January 9, 2005

The Future of the Internet I


Conflicting desires can be seen in these expert opinions, mirroring basic concerns that were discussed at length in the predictions made by internet stakeholders in the early 1990s.

First is the conflict between the all-too-human desires for total security and complete privacy. Everyone wishes for both, but it is impossible to have both and make things work online. For instance, there is no way to have secure online voting without asking voters to reveal their identities as they vote, thus removing their anonymity. At the same time, there cannot be total privacy and anonymity online without allowing criminals and terrorists to operate in secret. If there is not a reasonable level of security, internet users cannot trust that companies on the internet will be able to handle the most personal kinds of transactions. Security does not have to be perfectly air-tight, argue some experts, but it has to be effective enough to allow people reasonable confidence in internet-derived information and transactions.

Second is the conflict between the yearning for access to all information everywhere and the desire to simplify life and avoid being inundated with information. Many of the same people who express a desire for total, instantaneous, easy-to-use access to all of the information on the planet also complain that the avalanche of information is growing worse all the time, complicating their lives, causing stress, and even changing the dynamics of work, family, and leisure time.

Finally, our experience in collecting the original material for the 1990-1995 predictions database and then going through the results of this survey remind us that some universal themes about the impact of technology and society are evident here. Respondents’ comments reflected a number of the same concerns expressed about previous technologies throughout history, among them were:

  1. Technological change is inevitable, and it will result in both beneficial and harmful outcomes. Those surveyed see the impact of the internet as multidirectional and complex, as did predictors at the dawn of all other communications technologies.
  2. A technology is never totally isolated in its influence as a change agent. Many social trends commonly associated with the coming of the internet are the result of changes spurred by multiple forces; some already were in motion as the internet came into common use. We must not fall into the trap of technological determinism – the internet should not be fully credited nor should it take all of the blame.
  3. Entrenched interests prefer the status quo and often work to block or delay innovations introduced by new technologies such as the internet. Respondents see this happening in copyright clashes, education, health care, and other areas.
  4. The business of projecting the future impact of a technology can be difficult and full of inconsistencies. Respondents’ answers display a conflict between their hopes for the internet’s positive potential and their reality-based opinions of what can really be accomplished in the next 10 years. Many were skeptical about advances outside their areas of expertise and were enthusiastic about those in their areas of specialization. Opinions diverge on many issues.

It is appropriate to close this report with a quote from one expert who wrote, “I never would have expected that such a high percentage of people would be utterly dependent upon the internet for such a large proportion of their daily communication activities.  If you took it away, we would be shell-shocked.  But ten years ago, we didn’t even have it!”