March 11, 2014

Digital Life in 2025

Experts predict the Internet will become ‘like electricity’ — less visible, yet more deeply embedded in people’s lives for good and ill

Summary: 15 Theses About the Digital Future

Future of the internet in words

The world is moving rapidly towards ubiquitous connectivity that will further change how and where people associate, gather and share information, and consume media. A canvassing of 2,558 experts and technology builders about where we will stand by the year 2025 finds striking patterns in their predictions. The invited respondents were identified in previous research about the future of the Internet, from those identified by the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project, and solicited through major technology-oriented listservs. They registered their answers online between November 25, 2013 and January 13, 2014.

In their responses, these experts foresee an ambient information environment where accessing the Internet will be effortless and most people will tap into it so easily it will flow through their lives “like electricity.” They predict mobile, wearable, and embedded computing will be tied together in the Internet of Things, allowing people and their surroundings to tap into artificial intelligence-enhanced cloud-based information storage and sharing. As Dan Lynch, founder of Interop and former director of computing facilities at SRI International, wrote, “The most useful impact is the ability to connect people. From that, everything flows.”

To a notable extent, the experts agree on the technology change that lies ahead, even as they disagree about its ramifications. Most believe there will be:

  • A global, immersive, invisible, ambient networked computing environment built through the continued proliferation of smart sensors, cameras, software, databases, and massive data centers in a world-spanning information fabric known as the Internet of Things.
  • “Augmented reality” enhancements to the real-world input that people perceive through the use of portable/wearable/implantable technologies.
  • Disruption of business models established in the 20th century (most notably impacting finance, entertainment, publishers of all sorts, and education).
  • Tagging, databasing, and intelligent analytical mapping of the physical and social realms.

These experts expect existing positive and negative trends to extend and expand in the next decade, revolutionizing most human interaction, especially affecting health, education, work, politics, economics, and entertainment. Most say they believe the results of that connectivity will be primarily positive. However, when asked to describe the good and bad aspects of the future they foresee, many of the experts can also clearly identify areas of concern, some of them extremely threatening. Heightened concerns over interpersonal ethics, surveillance, terror, and crime, may lead societies to question how best to establish security and trust while retaining civil liberties.

Overall, these expert predictions can be grouped into 15 identifiable theses about our digital future – eight of which we characterize as being hopeful, six as concerned, and another as a kind of neutral, sensible piece of advice that the choices that are made now will shape the future. Many involve similar views of the ways technology will change, but differ in their sense of the impact of those technical advances. They are listed below, numbered for the sake of convenience to readers navigating this document, not in a rank ordering.

More-hopeful theses

1) Information sharing over the Internet will be so effortlessly interwoven into daily life that it will become invisible, flowing like electricity, often through machine intermediaries.

David Clark, a senior research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, noted, “Devices will more and more have their own patterns of communication, their own ‘social networks,’ which they use to share and aggregate information, and undertake automatic control and activation.  More and more, humans will be in a world in which decisions are being made by an active set of cooperating devices. The Internet (and computer-mediated communication in general) will become more pervasive but less explicit and visible. It will, to some extent, blend into the background of all we do.”

Joe Touch, director at the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute, predicted, “The Internet will shift from the place we find cat videos to a background capability that will be a seamless part of how we live our everyday lives. We won’t think about ‘going online’ or ‘looking on the Internet’ for something — we’ll just be online, and just look.”

2) The spread of the Internet will enhance global connectivity that fosters
more planetary relationships and less ignorance.

Bryan Alexander, senior fellow at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, wrote, “It will be a world more integrated than ever before. We will see more planetary friendships, rivalries, romances, work teams, study groups, and collaborations.”

Paul Jones, a professor at the University of North Carolina and founder of ibiblio.org, responded, “Television let us see the Global Village, but the Internet let us be actual Villagers.”

Tim Bray, an active participant in the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and technology industry veteran, noted, “I expect the miasma of myth and ignorance and conspiracy theory to recede to dark corners of the discourse of civilization, where nice people don’t go. The change in the emotional landscape conferred by people being able to communicate very cheaply irrespective of geography is still only dimly understood.”

3) The Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and big data will make people more aware of their world and their own behavior.

Patrick Tucker, author of The Naked Future: What Happens In a World That Anticipates Your Every Move?, wrote, “When the cost of collecting information on virtually every interaction falls to zero, the insights that we gain from our activity, in the context of the activity of others, will fundamentally change the way we relate to one another, to institutions, and with the future itself. We will become far more knowledgeable about the consequences of our actions; we will edit our behavior more quickly and intelligently.”

Judith Donath, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, responded, “We’ll have a picture of how someone has spent their time, the depth of their commitment to their hobbies, causes, friends, and family. This will change how we think about people, how we establish trust, how we negotiate change, failure, and success.”

4) Augmented reality and wearable devices will be implemented to monitor and give quick feedback on daily life, especially tied to personal health.

Daren C. Brabham, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, University of Southern California, predicted, “We will grow accustomed to seeing the world through multiple data layers. This will change a lot of social practices, such as dating, job interviewing and professional networking, and gaming, as well as policing and espionage.”

Aron Roberts, software developer at the University of California-Berkeley, said, “We may well see wearable devices and/or home and workplace sensors that can help us make ongoing lifestyle changes and provide early detection for disease risks, not just disease. We may literally be able to adjust both medications and lifestyle changes on a day-by-day basis or even an hour-by-hour basis, thus enormously magnifying the effectiveness of an ever more understaffed medical delivery system.”

5) Political awareness and action will be facilitated and more peaceful change and public uprisings like the Arab Spring will emerge.

Rui Correia, director of Netday Namibia, a non-profit supporting innovations in information technology for education and development, wrote, “With mobile technologies and information-sharing apps becoming ubiquitous, we can expect some significant improvement in the awareness of otherwise illiterate and ill-informed rural populations to opportunities missed out by manipulative and corrupt governments. Like the Arab Spring, we can expect more and more uprisings to take place as people become more informed and able to communicate their concerns.”

Nicole Ellison, an associate professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan, predicted, “As more of the global population comes online, there will be increased awareness of the massive disparities in access to health care, clear water, education, food, and human rights.”

6) The spread of the ‘Ubernet’ will diminish the meaning of borders, and new ‘nations’ of those with shared interests may emerge and exist beyond the capacity of current nation-states to control.

David Hughes, an Internet pioneer, who from 1972 worked in individual to/from digital telecommunications, responded, “All 7-plus billion humans on this planet will sooner or later be ‘connected’ to each other and fixed destinations, via the Uber(not Inter)net.  That can lead to the diminished power over people’s lives within nation-states. When every person on this planet can reach, and communicate two-way, with every other person on this planet, the power of nation-states to control every human inside its geographic boundaries may start to diminish.”

JP Rangaswami, chief scientist for Salesforce.com, observed, “The problems that humanity now faces are problems that can’t be contained by political borders or economic systems. Traditional structures of government and governance are therefore ill-equipped to create the sensors, the flows, the ability to recognize patterns, the ability to identify root causes, the ability to act on the insights gained, the ability to do any or all of this at speed, while working collaboratively across borders and time zones and sociopolitical systems and cultures. From climate change to disease control, from water conservation to nutrition, from the resolution of immune-system-weakness conditions to solving the growing obesity problem, the answer lies in what the Internet will be in decades to come. By 2025, we will have a good idea of its foundations.”

7) The Internet will become ‘the Internets’ as access, systems, and principles are renegotiated

David Brin, author and futurist, responded, “There will be many Internets. Mesh networks will self-form and we’ll deputize sub-selves to dwell in many places.”

Sean Mead, senior director of strategy and analytics for Interbrand, predicted, “The Internet will generate several new related networks. Some will require verified identification to access, while others will promise increased privacy.”

Ian Peter, pioneer Internet activist and Internet rights advocate, wrote, “The Internet will fragment. Global connectivity will continue to exist, but through a series of separate channels controlled by a series of separate protocols. Our use of separate channels for separate applications will be necessitated by security problems, cyber policy of nations and corporations, and our continued attempts to find better ways to do things.”

8) An Internet-enabled revolution in education will spread more opportunities, with less money spent on real estate and teachers.

The biggest impact on the world will be universal access to all human knowledge. The smartest person in the world currently could well be stuck behind a plow in India or China. Enabling that person — and the millions like him or her — will have a profound impact on the development of the human race. Cheap mobile devices will be available worldwide, and educational tools like the Khan Academy will be available to everyone. This will have a huge impact on literacy and numeracy and will lead to a more informed and more educated world population.Hal Varian, chief economist for Google

A generally hopeful summary comes from Doc Searls, journalist and director of ProjectVRM at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, observed, “Of course, there will be bad acting by some, taking advantage of organizational vulnerabilities and gaming systems in other ways. Organizations in the meantime will continue rationalizing negative externalities, such as we see today with pollution of the Internet’s pathways by boundless wasted advertising messages, and bots working to game the same business. But … civilization deals with bad acting through development of manners, norms, laws and regulations. Expect all of those to emerge and evolve over the coming years. But don’t expect the Internet to go away … Will the Internet make it possible for our entire civilization to collapse together, in one big awful heap? Possibly. But the Internet has already made it possible for us to use one of our unique graces — the ability to share knowledge — for good, and to a degree never before possible.”

Less-hopeful theses

9) Dangerous divides between haves and have-nots may expand, resulting in resentment and possible violence.

Oscar Gandy, an emeritus professor at the Annenberg School, University of Pennsylvania, explained, “We have to think seriously about the kinds of conflicts that will arise in response to the growing inequality enabled and amplified by means of networked transactions that benefit smaller and smaller segments of the global population. Social media will facilitate and amplify the feelings of loss and abuse. They will also facilitate the sharing of examples and instructions about how to challenge, resist, and/or punish what will increasingly come to be seen as unjust.”

10) Abuses and abusers will ‘evolve and scale.’ Human nature isn’t changing; there’s laziness, bullying, stalking, stupidity, pornography, dirty tricks, crime, and those who practice them have new capacity to make life miserable for others.

Llewellyn Kriel, CEO and editor in chief of TopEditor International Media Services, predicted, “Everything — every thing — will be available online with price tags attached. Cyber-terrorism will become commonplace. Privacy and confidentiality of any and all personal will become a thing of the past. Online ‘diseases’ — mental, physical, social, addictions (psycho-cyber drugs) — will affect families and communities and spread willy-nilly across borders. The digital divide will grow and worsen beyond the control of nations or global organizations such as the UN. This will increasingly polarize the planet between haves and have-nots. Global companies will exploit this polarization. Digital criminal networks will become realities of the new frontiers. Terrorism, both by organizations and individuals, will be daily realities. The world will become less and less safe, and only personal skills and insights will protect individuals.”

An antispam and security architect predicted, “There will be an erosion of privacy and the use of dirty-tricks social media will emerge more and more in election campaigns. Abusers evolve and scale far more than regular Internet users.”

A retired management consultant to a large international corporation wrote, “There will be greater group-think, group-speak and mob mentality … More uninformed individuals will influence others to the detriment of standard of living and effective government.”

11) Pressured by these changes, governments and corporations will try to assert power — and at times succeed — as they invoke security and cultural norms.

Paul Babbitt, an associate professor at Southern Arkansas University, predicted, “Governments will become much more effective in using the Internet as an instrument of political and social control. That is, filters will be increasingly valuable and important, and effective and useful filters will be able to charge for their services. People will be more than happy to trade the free-wheeling aspect common to many Internet sites for more structured and regulated environments.”

Anoop Ghanwani, a distinguished engineer at Dell, said, “Regulation will always stand in the way of anything significant happening.”

12) People will continue — sometimes grudgingly — to make tradeoffs favoring convenience and perceived immediate gains over privacy; and privacy will be something only the upscale will enjoy.

An anonymous respondent wrote, “Yes, the information we want will increasingly find its way to us, as networks learn to accurately predict our interests and weaknesses. But that will also tempt us to stop seeking out knowledge, narrowing our horizons, even as we delve evermore deep. The privacy premium may also be a factor: only the relatively well-off (and well-educated) will know how to preserve their privacy in 2025.”

13) Humans and their current organizations may not respond quickly enough to challenges presented by complex networks.

Randy Kluver, an associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University, responded, “The most neglected aspect of the impact is in the geopolitics of the Internet. There are very few experts focused on this, and yet the rise of digital media promises significant disruption to relations between and among states. Some of the really important dimensions include the development of transnational political actors/movements, the rise of the virtual state, the impact of digital diplomacy efforts, the role of information in undermining state privilege (think Wikileaks), and … the development of cyber-conflict (in both symmetric and asymmetric forms).”

A librarian shared a quote from Albert Einstein: “It has become appallingly clear that our technology has surpassed our humanity.”

14) Most people are not yet noticing the profound changes today’s communications networks are already bringing about; these networks will be even more disruptive in the future.

Nishant Shah, visiting professor at the Centre for Digital Cultures at Leuphana University, Germany, observed, “It is going to systemically change our understandings of being human, being social, and being political. It is not merely a tool of enforcing existing systems; it is a structural change in the systems that we are used to. And this means that we are truly going through a paradigm shift — which is celebratory for what it brings, but it also produces great precariousness because existing structures lose meaning and valence, and hence, a new world order needs to be produced in order to accommodate for these new modes of being and operation. The greatest impact of the Internet is what we are already witnessing, but it is going to accelerate.”

A summary of the less-hopeful theses comes from Bob Briscoe, chief researcher in networking and infrastructure for British Telecom, who predicted, “The greatest impacts of the Internet will continue to be the side-effects that tower so high that we do not notice they are continuing to grow far above us: 1) More people will lose their grounding in the realities of life and work, instead considering those aspects of the world amenable to expression as information as if they were the whole world. 2) The scale of the interactions possible over the Internet will tempt more and more people into more interactions than they are capable of sustaining, which on average will continue to lead each interaction to be more superficial. 3) Given there is strong evidence that people are much more willing to commit petty crimes against people and organizations when they have no face-to-face interaction, the increasing proportion of human interactions mediated by the Internet will continue the trend toward less respect and less integrity in our relations.”

Advice: Make good choices today

15) Foresight and accurate predictions can make a difference; ‘The best way to predict the future is to invent it.’

Robert Cannon, Internet law and policy expert, wrote, “The Internet, automation, and robotics will disrupt the economy as we know it. How will we provide for the humans who can no longer earn money through labor? The opportunities are simply tremendous. Information, the ability to understand that information, and the ability to act on that information will be available ubiquitously … Or we could become a ‘brave new world’ where the government (or corporate power) knows everything about everyone everywhere and every move can be foreseen, and society is taken over by the elite with control of the technology… The good news is that the technology that promises to turn our world on its head is also the technology with which we can build our new world. It offers an unbridled ability to collaborate, share, and interact. ‘The best way to predict the future is to invent it.’ It is a very good time to start inventing the future.”

Sonigitu Asibong Ekpe, a consultant with the AgeCare Foundation, a non-profit organization, observed, “The most significant impact of the Internet is getting us to imagine different paths that the future may take. These paths help us to be better prepared for long-term contingencies; by identifying key indicators, and amplifying signals of change, they help us ensure that our decisions along the way are flexible enough to accommodate change… That billions more people are poised to come online in the emerging economies seems certain. Yet much remains uncertain: from who will have access, how, when, and at what price to the Internet’s role as an engine for innovation and the creation of commercial, social, and human value. As users, industry players, and policymakers, the interplay of decisions that we make today and in the near future will determine the evolution of the Internet and the shape it takes by 2025, in both intended and unintended ways. Regardless of how the future unfolds, the Internet will evolve in ways we can only begin to imagine. By allowing ourselves to explore and rehearse divergent and plausible futures for the Internet, not only do we prepare for any future, we can also help shape it for the better.”

Cite this publication: Janna Anderson and Lee Rainie. “Digital Life in 2025.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (March 11, 2014) http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/03/11/digital-life-in-2025/, accessed on July 23, 2014.