December 14, 2008

The Future of the Internet III

Background

Introduction

Predictions often inspire lively discussion about the future and they can help stakeholders prepare to make adjustments to meet the needs associated with technological change. Those who think about the future are best poised to influence it and cope with it.

Many futurists, scientists, and long-term thinkers today argue that the acceleration of technological change over the past decade has greatly increased the importance of strategic vision. Technology innovations will continue to impact us. The question is whether this process will reflect thoughtful planning or wash over us like an unstoppable wave. This survey is aimed at gathering a collection of opinions regarding the possibilities we all face.

How the Surveys Originated and Have Been Conducted

This research project got its start in mid-2001, when 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 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 emerged. In the spring semester of 2003, Janna Quitney Anderson, a professor of journalism and communications at Elon, led a research initiative that set out to accomplish this goal. More than 4,200 predictive statements made in the early 1990s by 1,000 people were logged and categorized. The result is available on the site Imagining the Internet: A History and Forecast (www.imaginingtheInternet.org/).

We reasoned that if experts and technologists had been so thoughtful in the early 1990s about what was going to happen, they would likely be equally as insightful looking ahead from this moment. In 2004, we asked most of those whose predictions were in the 1990-1995 database and additional experts to assess a number of predictions about the coming decade, and their answers were codified in an initial futures survey: “The Future of the Internet” (http://www.pewInternet.org/pdfs/PIP_Future_of_Internet.pdf).  

Several years later, we repeated the process with some new predictions and an expanded base of experts. In late 2005 and the first quarter of 2006, the Pew Internet Project issued an e-mail invitation to a select group of technology thinkers, stakeholders, and social analysts, asking them to complete the second scenario-based quantitative and qualitative survey, “The Future of the Internet II.” The official analysis of the results of that survey is available here: http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_Future_of_Internet_2006.pdf

And we report here the results of a third survey that was conducted online between December 26, 2007 and March 3, 2008. Some 1,196 people were generous enough to take the time to respond to this Future of the Internet III online survey.

Nearly half of the Future III respondents are Internet pioneers who were online before 1993.  Roughly one fifth of the respondents say they live and work in a nation outside of North America.

The respondents’ answers represent their personal views and in no way reflect the perspectives of their employers. Many survey participants were hand-picked due to their positions as stakeholders in the development of the Internet or they were reached through the leadership listservs of top technology organizations including the Internet Society, Association for Computing Machinery, the World Wide Web Consortium, the United Nations’ Multistakeholder Group on Internet Governance, Internet2, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, International Telecommunication Union, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, Association of Internet Researchers, and the American Sociological Association’s Information Technology Research section.

About the Survey Participants

Many top Internet leaders, activists, and commentators participated in the survey, including Clay Shirky, Fred Baker, David Brin, Susan Crawford, Brad Templeton, Howard Rheingold, Jim Kohlenberger, Josh Quittner, Seth Finkelstein, danah boyd, Hal Varian, Jeff Jarvis, Anthony Rutkowski, Michael Botein, Steve Jones, Richard Bartle, Alejandro Pisanty, Tom Vest, Milton Mueller, Bernardo Huberman, Jonne Soininen, Don Heath, Doug Brent, Anthony Townsend, Steve Goldstein, Adam Peake, Basil Crozier, Craig Partridge, Sebastien Bachollet, Geert Lovink, James Jay Horning, Dan Lynch, Fernando Barrio, Roberto Gaetano, Christian Huitema, Susan Mernit, Jamais Cascio, Norbert Klein, Tapio Varis, Martin Boyle, Ian Peter, Todd Spraggins, Catherine Fitzpatrick, Tom Keller, Charles Kenny, Robert Cannon, Hakikur Rahman, Larry Lannom, David Farrar, John Levine, Cliff Figallo, Sebastien Ricciardi, Lea Shaver, Seth Gordon, Jim McConnaughey, Neil Mcintosh, Charles Ess, Alan Levin, David W. Maher, Jonathan Dube, Thomas Vander Wal, Adrian Schofield, Clifford Lynch, Jerry Michalski, Paul Miller, and David Moschella, to name a few.

A sampling of the workplaces of respondents includes the Internet Society, World Bank, Booz Allen Hamilton, AT&T Labs, VeriSign, Cisco, Google, BBN Technologies, Fing, Yahoo Japan, France Telecom, the International Telecommunication Union, Alcatel-Lucent, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, GLOCOM, AfriNIC, Electronic Privacy Information Center, APNIC, Universiteit Maastricht, Amnesty International, BBC, PBS, IBM, Microsoft, Forrester Research, Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Open Society Institute, Open the Future, Yahoo, First Semantic, CNET, Microsoft, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, IDG, FCC, Institute for the Future, 1&1 Internet AG, Moody’s, HP Laboratories, Amazon.com, Gannett, Lexis/Nexis, Tucows, InternetNZ, ICANN, Oxford Internet Institute, Institute of the Information Society—Russia, The Center on Media and Society, Online News Association, Nokia, the Association for the Advancement of Information Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Institute of Network Cultures, Nortel, Disney, DiploFoundation, Information Technology Industry Council, J-Lab, Information Society Project at Yale University, Santa Fe Institute, the London School of Economics, the University of California-Berkeley, NASA, the Singapore Internet Research Center, Princeton University, the federal government of Canada, several policy divisions of the US government, and many dozens of others.

Participants described their primary area of Internet interest as “research scientist” (12%); “technology developer or administrator” (11%); “entrepreneur or business leader” (10%); “author, editor, or journalist” (9%); “futurist or consultant” (7%); “advocate, voice of the people, or activist user” (5%); “legislator or politician” (1%); or “pioneer or originator” (2%); however many participants chose “other” (24%) for this survey question or did not respond (18%).

The Scenarios Were Built to Elicit Deeply Felt Opinions

The Pew Internet & American Life Project and Elon University do not advocate policy outcomes related to the Internet. The predictive scenarios included in the survey were structured to provoke reaction, not because we think any of them will necessarily come to fruition. 

The scenarios for this survey and survey analysis were crafted after a study of the responses from our previous surveys and of the predictions made in reports by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United Nations Multistakeholder Group on Internet Governance, the Metaverse Roadmap, The Institute for the Future, Global Business Network, and other foresight organizations and individual foresight leaders.

The 2020 scenarios were constructed to elicit engaged responses to many-layered issues, so it was sometimes the case that survey participants would agree with most or part of a scenario, but not all of it. In addition to trying to pack several ideas into each scenario, we tried to balance them with “good,” “bad,” and “neutral” outcomes. The history of technology is full of evidence that tech adoption brings both positive and negative results.

After each portion of the survey we invited participants to write narrative responses providing an explanation for their answers. Not surprisingly, the most interesting product of the survey is the ensuing collection of open-ended discussion, predictions, and analyses written by the participants in response to our material. We have included many of those responses in this report. A great number of additional responses are included on the Imagining the Internet site, available at: http://www.imaginingtheinternet.org.

Since participants’ 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 respondents were asked to “sign” each written response they were willing to have credited to them in the Elon-Pew database and in this report. The quotations in the report are attributed to those who agreed 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. 

To make this report more readable and include many voices, some of the lengthier written elaborations have been edited.