research as well as some ideas that have recently been in the news.

Some of the predictions were constructed in a way that contained several statements and it was often the case that experts would agree with one part of the prediction, but not the other. For instance, one assertion they were asked to analyze was: “By 2014 use of the internet will increase the size of people’s social networks far beyond what has traditionally been the case. This will enhance trust in society.” Many of the experts supported the first idea in the prediction (the size of personal social networks will grow), but challenged the notion that this would increase the overall level of trust that people had about one another.

In addition to trying to pack several ideas into one prediction, we tried to balance the statements so that there were roughly equal numbers of predictions with “good,” “bad,” and “neutral” outcomes. Many of the experts were quick to point out that the deployment of technology always brings both positive and negative results. Thus, they often reminded us in their written answers that the “good” outcome embodied in the prediction would not be the entire result of the technology change.

After each portion of the survey – each prediction or each question – we invited experts to write narrative responses to the item they had just assessed. We also gave them the option of challenging the predictions we offered, in case they did not agree with the thrust of the prediction or wanted to criticize the wording we had used. Not surprisingly, the most interesting product of the survey is the many open-ended predictions and analyses written by the experts in response to our material and we have included many of them in this report. Many others are now entered into the Elon-Pew Internet predictions database available at: http://www.elon.edu/predictions.

Since the experts’ answers evolved in both tone and content as they went through the questionnaire, the findings in this report are presented in the same order as the original survey. The experts were invited to sign their written responses if they wanted to be quoted in the Elon-Pew database and in this report. The quotations in the report are attributed to those who assented to have their words quoted. When a quote is not attributed to someone, it is because that person chose not to sign his or her written answer.