January 9, 2005

The Future of the Internet I

Looking back, looking forward

Where has the internet fallen short of expectations?

Since so many of the experts we contacted were early adopters of the internet, we asked them to think back to their views a decade ago and assess where the use or impact of the internet has fallen short of expectations. Many experts are disappointed that spam and viruses have proliferated without check. The digital divide vexes quite a few experts. Many observe that education, health care, and civic life have not adopted the internet as quickly as they had hoped. Others wish that download speeds were even faster and are looking forward to a “video internet.” And a number of experts said the internet is just about as they had imagined it would be.

Here are some examples of the experts’ thoughts on this question and a fuller rundown of written responses can be found at http://www.elon.edu/predictions/q22.aspx and at http://www.elon.edu/predictions/q23.aspx.

  • “1.Education – I thought distance learning would be more widespread. 2. Elections – I thought we would get to online voting sooner. 3. E-commerce – I thought that online commerce would have a more devastating impact on local commerce and local taxation.” – Charles M. Firestone, executive director of the Aspen Institute
  • “I did not expect that porn and objectionable content would have as large an impact as it has had on so many.” – Anonymous respondent
  • “Politics still sucks. America’s getting more totalitarian even as the populace is dancing in the streets to downloaded music” – Anonymous respondent
  • “As with radio, most of the hoped-for educational impact of the Internet didn’t materialize.” – Simson L. Garfinkel, an authority on computer security and columnist for Technology Review
  • “We forgot to build the Internet with enough security and economics.” – Anonymous respondent
  • “As I feared, bland content from large media companies dominates too much. There is great creativity from a wide range of sources, and it does get noticed and it does have an impact. But the balance is not where I would like it to be.”– Anonymous respondent
  • “It has exceeded my expectations for certain demographic segments of the world’s population.  As expected, most people in the world are unaffected by the advent of the Internet.” – Anonymous respondent

Many respondents had been very generous with their time and some were clearly growing tired of typing full sentences: “Enhanced democracy: NOT. Enriched sense of community: NOT. Public space for learning: a mix but mostly commercial.”

What impacts have been felt more quickly than expected?

Experts wrote with evident delight about the explosion of e-commerce, smart searches, mobile communication, and peer-to-peer file sharing. Others shared their disappointment that spam, identity theft, and other online pests have moved so quickly toward dominance. For example:

  • “The astounding array of information available on the Internet is much larger than anyone could have ever expected.” – Anonymous respondent
  • “The rise of the Web is astonishing. In 1992 (I have slides from a talk that year) we were not sure that the Web would win out over competitors such as WAIS, archie or gopher. The transformation of the telephone industry has gone faster than I thought.” – Anonymous respondent
  • “E-mail was expected. The Web took us completely by surprise.” – Anonymous respondent
  • “I don’t subscribe to a newspaper anymore. I don’t shop at retail stores nearly as often, or the bank. I don’t buy reference books or go the library. I don’t use the phone as much.” – Anonymous respondent
  • “I would never have imagined blogs, or that I would have one of my own. On the other hand, I spend much more time doing fairly routine work (such as scheduling meetings) online. The nuisances, like spam, viruses, and comment spam, are worse than I would have predicted.” – Peter Levine, deputy director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at the University of Maryland
  • “The assumption, by the wired intelligentsia, that they can find out pretty much anything on Google.” – Dan Froomkin, a columnist for washingtonpost.com and deputy editor of niemanwatchdog.org

What’s next?

We ended the survey with the most forward-looking question: “What are you anxious to see happen? What is your dream application, or where would you hope to see the most path-breaking developments in the next decade?” A fuller rundown of written responses can be found at: http://www.elon.edu/predictions/q24.aspx.

Mike O’Brien, a computer scientist with the Aerospace Corporation, wrote, “Fully immersive 3D alternate reality, portable. A completely separate and completely virtual world, equally accessible wherever or whenever you are. It would give a mental ”face” to the internet that would allow people to get a visceral handle on it. Right now, the average Joe’s vision of the internet is like the blind men and the elephant – people think that what they see and use every day is the whole thing.”

One expert wrote, “Artificial intelligences in appliances, vehicles, computer software. For example, I’d love a word processor that worked like a great copy editor – not simply a spell checker or simple grammar checker. Or a kitchen appliance that would read all the bar codes of items in my pantry and refrigerator and recommend innovative menus, remind about expiration dates and calculate nutritional values for meals. Perhaps it would even use avatars to walk through recipes. Or, if activated, I’d like such a device to answer a question like, ‘Where are the kids right now?’ If each child has a cell phone (or PDA-type device) my kitchen appliance would tell me that Mary is at her friend’s house and that Tommy is in the park. It might ask if I want to send them a note reminding them to be home by 5:00 to get ready for dinner.  These are the sorts of network applications that enhance but also transform.”

Another expert wrote, “I most anxious to see the intellectual property laws admit that they are failing and restructure in a smarter way. I am most anxious for a seamless open source online computer.  Meaning I buy something at an electronics store that when I plug it into the net updates itself completely and keeps itself up to date in terms of operating system, email and Web clients all with open source apps.”

One respondent wrote, “Converged devices are a dream.  I would love one phone/PDA that can get 2-4 lines, do e-mail (GPRS and real time), Wi-Fi, has Blue-tooth, IM, and video – and fits in my shirt pocket and does not cost more than $300.”

One respondent wrote, “I would like to have the data about me in a virtual passport that I control and that I can choose who is allowed to see what specific information I choose within that passport. I would like to have my home – the appliances, lights, vehicles wired and knowing me and my preferences. I am interested in how nano-technology is going to impact the products we buy today, the healthcare advances that we will be able to see and the new products that will be created through nano-techs application.”

Lois Ambash, president of Metaforix.com, wrote, “My dream application is a fail-safe, user- controlled, user-friendly privacy screen that would allow people to reap all the benefits of cyberspace with none of the personal risks. What I am most anxious to see is genuine conversation between geeks and newbies. Many people who could reap great benefits from the internet are hampered by the jargon barrier (and other language barriers, such as reading level and lack of facility in English)… My dream situation – as opposed to application – will occur when beta testing routinely requires that any intelligent adult be able to use the product or application competently without a geek in the family or a lengthy interaction with tech support.”