September 24, 2006

The Future of the Internet

A survey of internet leaders, activists, and analysts shows that a majority agree with predictions that by 2020:

  • A low-cost global network will be thriving and creating new opportunities in a “flattening” world.
  • Humans will remain in charge of technology, even as more activity is automated and “smart agents” proliferate. However, a significant 42% of survey respondents were pessimistic about humans’ ability to control the technology in the future. This significant majority agreed that dangers and dependencies will grow beyond our ability to stay in charge of technology. This was one of the major surprises in the survey.
  • Virtual reality will be compelling enough to enhance worker productivity and also spawn new addiction problems.
  • Tech “refuseniks” will emerge as a cultural group characterized by their choice to live off the network. Some will do this as a benign way to limit information overload, while others will commit acts of violence and terror against technology-inspired change.
  • People will wittingly and unwittingly disclose more about themselves, gaining some benefits in the process even as they lose some privacy.
  • English will be a universal language of global communications, but other languages will not be displaced. Indeed, many felt other languages such as Mandarin, would grow in prominence.

At the same time, there was strong dispute about those futuristic scenarios among notable numbers of 742 respondents to survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and Elon University. Those who raised challenges believe that governments and corporations will not necessarily embrace policies that will allow the network to spread to under-served populations; that serious social inequalities will persist; and that “addiction” is an inappropriate notion to attach to people’s interest in virtual environments.

The experts and analysts also split evenly on a central question of whether the world will be a better place in 2020 due to the greater transparency of people and institutions afforded by the internet: 46% agreed that the benefits of greater transparency of organizations and individuals would outweigh the privacy costs and 49% disagreed. “Key builders of the next generation of internet often agree on the direction technology will change, but there is much less agreement about the social and political impact those changes will have,” said Janna Quitney Anderson, lead author of the report “The Future of the Internet II,” and communications professor at Elon. “One of their big concerns is: Who controls the internet architecture they have created?” The report is built around respondents’ responses to scenarios stretching to the year 2020 and hundreds of their written elaborations that address such things as the kinds of new social interactions that will occur when more “meetings” take place on screens; the changes that will occur in nation-states; the evolution of autonomous technology; and the proper ways to police the internet. The Pew Internet/Elon survey was conducted online by invitation to experts identified in an extensive literature and periodical review and active members of several key technology groups: The Internet Society, The World Wide Web Consortium, the Working Group on Internet Governance, ICANN, Internet2 and the Association of Internet Researchers. Many respondents are at the pinnacle of internet leadership. Some of the survey respondents are “working in the trenches” of building the Web. Most of the people in this latter category came to the survey by invitation to those on the email list of the Pew Internet Project. The survey was an “opt in,” self-selecting effort. That process does not yield a random, representative sample. Respondents were given the following scenarios to assess: A global, low-cost network thrives: By 2020, worldwide network interoperability will be perfected, allowing smooth data flow, authentication and billing; mobile wireless communications will be available to anyone anywhere on the globe acan meet and have verbal and visual exchanges regularly, face-to-face, over the internet. English will be so indispensable in communicating that it displaces some languages.

  • 42% agreed… 57% disagreed… 1% didn’t answer Autonomous technology is a problem: By 2020, intelligent agents and distributed control will cut direct human input so completely out of some key activities such as surveillance, security and tracking systems that technology beyond our control will generate dangers and dependencies that will not be recognized until it is impossible to reverse them. We will be on a “J-curve” of continued acceleration of change.
  • 42% agreed … 54% disagreed… 4% didn’t answer Transparency builds a better world, even at the expense of privacy: As sensing, storage and communication technologies get cheaper and better, individuals’ public and private lives will become increasingly “transparent” globally. Everything will be more visible to everyone, with good and bad results. Looking at the big picture – at all of the lives affected on the planet in every way possible – this will make the world a better place by the year 2020. The benefits will outweigh the costs.
  • 46% agreed… 49% disagreed… 5% didn’t answer Virtual reality is a drain for some: By the year 2020, virtual reality on the internet will come to allow more productivity from most people in technologically-savvy communities than working in the “real world.” But the attractive nature of virtual-reality worlds will also lead to serious addiction problems for many, as we lose people to alternate realities.
  • 56% agreed… 39% disagreed… 5% didn’t answer The internet opens worldwide access to success: In the current best-seller “The World is Flat,” Thomas Friedman writes that the latest world revolution is found in the fact that the power of the internet makes it possible for individuals to collaborate and compete globally. By 2020, this free flow of information will completely blur current national boundaries as they are replaced by city-states, corporation-based cultural groupings and/or other geographically diverse and reconfigured human organizations tied together by global networks.
  • 52% agreed… 44% disagreed… 5% didn’t answer Some Luddites/Refuseniks will commit terror acts: By 2020, the people left behind (many by their own choice) by accelerating information and communications technologies will form a new cultural group of technology refuseniks who self-segregate from “modern” society. Some will live mostly “off the grid” simply to seek peace and a cure for information overload while others will commit acts of terror or violence in protest against technology.
  • 58% argeed… 35% disagreed… 7% didn’t answer “Many of these respondents knew from history and personal experience that technologies can have good and bad effects,” said Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. “You could see them toting up the pluses and minuses in their answers. I come away with a sense that the future is still up for grabs, even as everyone agrees that it will be very different from today.” Full results of the survey, including engaging quotes from hundreds of respondents and brief biographies on many of these people, can be found on the Web at http://www.imaginingtheinternet.org by using the “Predictions Surveys” link. Visitors to the site are invited to share their own visions for the future of the internet in the section of the site labeled “Voices of the People.”t an extremely low cost.
  • 56% agreed… 43% disagreed… 1% didn’t answer English displaces other languages: In 2020, networked communications have leveled the world into one big political, social and economic space in which people everywhere