Experts say the Internet will become ‘like electricity’ over the next decade–less visible, yet more deeply embedded in people’s lives, with many good and potentially bad results
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Washington, D.C. (March 11, 2014)—Asked to predict how technology will change over the next decade, hundreds of experts agree that trends now underway will make the internet more important even as it becomes less visible in daily life. They believe it will become more “like electricity” and produce vastly greater human and machine connectivity that will change everything from personal interactions to the decisions made by governments around the world.
This report, part of a series titled “Digital Life in 2025,” is a compilation of imaginings by nearly 1,500 experts who responded to an online canvassing by the Pew Research Center in association with Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center. The experts were asked an open-ended question about how technology will impact life by the year 2025. While most experts agreed on the trajectory of tech change that lies ahead, there was considerable disagreement about its ramifications. Most say by the year 2025 there will be:
- A global, immersive, invisible, ambient networked computing environment
- A continued proliferation of smart sensors, cameras, software, databases and massive data centers in a world-spanning information fabric known as the Internet of Things
- Portable/wearable/implantable technologies that will allow people to “augment reality”
- 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
Technology trends that are evident today are expected to continue, with both positive and negative effects on health, education, work, politics, economics and entertainment. Most say they believe the results of extreme connectivity will be primarily positive. However, when asked to describe the good and bad aspects of the future, many experts also clearly identified areas of concern, some of them extremely threatening.
“It is striking how much consensus there is among these experts on what will change, and equally striking how varied their answers are when they are asked how those changes will impact and influence users in good and bad ways,” noted Elon University Professor Janna Anderson, a primary author of the report. “This is the sixth ‘Future of the Internet’ survey we have conducted since 2004, and for the first time most people are seeing and vividly describing as many potential negatives as they are identifying positives. They worry about interpersonal ethics, surveillance, terror and crime and the inevitable backlash as governments and industry try to adjust.”
The predictions can be grouped into 15 themes about the digital future – eight hopeful, six worrisome, and another as a neutral source of advice about choices that must be made. They are:
Mostly-hopeful 2025 scenarios identified by the experts
- 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.
- The spread of the Internet will enhance global connectivity, fostering more positive relationships among societies.
- The Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and big data will make people more aware of their world and their own behavior.
- Augmented reality and wearable devices will be implemented to monitor and give quick feedback on daily life, especially in regard to personal health.
- Political awareness and action will be facilitated and more peaceful change, and more public uprisings like the Arab Spring will emerge.
- The spread of the “Ubernet” will diminish the meaning of borders, and new “nations” of those with shared interests may emerge online and exist beyond the capacity of current nation-states to control.
- The Internet will become “the Internets” as access, systems and principles are renegotiated.
- An Internet-enabled revolution in education will spread more opportunities, with less money spent on buildings and teachers.
The 2025 scenarios that raise concerns
- Dangerous divides between haves and have-nots may expand, resulting in resentment and possible violence.
- Abuses and abusers will ‘evolve and scale.’ Human nature isn’t changing; there’s laziness, bullying, stalking, stupidity, pornography, dirty tricks, crime, and the offenders will have new capacity to make life miserable for others.
- Pressured by these changes, governments and corporations will try to assert power – and at times succeed – as they invoke security and cultural norms.
- 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.
- Humans and their current organizations may not respond quickly enough to challenges presented by complex networks.
- 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.
The Experts’ Advice: Make good choices todayForesight and accurate predictions can make a difference; “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
“A modern adage is that change isn’t best measured when a small number of people try a new thing; the biggest disruption comes when adoption is ubiquitous,” said Lee Rainie of the Pew Research Center and a co-author of the report. “These experts are convinced that the spread of connectivity will yield changes that people will really appreciate and changes they might hate.”
The report about these predictions comes in the sixth canvassing of experts done by the Pew Research Center in association with the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University. It is the first report generated out of the results of a Web-based survey fielded from late November 2013 to early January 2014. It gathered opinions on eight Internet issues from a select group of experts and the highly engaged Internet public. (The full set of expert predictions, for-credit and anonymous can be found here: http://www.elon.edu/e-web/imagining/surveys/2014_survey/2025_Internet_Impact.xhtml)
The experts speak: A wide-ranging selection of respondents’ remarks
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 and studying the digital present.
Devices will have their own social networks, pervasive and invisible
David Clark, an Internet Hall of Famer and 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.”
New business models, Internet voting, privacy, MOOCs
Vint Cerf, Internet protocol inventor and Google vice president, 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.”
‘More seamless and integrated’
danah boyd, a researcher for Microsoft and author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, responded, “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.”
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 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 then wrote: “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.”
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.”
‘Potential of 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?’
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.’”
A literacy dividend arises
Hal Varian, chief economist for Google, wrote, “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.
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.”
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.”