Predictions inspire lively discussion about the future, and help stakeholders prepare for adjustments associated with technological change.
Those who think about the future are best poised to influence it. The visionary 20th century engineer, mathematician and architect R. Buckminster Fuller argued that, “We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.” One of his eminent successors, Alan Kay, a prolific and thoughtful digital innovator, added a practical epigram to Fuller’s thought: “The only way you can predict the future is to build it.”
Those sentiments guide this effort. 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. If the developmental record of 20th century computing continues for only another 30 years, we will rapidly and permanently move to a different world. Are we prepared to react in ways that will make that world a good one?
This survey is aimed at gathering a collection of opinions regarding the possibilities we all face because, as Robert Louis Stevenson put it in 1885: “Sooner or later, we sit down to a banquet of consequences.”
How the survey originated and was 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 fruits of that work are available at: the online site Imagining the Internet: A History and Forecast.
We reasoned that if experts and technologists had been so thoughtful in the early 1990s about what was going to happen, why wouldn’t they be equally as insightful looking ahead from this moment? Thus, began an effort to track down most of those whose predictions were in the 1990-1995 database. In 2004, they and other experts since identified by the Pew Internet Project were asked to assess a number of predictions about the coming decade. Their answers were codified in the first report of this effort, “The Future of the Internet.”
In late 2005 and the first quarter of 2006, the Pew Internet Project issued an email invitation to a select group of technology thinkers, stakeholders and social analysts, asking them to complete a new, scenario-based quantitative and qualitative survey about the future of the internet. We also asked the initial group of respondents to forward the invitation to colleagues and friends who might provide interesting perspectives.
Some 742 people responded to the online survey between November 30, 2005 and April 4, 2006. More than half are internet pioneers who were online before 1993. Roughly one quarter 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 UN’s Working 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 David Clark, Gordon Bell, Esther Dyson, Fred Baker, Scott Hollenbeck, Robert Shaw, Ted Hardie, Pekka Nikander, Alejandro Pisanty, Bob Metcalfe, Peng Hwa Ang, Hal Varian, Geert Lovink, Cory Doctorow, Anthony Rutkowski, Robert Anderson, Ellen Hume, Howard Rheingold, Douglas Rushkoff, Steve Cisler, Marilyn Cade, Marc Rotenberg, Alan Levin, Eugene Spafford, Veni Markovski, Franck Martin, Greg Cole, Paul Saffo, Thomas Narten, Alan Inouye, Seth Finkelstein, Teddy Purwadi, Luc Faubert, John Browning and David Weinberger, to name a few.
A sampling of the workplaces of respondents includes the Internet Society, VeriSign, BBN Technologies, Fing, Yahoo Japan, France Telecom, the International Telecommunication Union, Nanyang Technological University, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, TDCLA Chile, AfriNIC, Qualcomm, Wairua Consulting, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Universiteit Maastricht, RAND, IBM, the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Sony, Google, Telematica Instituut, Habitat for Humanity, Cisco, Greenpeace, the University of Haifa, AT&T, Unisinos, Goteborg University, Jupiter Research, Sheffield University, CNET, Microsoft, the University of Sao Paulo, Intel, ISTOE Online, NASSCOM, Amazon.com, Wal-Mart.com, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Sprint, Intuit, HP Laboratories, the Centre for Policy Modelling, ICT Strategies, Bipolar Dream, the Benton Foundation, Semacode, Widgetwonder, Curtin University of Technology, the Hearst Corporation, Imaginova, CNN, Adobe Systems, Forrester Research, the Community Broadband Coalition, Universidad de Navarra, The Center on Media and Society, the Association for the Advancement of Information Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Institute of Network Cultures, The Institute for the Future, O’Reilly, Yomux Media, Nortel, Radboud University Nijmegen, Disney, Harvard University, the London School of Economics, Geekcorps, Polaris Venture Partners, InternetPerils, Consumer’s Union, the University of Copenhagen, the University of California-Berkeley, the Singapore Internet Research Center, Princeton University, the federal government of Canada, the U.S. Congress, several technology policy divisions of the U.S. government and many dozens of others.
Participants described their primary area of internet interest as “research scientist” (19%); “entrepreneur/business leader” (12%); “technology developer or administrator” (11%); “author/editor/journalist” (10%); “futurist/consultant” (9%); “advocate/voice of the people/activist user” (8%); “legislator/politician” (2%); or “pioneer/originator” (1%); the remainder of participants (29%) chose “other” for this survey question or did not respond.
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 inspire the illumination of issues, not because we think any of them will necessarily come to fruition.
The scenarios themselves were drawn from some of the responses about the future that were made in our 2004 survey. The scenarios were also crafted from predictions made in reports by the United States National Intelligence Council, the United Nations Working Group on Internet Governance, The Institute for the Future, Global Business Network and other foresight organizations and individual foresight leaders.2
The 2020 scenarios were constructed to elicit responses to many-layered issues, so it was sometimes the case that survey participants would agree with most 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 – each proposed scenario and the request to rank priorities for the future of the internet – 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 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 in-depth responses are included on the Imagining the Internet site, available at: http://www.elon.edu/predictions.
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. Many full elaborations are included in the dozens of extra pages of detail included on the Imagining the Internet online site.