January 9, 2005

The Future of the Internet I

Why Predictions Matter

Imagining the internet

Janna Quitney Anderson has written a book, Imagining the Internet, from the material in the Elon-Pew Internet Project predictions material focused on the 1990-1995 period. It will be published in July 2005 by Rowman & Littlefield. The following excerpt explores the value of predicting the future:

Previous world-altering communications technologies including the printing press (1453), radio (1896), and television (1927) caused commentators, researchers, entrepreneurs, and politicians of those times to predict what might come to pass due to changes wrought by such new devices. Their aim in making predictive statements was to prepare their world – to brace it for inevitable economic, political, and social adjustments. As Ithiel De Sola Pool, an esteemed researcher of the 20th century, so aptly put it, “These technologies caused revised conceptions of man’s place in the universe.”

Although he died in the mid-1980s, Pool’s work was influential in the decade that followed, when vital decisions were being made regarding freedom on the internet. Policymakers and researchers were inspired by his “Technologies of Freedom.” Pool projected that interconnected computers would build a free-wheeling, wide-open communications structure (“the largest machine that man has ever constructed – the global telecommunications network; the full map of it no one knows; it changes every day”) that would be questioned by regulators fearing the challenge to the economic and political status quo. He warned that a positive future would be delayed if regulators chose to interfere.

The prophets who seek to foresee the consequences of a new technology often do so in the hope of making a profit. Many others are motivated by the idea that better social choices can be made if the coming impact of a new tool can be accurately pre-assessed. An observance of what stakeholders and skeptics are saying at the dawn of a new communications age is vital in the formation of policy and thoughtful planning.