This report covers results from the 13th “Future of the Internet” canvassing by Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center.
Participants were asked to respond to several questions about the tone and impact of the online environment and the trajectory of activities in the digital public sphere that have recently been raising deepening societal concerns. Invitations to participate were emailed to more than 10,000 experts and members of the interested public. They were invited to weigh in via a web-based instrument that was open to them from June 29-Aug. 2, 2021. Overall, 862 people responded to at least one question. Results reflect comments fielded from a nonscientific, nonrandom, opt-in sample and are not projectable to any population other than the individuals expressing their points of view in this sample.
Respondent answers were solicited though the following prompts:
The evolution of digital spaces by 2035: This canvassing of experts is prompted by debates about the evolution of digital spaces and whether online life is moving in a positive or negative direction when it comes to the overall good of society. Some analysts and activists are fearful about the trajectory of digital activities; others are less concerned about the things that are happening. So, we start with a question about the way you see things evolving.
The question: Considering the things you see occurring online, which statement comes closer to your view about the evolution of digital spaces:
- Digital spaces are evolving in ways that are both positive and negative.
- Digital spaces are evolving in a MOSTLY POSITIVE way that is likely to lead to a BETTER future for society.
- Digital spaces are evolving in a MOSTLY NEGATIVE way that is likely to lead to a WORSE future for society.
- Digital spaces are not evolving in one direction or another.
Results for this question regarding the current evolution of digital spaces:
- 70% said digital spaces are evolving in ways that are both positive and negative.
- 18% said digital spaces are evolving in a mostly negative way that is likely to lead to a worse future for society.
- 10% said digital spaces are evolving in a mostly positive way that is likely to lead to a better future for society.
- 3% said digital spaces are not evolving in one direction or another.
The following quantitative prompt and research questions of this study were:
Bettering the digital public sphere: An Atlantic Monthly piece by Anne Applebaum and Peter Pomerantsev, “How to Put Out Democracy’s Dumpster Fire,” provides an overview of the questions that are being raised about the tone and impact of digital life: How much harm does the current online environment cause? What kinds of changes in digital spaces might have an impact for the better? Will technology developers, civil society, and government and business leaders find ways to create better, safer, more-equitable digital public spaces?
The question: Looking ahead to 2035, can digital spaces and people’s use of them be changed in ways that significantly serve the public good?
- YES, by 2035, digital spaces and people’s use of them will change in ways that significantly serve the public good.
- NO, by 2035, digital spaces and people’s use of them will NOT change in ways that significantly serve the public good.
Results for the Yes-No quantitative question regarding the current evolution of digital spaces:
- 61% said by 2035, digital spaces and people’s uses of them WILL change in ways that significantly serve the public good.
- 39% said by 2035, digital spaces and people’s uses of them WILL NOT change in ways that significantly serve the public good.
Respondents’ answers to this follow-up prompt to elicit their open-end written answers constitute the content of this report:
If you answered YES to the last question, please tell us how you imagine this transformation of digital spaces and digital life will take place: What reforms or initiatives may have the biggest impact? What beneficial role do you see tech leaders and/or politicians and/or public audiences playing in this evolution? What will be noticeably improved about digital life for the average user 2035? What current problems do you see being diminished? Which will persist and continue to raise major concerns?
If you answered NO to the last question, why do you think digital spaces and digital life will not be substantially better by 2035? What aspects of human nature, internet governance, laws and regulations, technology tools and digital spaces do you think are so entrenched that things will not much change? Are there any ways in which you think things could change for the better – even if the change isn’t dramatic?
The web-based instrument was first sent directly to an international set of experts (primarily U.S.-based) identified and accumulated by Pew Research Center and Elon University during previous studies, as well as those identified in a 2003 study of people who made predictions about the likely future of the internet between 1990 and 1995. Additional experts with proven interest in the health of the digital public sphere and related aspects of these particular research topics were also added to the list. We invited a large number of professionals and policy people from government bodies and technology businesses, think tanks and interest networks (for instance, those that include professionals and academics in law, ethics, political science, economics, social and civic innovation, sociology, psychology and communications); globally located people working with communications technologies in government positions; technologists and innovators; top universities’ engineering/computer science, political science, sociology/anthropology and business/entrepreneurship faculty, graduate students and postgraduate researchers; plus some who are active in civil society organizations that focus on digital life and those affiliated with newly emerging nonprofits and other research units examining the impacts of digital life.
Among those invited were researchers, developers and business leaders from leading global organizations, including Oxford, Cambridge, MIT, Stanford and Carnegie Mellon universities; Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Twitter; leaders active in the advancement of and innovation in global communications networks and technology policy, such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), Internet Society (ISOC), International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Invitees were encouraged to share the survey link with others they believed would have an interest in participating, thus there may have been somewhat of a “snowball” effect as some invitees invited others to weigh in.
The respondents’ remarks reflect their personal positions and are not the positions of their employers; the descriptions of their leadership roles help identify their backgrounds and the locus of their expertise. Some responses are lightly edited for style and readability.
A large number of the expert respondents elected to remain anonymous. Because people’s level of expertise is an important element of their participation in the conversation, anonymous respondents were given the opportunity to share a description of their internet expertise or background, and this was noted, when available, in this report.
In this canvassing, 64% of respondents answered at least one of the demographic questions. Some 67% of these 550 people identified as male, 31% as female and 1% identified themselves in some other way. Some 77% identified themselves as being based in North America, while 23% are located in other parts of the world. When asked about their “primary area of interest,” 39% identified themselves as professor/teacher; 14% as futurists or consultants; 12% as research scientists; 8% as advocates or activist users; 8% as technology developers or administrators; 7% as entrepreneurs or business leaders; 4% as pioneers or originators; and 8% specified their primary area of interest as “other.”
Following is a list noting a selection of key respondents who took credit for their responses on at least one of the overall topics in this canvassing. Workplaces are included to show expertise; they reflect the respondents’ job titles and locations at the time of this canvassing.
Charles Anaman, founder of waaliwireless.co, based in Ghana; Anna Andreenkova, professor of sociology at CESSI; Peng Hwa Ang, professor of media law and policy at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore; Chris Arkenberg, research manager at Deloitte’s Center for Technology Media and Communications; David Barnhizer, professor of law emeritus, author and human rights expert; John Battelle, co-founder and CEO of Recount Media; Robert Bell, co-founder of Intelligent Community Forum; Lucy Bernholz, director of Stanford University’s Digital Civil Society Lab; Francine Berman, distinguished professor of computer science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Bruce Bimber, professor of political science and founder of the Center for Information Technology and Society at the University of California-Santa Barbara; Valerie Bock, principal at VCB Consulting; Gary A. Bolles, chair for the future of work at Singularity University; danah boyd, founder of the Data & Society Research Institute and principal researcher at Microsoft; Stowe Boyd, managing director and founder of Work Futures; Tim Bray, founder and principal at Textuality Services (previously at Amazon); Jamais Cascio, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future; Vinton G. Cerf, Internet Hall of Fame member and vice president and chief internet evangelist at Google; Barry Chudakov, founder and principal at Sertain Research; Christina J. Colclough, founder of the Why Not Lab; Susan Crawford, a professor at Harvard Law School and former special assistant in the Obama White House; Olivier Crépin-Leblond, founding member of the European Dialogue on Internet Governance; Willie Currie, retired global internet governance leader with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa; Mark Davis, associate professor of communications at the University of Melbourne; Amali De Silva-Mitchell, founder/coordinator of the IGF Dynamic Coalition on Data-Driven Health Technologies; Cory Doctorow, activist journalist and author of “How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism”; Judith Donath, faculty fellowat Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center; Stephen Downes, expert with the Digital Technologies Research Centre of the National Research Council of Canada; Esther Dyson, internet pioneer and executive founder of Wellville.net; Ayden Férdeline, public-interest technologist based in Berlin, Germany; Seth Finkelstein, principal at Finkelstein Consulting and Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award winner; Marcus Foth, professor of informatics at Queensland University of Technology; Carl Frey, director of the Future of Work project at Oxford University; Mei Lin Fung, chair of People-Centered Internet; Oscar Gandy, emeritus scholar of the political economy of information at the University of Pennsylvania; Randall Gellens, director at Core Technology Consulting; Jerome Glenn, co-founder and CEO of The Millennium Project; Michael H. Goldhaber, author, consultant and theoretical physicist who wrote early explorations on the digital attention economy; Jonathan Grudin, principal human-computer design researcher at Microsoft; Don Heider, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University; James Hendler, director of the Institute for Data Exploration and Applications and professor of computer, web and cognitive sciences at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Perry Hewitt, chief marketing officer at data.org; Brock Hinzmann, co-chair of the Millennium Project’s Silicon Valley group; Terri Horton, work futurist at FuturePath; Gus Hosein, executive director of Privacy International; Alexander B. Howard, director of the Digital Democracy Project; Stephan G. Humer, sociologist and computer scientist at Fresenius University of Applied Sciences in Berlin; Alan S. Inouye, director of the Office for Information Technology Policy at the American Library Association; Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for entrepreneurial journalism at City University of New York; Frank Kaufmann, president of the Twelve Gates Foundation; Nazar Nicholas Kirama, president of the Internet Society chapter in Tanzania and founder of the Digital Africa Forum; Michael Kleeman, senior fellow at the University of California-San Diego; Hans Klein, associate professor of public policy at Georgia Tech; Bart Knijnenburg, associate professor of human-centered computing at Clemson University; David J. Krieger, director of the Institute for Communication and Leadership; Kent Landfield, chief standards and technology policy strategist; Larry Lannom, vice president at the Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI); Evan Leibovitch, director of community development at Linux Professional Institute; Mike Liebhold, distinguished fellow, retired, at The Institute for the Future; Leah Lievrouw, professor of information studies at UCLA; Clifford Lynch, director of the Coalition for Networked Information; Sean Mead, strategic lead at Ansuz Strategy; Richard H. Miller, CEO and managing director at Telematica and executive chairman at Provenant Data; Alan Mutter, consultant and former Silicon Valley CEO; Russell Newman, associate professor of digital media and culture at Emerson College; Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist; Beth Simone Noveck, director of the Governance Lab; Kunle Olorundare, vice president of the Nigeria Chapter of the Internet Society; Jay Owens, research and innovation consultant with New River Insight; Ian Peter, Australian internet pioneer, futurist and consultant; Peter Padbury, Canadian futurist and consultant; Alejandro Pisanty, professor of internet and information society at National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM); David Porush, writer, longtime professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Adam Clayton Powell III, executive director of the Election Cybersecurity Initiative at the University of Southern California; Calton Pu, professor of computer science at Georgia Tech; Alexa Raad, chief purpose and policy officer at Human Security; Courtney C. Radsch, journalist, author and free-expression advocate; Srinivasan Ramani, Internet Hall of Fame member and pioneer of the internet in India; Rob Reich, associate director of the Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence initiative at Stanford University; Howard Rheingold, pioneering internet sociologist, author of “The Virtual Community”; Zak Rogoff, research analyst at the Ranking Digital Rights project; Carolina Rossini, international technology law and policy consultant; Marc Rotenberg, president and founder of the Center for AI and Digital Policy; Eileen Rudden, co-founder of LearnLaunch; Douglas Rushkoff, digital theorist and host of the NPR One podcast “Team Human”; Paul Saffo, a leading Silicon Valley-based forecaster; Rich Salz, a senior director of security services at Akamai Technologies; Scott Santens, senior advisor at Humanity Forward; Melissa Sassi, Global Head of IBM Hyper Protect Accelerator; Raashi Saxena, project officer at The IO Foundation; Doc Searls, internet pioneer and co-founder and board member at Customer Commons; William L. Schrader, advisor to CEOs, previously co-founder of PSINet; Henning Schulzrinne, Internet Hall of Fame member and former CTO for the Federal Communications Commission; Evan Selinger, professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology; Ben Shneiderman, distinguished professor of computer science and founder of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland; Toby Shulruff, senior technology safety specialist at the National Network to End Domestic Violence; Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation; Brad Templeton, internet pioneer, futurist and activist, chair emeritus of the Electronic Frontier Foundation; Ed Terpening, industry analyst with the Altimeter Group; Joseph Turow, professor of media systems and industries, University of Pennsylvania; Maja Vujovic, director of Compass Communications; Wendell Wallach, senior fellow with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs; Amy Sample Ward, CEO of the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network; David Weinberger, senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society; Brooke Foucault Welles, associate professor of communication studies at Northeastern University; Jeremy West, senior digital policy analyst at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD); Tom Wolzien, inventor, analyst and media executive; Andrew Wyckoff, director of the OECD’s Directorate for Science, Technology and Innovation; Christopher Yoo, founding director of the Center for Technology, Innovation and Competition at the University of Pennsylvania; Amy Zalman, futures strategist and founder of Prescient Foresight; Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Initiative on Digital Public Infrastructure at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
A selection of institutions at which some of the respondents work or have affiliations:
AAI Foresight; Access Now; Akamai Technologies; Altimeter Group; Amazon; Aoyama Gakuin University; American Enterprise Institute; American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology; American Library Association; Ansuz Strategy; APNIC; Arizona State University; Asian Development Bank; The Associated Press; Atlantic Council; Australian National University; Bar-Ilan University; Benton Institute; Botswana Communications Regulatory Authority; Brookings Institution; Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society; Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Carnegie Mellon University; Center for a New American Security; Center for Data Innovation; Center for Global Enterprise; Center for Strategic and International Studies; Centre for International Governance Innovation; CESSI; Cisco Systems; City University of New York; Coalition for Networked Information; Columbia University; Compass Communications; Conmergence; Constellation Research; Convocation Design + Research; Core Technology Consulting; Cornell University; Council of Europe; Data & Society Research Institute; Data Science Institute at Columbia; Davis Wright Tremaine; Dell EMC; Deloitte; The Digital Democracy Project; Digital Grassroots; Digital Value Institute; Diplo Foundation; DotConnectAfrica; DX Open Network; Electronic Frontier Foundation; Emerson College; European Broadcasting Union; Facebook; Foresight Alliance; Front Line Defenders; FuturePath; Georgia Institute of Technology; Global Internet Policy Digital Watch; Global Village Ltd; Global Voices; Google; Gridmerge; The Hague Center for Strategic Studies; Harvard University; Hochschule Fresenius University of Applied Sciences; Hokkaido University; IBM; Iggy Ventures; Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN); IDG; Ignite Social Media; Information Technology and Innovation Foundation; Institute for the Future; Instituto Superior Técnico, Portugal; Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies; Institute for Prediction Technology; International Computer Science Institute, Berkeley, California; International Telecommunication Union; Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF); Internet Society; Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE); IO Foundation; Juniper Networks; Kororoit Institute; Le Havre University; Leading Futurists; Lifeboat Foundation; Log Cabin LLC; Limitless Lab; London School of Economics and Political Science; MacArthur Research Network on Open Governance; Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Menlo College; Mercator XXI; Michigan State University; Microsoft Research; Millennium Project; The Morgan Group; Mozilla; Nanyang Technological University, Singapore; New York University; Namibia University of Science and Technology; National Autonomous University of Mexico; National Distance University of Spain; National Research Council of Canada; Nigerian Communications Commission; Nonprofit Technology Network; Northeastern University; North Carolina State University; OECD; Olin College of Engineering; The People-Centered Internet; Plugged Research; Policy Horizons Canada; Predictable Network Solutions; The Providence Group; RAND; Ranking Digital Rights; Recount Media; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Rice University; Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology; RTI International; San Jose State University; Santa Clara University; Shambhala; Shareable; Singularity University; Singapore Management University; Smart Cities Council; Södertörn University, Sweden; Social Brain Foundation; Social Science Research Council; Sorbonne University; South China University of Technology; Stanford University; Stevens Institute of Technology; Superhuman Ltd; Syracuse University; Tallinn University of Technology; Team Human; The TechCast Project; Tech Policy Tank; Telecommunities Canada; Telematica; Textuality; Tignis; Tufts University; The Representation Project; Twelve Gates Foundation; Twitter; United Nations; University of California, Berkeley; University of California, Los Angeles; University of California, San Diego; University College London; University of Hawaii, Manoa; University of Texas, Austin; the Universities of Alabama, Arizona, Dallas, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Miami, Michigan, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rochester, San Francisco and Southern California; the Universities of Amsterdam, British Columbia, Cambridge, Cyprus, Edinburgh, Groningen, Liverpool, Naples, Oslo, Otago, Queensland, Toronto, West Indies; UNESCO; U.S. Army; U.S. Geological Survey; U.S. National Science Foundation; Venture Philanthropy Partners; Verizon; Virginia Tech; Vision2Lead; Vision & Logic; Waaliwireless.co; Waseda University; Wellville; Wikimedia Foundation; Witness; Work Futures; World Bank Group – Nepal; World Economic Forum; World Wide Web Foundation; World Wide Web Consortium; Xponential; and Yale University Center for Bioethics.
Complete sets of credited and anonymous responses can be found here: