March 11, 2014

Digital Life in 2025

The Gurus Speak

Among the experts who contributed to this project were some of the most prominent Internet analysts of our generation. Here we highlight the predictions of some of the people most deeply involved in shaping our digital present.

New business models, Internet voting, privacy, MOOCs

Vint Cerf, Google vice president and chief Internet evangelist, predicted, “There will be increased franchise and information sharing. There will be changes to business models to adapt to the economics of digital communication and storage. We may finally get to Internet voting, but only if we have really strong authentication methods available. Privacy must be improved but transparency about what information is retained about users also has to increase. More business will be born online with a global market from the beginning. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) will become important revenue streams.”

‘Potential for a very dystopian world’

John Markoff, senior writer for the Science section of the New York Times, wrote, “What happens the first time you answer the phone and hear from your mother or a close friend, but it’s actually not, and instead, it’s a piece of malware that is designed to social engineer you. What kind of a world will we have crossed over into? I basically began as an Internet utopian (think John Perry Barlow), but I have since realized that the technical and social forces that have been unleashed by the microprocessor hold out the potential of a very dystopian world that is also profoundly inegalitarian. I often find myself thinking, ‘Who said it would get better?’”

‘More seamless and integrated’

People will continue to connect to people and information, and it will become more seamless and integrated into every aspect of daily life. We’re there in certain populations already, but it will be more widespread in 12 years.danah boyd, researcher for Microsoft and author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens

Exposure of human gaps between belief and activity

Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher for Microsoft Research, wrote, “The most significant impact of the Internet is that, by making so much activity visible, it exposes the gap between the way we think people behave, the way we think they ought to behave, the laws and regulations and policies and processes and conventions we have developed to guide behavior — and the way they really behave. This is happening in families, in organizations, in communities, and in society more broadly. Adjusting to this will be an unending, difficult task. We often or usually formulate rules knowing they won’t always apply, and ignore inconsequential violations, but now that is more difficult — the violations are visible, selective enforcement is visible, yet formulating more nuanced rules would leave us with little time to do anything else. Exposing violations can be good, when the behavior is reprehensible. Exposing harmless violations can impede efficiency. Behavior observed digitally, without the full context, can be misunderstood. Are we built to function without some illusions that technology strips away? Are we better off and happier when all of our leaders are revealed to have flaws or feet of clay? Human beings are flexible, yet we have some fundamental social and emotional responses; how technology will affect these must be worked out.”

We have entered the ‘post-normal’ world

Stowe Boyd, lead researcher for GigaOM Research, took many overlapping influences into consideration in his response, also figuring in the influences of robots and asking, “What are people for?” He predicted: “The Web will be the single most foundational aspect of people’s lives in 2025. People’s companion devices — the 2025 equivalent of today’s phones and tablets — will be the first thing they touch in the morning and the last thing they put down to sleep. In fact, some people will go so far as to have elements of their devices embedded. The AI-mediated, goggle-channeled social interactions of the near future will be as unlike what we are doing today, as today’s social Web is to what came before. The ephemeralization of work by AI and bots will signal the outer boundary of the industrial age, when we first harnessed the power of steam and electricity to amplify and displace human labor, and now we see that culminating in a possible near-zero workforce. We have already entered the post-normal, where the economics of the late industrial era have turned inside out, where the complexity of interconnected globalism has led to uncertainty of such a degree that it is increasing impossible to find low-risk paths forward, or to even determine if they exist. A new set of principles is needed to operate in the world that the Web made, and we’d better figure them out damn fast. My bet is that the cure is more Web: a more connected world. But one connected in different ways, for different ends, and not as a way to prop up the mistakes and inequities of the past, but instead as a means to answer the key question of the new age we are barreling into: What are people for?”

Powerful trends intersect

Jim Hendler, a professor of Computer Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, wrote, “Three forces will continue to interact, weaving a braid that will be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. These are the increasing ease of sharing information (and the threat that makes to privacy); the increasing needs of business, and desires of individuals, to interact with people outside ones own physical locale; and the increasing change in the use of AI/robotics in the workplace displacing more and more workers. 2025 will be around the time that the intersections of these, and other forces, will be starting to cause major changes in where people live, what they do with their time (and what work is), and how they interact beyond the local situation. It won’t look all that different from today, but major forces will be starting to well.”

The Edison doctrine should return

Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said, “I hope there will be greater openness, more democratic participation, less centralized control, and greater freedom. But there is nothing predetermined about that outcome. Economic and political forces in the United States are pulling in the opposite direction. So, we are left with a central challenge: will the Internet of 2025 be — a network of freedom and opportunity or the infrastructure of social control? In the words of Thomas Edison, ‘What man creates with his hand, he should control with his head.’”

The ‘ghost of Gutenberg’ reappears and cautions humility in predictions

Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, wrote, “You give me no choice but to raise the ghost of Gutenberg and point out that, according to the greatest scholar on the topic, Elizabeth Eisenstein, the impact of the book on society was not fully realized until 100 years after the invention of the press. The book itself did not take on its own shape in form, content, and business model, departing from its scribal roots, until half a century after Gutenberg. The impact of the press — the physical impression of ink on paper — is only now, 600 years later, diminishing.   In the development of the net and its impact on society, we are at 1472 in Gutenberg years. John Naughton, a columnist for London’s Observer, asks us to imagine the good citizens of Gutenberg’s hometown, Mainz, using Gutenberg’s folly to predict the undermining of the authority of the Catholic Church; the birth of the Reformation and scientific revolution; the transformation of education, changing our sense even of childhood; and I would add, upheaval in our notion of nations. Today, we wouldn’t know our Martin Luther if he hammered on our door.   Consider the change brought by the web its first 20 years and now you ask us to predict the next dozen? Sorry.”

The age of the ‘global supercomputer’

Mike Liebhold, senior researcher and distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, commented, “The Internet is morphing from the global library into the global supercomputer. By 2025, almost every application or service we can imagine will be enhanced by the application of enormous computation enabling widespread applications of capabilities like mining, inference, recognition, sense-making, rendering modeling as well as proactive contextual computing.”

The fundamental unanswered questions

David Weinberger, senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, responded, “The future of the Internet depends on many imponderables, including whether the Internet gets sold to the access and content providers.”

Internet access will become a ‘human right’

Tiffany Shlain, creator of the AOL series The Future Starts Here, and founder of The Webby Awards, responded, “Access to the Internet will be a international human right. The diversity of perspectives from all different parts of the globe tackling some of our biggest problems will lead to breakthroughs we can’t imagine on issues such as poverty, inequality, and the environment.”

A ‘balkanized’ system

Paul Saffo, the managing director of Discern Analytics and consulting associate professor at Stanford, wrote, “The pressures to balkanize the global Internet will continue and create new uncertainties. Governments will become more skilled at blocking access to unwelcome sites.”

Threats persist

Fred Baker, Internet pioneer and Cisco Systems Fellow, responded, “The issues in security and privacy will have been improved in important ways, but will remain threats, primarily because human nature will not have changed, and there is always a percentage of people who seek to harm others.”

We need more agreements to make the future work

Seth Finkelstein, a prominent longtime programmer and consultant, argued, “When one combines Free Trade ideology with the ease of information flow, the entities which deal in data and content and associated items are going to need to have a set of agreements that work for the breadth of the Internet (assuming the world doesn’t fragment into isolated areas, which seems very unlikely in the modern economy).”