Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

The Future of the Internet III


Technology stakeholders and critics were asked in an online survey to assess scenarios about the future social, political, and economic impact of the Internet and they said the following:

  • The mobile device will be the primary connection tool to the Internet for most people in the world in 2020.
  • The transparency of people and organizations will increase, but that will not necessarily yield more personal integrity, social tolerance, or forgiveness.
  • Voice recognition and touch user-interfaces with the Internet will be more prevalent and accepted by 2020.
  • Those working to enforce intellectual property law and copyright protection will remain in a continuing “arms race,” with the “crackers” who will find ways to copy and share content without payment.
  • The divisions between personal time and work time and between physical and virtual reality will be further erased for everyone who’s connected, and the results will be mixed in terms of social relations.
  • “Next-generation” engineering of the network to improve the current Internet architecture is more likely than an effort to rebuild the architecture from scratch.

About the Methodology and Interpreting the Findings

This is the third canvassing of Internet specialists and analysts by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.1 While a wide range of opinion from experts, organizations, and interested institutions was sought, this survey should not be taken as a representative canvassing of Internet experts. By design, this survey was an “opt in,” self-selecting effort. That process does not yield a random, representative sample.

Some 578 leading Internet activists, builders, and commentators responded in this survey to scenarios about the effect of the Internet on social, political, and economic life in the year 2020. An additional 618 stakeholders also participated in the study, for a total of 1,196 participants who shared their views.

Experts were located in two ways. First, nearly a thousand were identified in an extensive canvassing of scholarly, government, and business documents from the period 1990-1995 to see who had ventured predictions about the future impact of the Internet. Several hundred of them participated in the first two surveys conducted by Pew Internet and Elon University, and they were recontacted for this survey. Second, expert 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. For the first time, some respondents were invited to participate through personal messages sent using a social network, Facebook.

In all, 578 experts identified through these channels responded to the survey.

While 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 segment of responders came to the survey by invitation because they are on the email list of the Pew Internet & American Life Project or are otherwise known to the Project. They are not necessarily opinion leaders for their industries or well-known futurists, but it is striking how much their views were distributed in ways that paralleled those who are celebrated in the technology field.

In all, 618 additional respondents participated in this survey from these quarters. Thus, the expert results are reported as the product of 578 responses and the lines listing “all responses” include these additional 618 participants.

This report presents the views of respondents in two ways. First, we cite the aggregate views of those who responded to our survey. Second, we have quoted many of their opinions and predictions in the body of this report, and even more of their views are available on the Elon University-Pew Internet & American Life Project Web site: Scores more responses to each of the scenarios are cited on specific web pages devoted to each scenarios. Those urls are given in the chapters devoted to the scenarios.


Summary 1
Summary 2

Thinking Ahead to 2020: Themes Many Respondents Struck in Their Answers

Here are some of the major themes that run through respondents’ answers:

The mobile phone will be the dominant connection tool:  More than three-quarters of the expert respondents (77%) agreed with a scenario that posited that the mobile computing device—with more-significant computing power in 2020—will be the primary Internet communications platform for a majority of people across the world. They agreed that connection will generally be offered under a set of universal standards internationally, though many registered doubts about corporations’ and regulators’ willingness to make it happen.

Heightened social tolerance may not be a Web 2.0 result:  Respondents were asked if people will be more tolerant in 2020 than they are today. Some 56% of the expert respondents disagreed with a scenario positing that social tolerance will advance significantly by then, saying communication networks also expand the potential for hate, bigotry, and terrorism. Some 32% predicted tolerance will grow. A number of the survey participants indicated that the divide between the tolerant and intolerant could possibly be deepened because of information-sharing tactics people use on the Internet.

Air-typing, touch interfaces, and talking to devices will become common: A notable majority of the respondents (64%) favored the idea that by 2020 user interfaces will offer advanced talk, touch, and typing options, and some added a fourth “T”—think. Those who chose to elaborate in extended responses disagreed on which of the four will make the most progress by 2020. There was a fairly even yes-no split on the likely success of voice-recognition or significant wireless keyboard advances and mostly positive support of the advance of interfaces involving touch and gestures—this was highly influenced by the introduction of the iPhone and various multitouch surface computing platforms in 2007 and 2008. A number of respondents projected the possibility of a thought-based interface—neural networks offering mind-controlled human-computer interaction. Many expressed concerns over rude, overt public displays by people using ICTs (“yakking away on their phones about their latest foot fungus”) and emphasized the desire for people to keep private communications private in future digital interfaces.

IP law and copyright will remain unsettled:  Three out of five respondents (60%) disagreed with the idea that legislatures, courts, the technology industry, and media companies will exercise effective content control by 2020. They said “cracking” technology will stay ahead of technology to control intellectual property (IP) or policy regulating IP. And they predicted that regulators will not be able to come to a global agreement about intellectual property. Many respondents suggested that new economic models will have to be implemented, with an assumption that much that was once classified as paid content will have to be offered free or in exchange for attention or some other unit of value. Nearly a third of the survey respondents (31%) agreed that IP regulation will be successful by 2020; they said more content will be privatized, some adding that this control might be exercised at the hardware level, through Internet-access devices such as smartphones.

The division between personal and professional time will disappear:  A majority of expert respondents (56%) agreed with the statement that in 2020 “few lines (will) divide professional from personal time, and that’s OK.” While some people are hopeful about a hyperconnected future with more freedom, flexibility, and life enhancements, others express fears that mobility and ubiquity of networked computing devices will be harmful for most people by adding to stress and challenging family life and social life.

Network engineering research will build on the status quo—there isn’t likely to be a “next-gen” Internet:  Nearly four out of five respondents (78%) said they think the original Internet architecture will still be in place in 2020 even as it is continually being refined. They did not believe the current Internet will be replaced by a completely new “next-generation” system between now and 2020. Those who wrote extended elaborations to their answers projected the expectation that IPv6 and the Semantic Web will be vital elements in the continuing development of the Internet over the next decade. Among other predictions: there will be more “walled gardens,” separated Internet spaces, created by governments and corporations to maintain network control; governments and corporations will leverage security fears to retain power over individuals; crime, piracy, terror, and other negatives will always be common elements in an open system.

Transparency may or may not make the world a better place:  Respondents were split evenly on whether the world will be a better place in 2020 due to the greater transparency of people and institutions afforded by the Internet: 45% of expert respondents agreed that transparency of organizations and individuals will heighten individual integrity and forgiveness and 44% disagreed. The comments about this prediction were varied: Some argued that transparency is an unstoppable force that has positives and negatives; it might somehow influence people to live lives in which integrity and forgiveness are more likely. Others posited that transparency won’t have any positive influence, in fact it makes everyone vulnerable, and bad things will happen because of it. Still others argued that the concept of “privacy” is changing, it is becoming scarce, and it will be protected and threatened by emerging innovations; tracking and databasing will be ubiquitous; reputation maintenance and repair will be required; some people will have multiple digital identities; some people will withdraw.

Augmented reality and interactive virtual spaces might see more action:  More than half of respondents (55%) agreed with the notion that many lives will be touched in 2020 by virtual worlds, mirror worlds, and augmented reality. Yet 45% either disagreed or didn’t anwer this question, so the sentiment isn’t overwhelming. People’s definitions for the terms “augmented reality” and “virtual reality” are quite varied; smartphones and GPS help people augment reality to a certain extent today and are expected to do more soon; many think today’s social networks qualify as a form of virtual reality while others define it in terms of Second Life or something even more immersive. Some noted that by 2020 augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) will have reached the point of blurring with reality. Many indicated this will enhance the world, providing new opportunities for conferencing, teaching, and 3-D modeling, and some added that breakthroughs to come may bring significant change, including fusion with other developments, such as genetic engineering. Some respondents expressed fear of the negatives of AR and VR, including: new extensions of the digital divide; an increase in violence and obesity; and the potential for addiction or overload. There is agreement that user interfaces have to be much more intuitive for AR and VR to become more universally adopted.

Thinking Ahead to 2020: A Sample of Revealing Quotations and Predictions Selected from the Thousands Submitted

The evolution of the device for connection:  “People in Africa turned paid telephone minutes into an ad-hoc, grassroots, e-currency…There are already reasons why people at the bottom of the economic system need and can use cheap telecommunication. Once they are connected, they will think of their own ways to use connectivity plus computation to relieve suffering or increase wealth.” Howard Rheingold, Internet sociologist and author of “Virtual Community” and “Smart Mobs”

“By 2020, the network providers of ‘telephony’ will have been disintermediated. We’ll have standard network connections around the world…Billions of people will have joined the Internet who don’t speak English. They won’t think of these things as ‘phones’ either—these devices will be simply lenses on the online world.” Susan Crawford, founder of OneWebDay and an Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) board member

“Traditional carriers have little incentive to include poor populations, and the next five years will be rife with battles between carriers, municipal, and federal governments, handset makers, and content creators. I don’t know who will win.” danah boyd, Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society

“Telephones in 2020 will be archaic, relics of a bygone era—like transistor radios are today. Telephony, which will be entirely IP-based by then, will be a standard communications chip on many devices. We’ll probably carry some kind of screen-based reading device that will perform this function, though I assume when we want to communicate verbally, we’ll do so through a tiny, earplug-based device.” Josh Quittner, executive editor of Fortune Magazine and longtime technology journalist and editor

The evolution of social tolerance: “Not in mankind’s nature. The first global satellite link-up was 1967, BBC’s Our World: the Beatles ‘All You Need Is Love,’ and we still have war, genocide, and assassination (Lennon’s poignantly).” Adam Peake, policy analyst for the Center for Global Communications and participant in the World Summit on the Information Society

“Polarization will continue and the people on the extremes will be less tolerant of those opposite them. At the same time, within homogenous groups (religious, political, social, financial, etc.) greater tolerance will likely occur.” Don Heath, Internet pioneer and former president and CEO of the Internet Society

“Tribes will be defined by social enclaves on the Internet, rather than by geography or kinship, but the world will be more fragmented and less tolerant, since one’s real-world surroundings will not have the homogeneity of one’s online clan.” Jim Horning, chief scientist for information security at SPARTA Inc. and a founder of InterTrust’s Strategic Technologies and Architectural Research Laboratory

The evolution of intellectual property law and copyright: “Many people want IP protection, but everyone wants to steal. Regardless of the legal mechanisms so far—e.g., automatic damages, compulsory copyrights—many people would prefer the illegal route, perhaps because it runs up their adrenaline.” Michael Botein, founding director of the Media Law Center at New York University Law School

“Copying data is the natural state of computers; we would have to try to compromise them too much to support this regime.” Brad Templeton, chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation

[digital rights management]

“There will be cross-linking of content provider giants and Internet service provider giants and that they will find ways to milk every last ‘currency unit’ out of the unwitting and defenseless consumer. Governments will be strongly influenced by the business conglomerates and will not do much to protect consumers. (Just think of the outrageous rates charged by cable and phone company TV providers and wireless phone providers today—it will only get worse.)” Steve Goldstein, ICANN board member formerly of the US National Science Foundation

“Copyright is a dead duck in a digital world. The old regime based its power on high distribution costs. Those costs are going to zero. Bye-bye DRM.” Dan Lynch, founder of CyberCash and Interop Company, now a board member of the Santa Fe Institute

“You cannot stop a tide with a spoon. Cracking technology will always be several steps ahead of DRM and content will be redistributed on anonymous networks.” Giulio Prisco, chief executive of Metafuturing Second Life, formerly of CERN

The evolution of privacy and transparency: “We will enter a time of mutually assured humiliation; we all live in glass houses. That will be positive for tolerance and understanding, but—even more important—I believe that young people will not lose touch with their friends as my generation did and that realization of permanence in relationships could—or should—lead to more care in those relationships.” Jeff Jarvis, top blogger at and professor at City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism

“Gen Y has a new notion of privacy. The old ‘never trust anyone over 30’ will turn into ‘never trust anyone who doesn’t have embarrassing stuff online.’” Jerry Michalski, founder and president of Sociate

“Viciousness will prevail over civility, fraternity, and tolerance as a general rule, despite the build-up of pockets or groups ruled by these virtues. Software will be unable to stop deeper and more hard-hitting intrusions into intimacy and privacy, and these will continue to happen.” Alejandro Pisanty, ICANN and Internet Society leader and director of computer services at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

“By 2020, the Internet will have enabled the monitoring and manipulation of people by businesses and governments on a scale never before imaginable. Most people will have happily traded their privacy—consciously or unconsciously—for consumer benefits such as increased convenience and lower prices. As a result, the line between marketing and manipulation will have largely disappeared.” Nicholas Carr, author of the Rough Type blog and “The Big Switch”

“The volume and ubiquity of personal information, clicktrails, personal media, etc., will desensitize us. A super-abundance of transparency will lose its ability to shock. Maybe there will be software-driven real-time reputation insurance service, offering monitoring and repair to dinged reputations. This could be as ordinary as auto insurance or mortgage insurance is today, and as automated as the nightly backups performed by most online businesses. I don’t agree that this will make us any kinder.” Havi Hoffman, Yahoo Developer Network

The evolution of augmented and virtual reality:   “Mirror worlds are multi-dimensional experiences with profound implications for education, medicine, and social interaction. ‘Real life’ as we know it is over. Soon when anyone mentions reality, the first question we will ask is, ‘Which reality are you referring to?’ We will choose our realities, and in each reality there will be truths germane to that reality, and so we will choose our truth as well.”—Barry Chudakov, principal with the Chudakov Company

“We in the present don’t think of ourselves as living in ‘cyberspace,’ even though people of a decade previous would have termed it such. Of the various forms of the metaverse, however, the majority of activity will take place in blended or augmented-reality spaces, not in distinct virtual/alternative world spaces.” Jamais Cascio, a co-author of the “Metaverse Roadmap Overview,” a report on the potential futures of VR, AR, and the geoWeb

“Augmented reality will become nearly the de facto interface standard by 2020, with 2-D and 3-D overlays over real-world objects providing rich information, context, entertainment, and (yes) promotions and offers. At the same time, a metaverse (especially when presented in an augmented-reality-overlay environment) provides compelling ways to facilitate teamwork and collaboration while reducing overall travel budgets.” Jason Stoddard, managing partner at Centric/Agency of Change

“The virtual world removes all barriers of human limitation; you can be anyone you want to be instead of being bound by physical and material limitations. That allows people to be who they naturally are, freed of any perception they may have of themselves based on their ‘real life’—it is the power of removing the barriers of your own perception of yourself.” Tze-Meng Tan, Multimedia Development Corporation in Malaysia, a director at OpenSOS

“We are in the last generation of human fighter pilots. Already, drones in Iraq are piloted in San Diego. What will improve is the ability of the artificial spaces to control physical reality, to expand our reach more effectively in many aspects of the physical universe.” Dick Davies, partner at Project Management and Control Inc. and a past president of the Association of Information Technology Professionals

“In a reaction to the virtual world, entrepreneurs will establish ‘virt-free’ zones where reality is not augmented. In various heavily connected areas, there will be sanctuaries (hotels, restaurants, bars, summer camps, vehicles) which people may visit to separate themselves from adhesion or other realities.” C.R. Roberts, Vancouver-based technology reporter

“For some reason I’ve never been able to comprehend, certain pundits can seriously propose that the wave of the future is chatting using electronic hand-puppets. Flight Simulator is not an aircraft, and typing at a screen is not an augmentation of the real world.” Seth Finkelstein, author of the Infothought blog, writer and programmer

“A map is not the territory and a letter is not the person. We have always had multiple facades, for most, most common, work, home and play. The extension into more immersive ‘unreal’ worlds is going to happen.” Hamish MacEwen, consultant at Open ICT in New Zealand

The evolution of user interfaces:   “There will be ‘subvocal’ inputs that detect ‘almost speech’ that you will, but do not actually voice.  Small sensors on teeth will also let you tap commands. Your eyeballs will track desires, sensed by your eyeglasses. And so on.” David Brin, futurist and author of “The Transparent Society”

“WiFi- and WiMax-enabled badges with voice recognition will act as personal assistants—allowing you to talk with someone by saying their name, to post a voice blog, or access directions from the Internet for the task at hand.” Jim Kohlenberger, director of Voice on the Net Coalition; senior fellow at the Benton Foundation

“I could see a whole physical way of communicating with our technology tools that could be part of our health and exercise. A day answering e-mails could be a full-on physical workout ; )….” Tiffany Shlain, founder of the Webby Awards

“We will see the display interface device separated from the input device over the next 12 years. Display devices will be everywhere, and you will be able to use them with your input device. The input device might be virtual, as in the case of the iPhone or a holographic keyboard, or they might resemble the keyboards and touchpads that people are using today.” Ross Rader, a director with Tucows who is active in the ICANN Registrars constituency

“While air-typing and haptic gestures are widespread and ubiquitous, the arrival of embedded optical displays, thought-transcription, eye-movement tracking, and predictive-behavior modeling will fundamentally alter the human-computer interaction model.” Sean Steele, CEO and senior security consultant for infoLock Technologies

The evolution of network architecture:   “The control-oriented telco (ITU) next-generation network will not fully evolve, the importance of openness and enabling innovation from the edges will prevail; i.e. Internet will essentially retain the key characteristics we enjoy today, mainly because there’s more money to be made.” —Adam Peake, executive research fellow and telecommunications policy analyst at the Center for Global Communications

“Some parts of the Internet may fragment, as nations pursue their own technology trajectories. The Internet is so vastly complex, incremental upgrades seem to be the only way to get anything done…Places like China may make big leaps and bounds because there is less legacy.” Anthony Townsend, research director, The Institute for the Future

“Current Internet standards bodies and core Internet protocols are ossifying to such an extent that security and performance requirements for next-generation applications will require a totally new base platform. If current Internet base protocols survive, it will be as a substrata paved over by new-generation smarter ways of connecting.” Ian Peter, Ian Peter and Associates and the Internet Mark 2 Project

“The Web must still be a messy, fabulous, exciting, dangerous, poetic, depressing, elating place…akin to life; which is not a bad thing.” Luis Santos, Universidade do Minho-Braga, Portugal

“When have we ever stopped crime? If it is a choice between having some criminals around and having a repressive government, I will take the former; they are much easier to deal with.” Leonard Witt, associate professor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia and author of the Webog

“The Internet is not magical; it will be utterly over-managed by commercial concerns, hobbled with ‘security’ micromanagement, and turned into money-shaped traffic for business, the rest 90% paid-for content download and the rest of the bandwidth used for market feedback.”—Tom Jennings, University of California-Irvine, creator of FidoNet and builder of Wired magazine’s first online site

The evolution of work life and home life activity: “Corporate control of workers’ time—in the guise of work/ family balance—now extends to detailed monitoring of when people are on and off work. The company town is replaced by ‘company time-management,’ and it is work time that drives all other time uses. This dystopia challenges the concept of white-collar work, and unionism is increasingly an issue.”—Steve Sawyer, associate professor in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, Penn State University

“The result may be longer, less-efficient working hours and more stressful home life.”—Victoria Nash, director of graduate studies and policy and research officer, the Oxford Internet Institute

“It’s already happened, for better or worse. Get over it.”—Anonymous respondent

(Many additional thoughtful and provocative comments appear in the main report.)

This Report Builds on the Online Resource Imagining the Internet: A History and Forecast

At the invitation of Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, Elon University associate professor Janna Quitney Anderson began a research initiative in the spring semester of 2003 to search for comments and predictions about the future impact of the Internet during the time when the World Wide Web and browsers emerged, between 1990 and 1995. The idea was to replicate the fascinating work of Ithiel de Sola Pool in his 1983 book Forecasting the Telephone: A Retrospective Technology Assessment. Elon students, faculty, and staff studied government documents, technology newsletters, conference proceedings, trade newsletters, and the business press and gathered predictions about the future of the Internet. Eventually, more than 4,000 early ’90s predictions from about 1,000 people were amassed.

The early 1990s predictions are available in a searchable database online at the site Imagining the Internet: A History and Forecast and they are also the basis for a book by Anderson titled Imagining the Internet: Personalities, Predictions, Perspectives (2005, Rowman & Littlefield).

The fruits of that work inspired additional research into the past and future of the Internet, and the Imagining the Internet Web site ( )—now numbering about 6,200 pages—includes results from the entire series of Future of the Internet surveys, video and audio interviews showcasing experts’ predictions about the next 10 to 50 years, a children’s section, tips for teachers, a “Voices of the People” section on which anyone can post his or her prediction, and information about the recent history of communications technology.

We expect the site will continue to serve as a valuable resource for researchers, policy makers, students, and the general public for decades to come. Further, we encourage readers of this report to enter their own predictions at the site.

The series of Future of the Internet surveys is also published in book form by Cambria Press.

  1. The results of the first survey can be found at: The results of the second survey are available at: A more extensive review of all the predictions and comments in that survey can be found at the website for “Imagining the Internet” at

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