PEW: The Future of the Internet IV

I have been invited by Lee Rainie, Director, Pew Internet & American Life Project, to participate in the survey that will lead to the The Future of the Internet IV report, jointly created by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Elon University. As I was taking part on a first phase of the survey, I was kindly asked by Lee Rainie not to disclose my answers before December 21st, 2009, which of course I accepted. Indeed, I want to thank this invitation, as the PEW is an institution I admire for their interesting work.

Hence, here come the questions and answers, which had always to parts: a closed question where one out of two options had to be chosen, and an open space where to elaborate your choice. In general, choosing was always difficult, as rarely in the issues raised had I a clear yes/no or black/white position. Of course, my doubts on my own answers are many, so by any means would I like to sound any categorical at all.

Just below the questions, more information about The Future of the Internet is provided.

Survey questions and answers

 

Will Google make us smart or stupid?
By 2020, people’s use of the internet has enhanced human intelligence; as people are allowed unprecedented access to more information, they become smarter and make better choices. Nicholas Carr was wrong: Google does not make us stupid (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/google).
By 2020, people’s use of the internet has not enhanced human intelligence and it could even be lowering the IQs of most people who use it a lot. Nicholas Carr was right: Google makes us stupid.

Please explain your choice and share your view of the internet’s influence on the future of human intelligence in 2020 – what is likely to stay the same and what will be different in the way human intellect evolves?

The history of humankind is that of work substitution and human enhancement. The Neolithic revolution brought the substitution of some human physical work by animal work. The Industrial revolution brought more substitution of human physical work by machine work. The Digital revolution is implying a significant substitution of human brain work by computers and ICTs in general.

Whenever a substitution has taken place, men has been able to focus on more qualitative tasks, entering a virtuous cycle: the more qualitative the tasks, the more his intelligence develops; and the more intelligent he gets, more qualitative tasks he can perform.

In general, the Internet is implying the substitution of lower level brain work (e.g. memorization, routine and repetitive calculations) leaving more room for more complex and abstract thinking, which triggers the connection of more synapses and, thus, improves intelligence.

On the other hand, the ability to perform more complex and abstract thinking has to be backed with more and better information, which is also being provided by the increasing pervasiveness of the Internet, the availability of data which grows exponentially and, more important, the concurrence of more people (more human beings, more brains) in one’s personal network, thus enriching his knowledge sphere.

Of course, drawbacks can also appear.

Firstly, we have assumed that freeing resources (brain work) automatically implies reallocating the resources in higher level tasks. It can happen, nevertheless, that what remains constant is not total effort, but total output, thus reducing total effort. As obesity might be the side-effect of physical work substitution my machines, mental laziness can become the watermark of mental work substitution by computers, thus having a negative effect instead of a positive one.

Secondly, performing higher levels of mental activity can imply a certain level of mental capacity and some specific skills (digital literacy, abstract thinking, a specific IQ, etc.). If weak men would not be welcome in ancient Sparta, it is very likely that intellectual skills will imply new drivers of social exclusion in the nearer future. Indeed, capacity building, education, training might well be one of the most difficult challenges in the years to come.

 

Will we live in the cloud or on the desktop?
By 2020, most people won’t do their work with software running on a general-purpose PC. Instead, they will work in Internet-based applications, like Google Docs, and in applications run from smartphones. Aspiring application developers will sign up to develop for smart-phone vendors and companies that provide Internet-based applications, because most innovative work will be done in that domain, instead of designing applications that run on a PC operating system.
By 2020, most people will still do their work with software running on a general-purpose PC. Internet-based applications like Google Docs and applications run from smartphones will have some functionality, but the most innovative and important applications will run on (and spring from) a PC operating system. Aspiring application designers will write mostly for PCs.

Please explain your choice and share your view about how major programs and applications will be designed, how they will function, and the role of cloud computing by 2020.

Though it will strongly depend on the path of new technology (hardware, connectivity) adoption, two powerful human (not technological) behaviours are pushing Internet access towards the “cloud”:

  • Mobility: being commuting increasingly important in everyday’s life, and being access to information increasingly a major necessity for many purposes, being able to access this information independently from space (workplace, home, public transportation… the middle of the street, etc.) and time (working hours, weekend… whenever at night, etc.) will push people to acquire mobile devices with which access this information everywhen and everywhere;
  • Ubiquity: tied to mobility, we (will) want to access the same information and in the same way independently of time and place and, more important, independently from the device used. This independence of usage is twofold: same type of device, but two different ones (computer at home, computer at workplace) and different type of device (desktop, smartphone or television).

Syncing amongst a growing number of devices and types of devices is not only difficult, but inefficient, as it requires multiplying computing power and storage power, replicating personal configurations and customizations, etc.

The “cloud” allows unity of data, avoids unnecessary investment in capacity and storage, and eases personal customization, as also configuration data can “live in the cloud”.

The barriers to this evolution are many, but mainly inertia (we’ve been living based on ownership for the whole life) and rights (privacy, security, intellectual property, etc.) are amongst the ones that could be considered as more relevant.

Summing up, I not a general shifting towards the “cloud”, but yes specific areas of software definitely doing so: personal diaries, notes on conferences and all that is related to blogging in general; photos, videos and bookmarks; data sharing, data plotting and graphics and data visualization in general; collaborative documents, especially spreadsheets and reports; etc.

 

Will social relations get better?
In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal friendships, marriage and other relationships, I see that the internet has mostly been a negative force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future.
In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal friendships, marriage and other relationships, I see that the internet has mostly been a positive force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future.

Please explain your choice and share your view of the internet’s influence on the future of human relationships in 2020 – what is likely to stay the same and what will be different in human and community relations?

Two major forces will push human beings towards using ICTs – and the Internet in particular – to enhance their social relationships and, thus, those will have a positive impact on these. In other words: ICTs won’t have an impact on socialization, as if they were an exogenous variable of the equation, but on the contrary: aim for socialization will have an impact on the usage of ICTs, being these the dependent or the endogenous variable of the system.

These forces are the following:

  • Sociability itself: the Aristotelic zoon politikon has found a new, effective, efficient way to get in touch with others and, more important, to increase (their) Dunbar’s number, as the Internet allows for increased interactivity across time and space.
  • The power of the Network Society: the Network Society will increasingly change the shape of social institutions (political parties, governments, schools, firms, associations, etc.), that will lose momentum favouring personal network-like relationships. Social engagement (of whatever kind: learning, working, being a citizen, etc.) will require an active weaving of one’s own web, to find one’s kindred souls, to collude with others to achieve common goals.

If the Internet is to have a negative force on one’s social world it will be due to people being disconnected and, thus, missing plenty of things happening online, things that enlarge and enhance the offline connections and their activities.

 

Will the state of reading and writing be improved?
By 2020, it will be clear that the internet has enhanced and improved reading, writing, and the rendering of knowledge.
By 2020, it will be clear that the internet has diminished and endangered reading, writing, and the intelligent rendering of knowledge.

Please explain your choice and share your view of the internet’s influence on the future of knowledge-sharing in 2020, especially when it comes to reading and writing and other displays of information – what is likely to stay the same and what will be different? What do you think is the future of books?

As the Internet still is intensive in textual information – though image, audio and video are certainly increasing their share – we believe that an improvement of reading should be a direct consequence of higher usage levels of the Internet, both in terms of access to content as in usage of online services.

On the other hand, the possibility – the enablement, actually – that anyone can upload any kind of content to the Internet is yet another way where creativity and all the skills that come with it – abstraction, synthesis, expression, etc – shall be boosted. Being the Internet a knowledge repository in itself, and managing the Internet a knowledge intensive activity, we believe that even the most passive or trivial uses of it can have a positive impact on knowledge processing by humans, that is, reading, writing and rendering of knowledge.

In the future, we might see more and more the integration of different media into multimedia pieces of information. This, of course, will be bound to higher requirements of digital competences. This shift, of course, will also push forward some digital supports in detriment of older ones, but we might see an increase in the total number of digital supports and in the consumption of content. In this sense, we believe it will be good times for the content creation industry and bad times for distribution.

 

Will the willingness of Generation Y / Millennials to share information change as they age?
By 2020, members of Generation Y (today’s “digital natives”) will continue to be ambient broadcasters who disclose a great deal of personal information in order to stay connected and take advantage of social, economic, and political opportunities. Even as they mature, have families, and take on more significant responsibilities, their enthusiasm for widespread information sharing will carry forward.
By 2020, members of Generation Y (today’s “digital natives”) will have “grown out” of much of their use of social networks, multiplayer online games and other time-consuming, transparency-engendering online tools. As they age and find new interests and commitments, their enthusiasm for widespread information sharing will abate.

Please explain your choice and share your view of the internet’s influence on the future of human lifestyles in 2020 – what is likely to stay the same and what will be different? Will the values and practices that characterize today’s younger internet users change over time?

We will see two (apparently) contradictory evolutions in today’s Generation Y’s behaviour. On the one hand, they might abandon some of their current practices of intensive personal content sharing on the Net and usage of some social networking sites and other “friend-focused” practices.

Nevertheless, we believe this will be more a qualitative than a quantitative evolution: quitting some of these activities will be more related to the evolution of their actual tastes – and socialization needs – rather than a matter of “growing out”. Instead, in quantitative terms, we think that the generations that were born with the Internet and, especially, the ones that grew with the Web 2.0 will have specific practices embedded in their social code.

Thus, once in the job market, they might get rid of some practices but translate the essence to their jobs: collaborative working, high exposure of professional portfolios online, working directly on digital and web platforms, or be present in professional (and also personal, of course) networking sites might become common ground and a driver of exclusion for those not being able to live in this landscape.

 

Will our relationship to institutions change?
By 2020, innovative forms of online cooperation will result in significantly more efficient and responsive governments, businesses, non-profits, and other mainstream institutions.
By 2020, governments, businesses, non-profits and other mainstream institutions will primarily retain familiar 20th century models for conduct of relationships with citizens and consumers online and offline.

Please explain your choice and share your view of the internet’s influence upon the future of institutional relationships with their patrons and customers between now and 2020. We are eager to hear what you think of how social, political, and commercial endeavors will form and the way people will cooperate in the future.

Institutions are in dire crisis. Most institutions (schools and universities, political parties and governments, enterprises, clubs and associations) were created to lower the costs of gathering information, engaging with our peers and taking decisions or perform some tasks.

When these costs drop because of digital technologies, many institutions have to re-think where are they adding value and where not, having to be able to get rid of the value-less activities they perform and concentrate in the ones that still make sense.

But two major risks may arise from this situation.

The first one is that to circumvent institutions, or to differently relate with them and the rest of the community, a new set of skills and, over all, time, will be highly required. Though new skills might be more or less easy to acquire (though they will certainly be a driver of exclusion), time will still be scarce and a major barrier for higher levels of participation and engagement.

The second, and related with the former, is that time-wealthy individuals (or the ones that can “buy” time by “externalizing” other time-consuming activities) will take up with the power to dialogue face-to-face with the (new) institutions. The danger, of course, will appear when these individuals are not representative of the majority of the citizenry and/or only representative of small elites and plutocracies.

Thus, lack of engagement by many and intense engagement by a few can lead up to the replacement of old institutions by new networks which will act as the previous institutions (i.e. concentrating power) but much less transparent and accountant because of their centralization.

 

Will online anonymity still be prevalent?
By 2020, the identification ID systems used online are tighter and more formal – fingerprints or DNA-scans or retina scans. The use of these systems is the gateway to most of the internet-enabled activity that users are able to perform such as shopping, communicating, creating content, and browsing. Anonymous online activity is sharply curtailed.
By 2020, internet users can do a lot of normal online activities anonymously even though the identification systems used on the internet have been applied to a wider range of activities. It is still relatively easy for internet users to create content, communicate, and browse without publicly disclosing who they are.

Please explain your choice and share your view about the future of anonymous activity online by the year 2020.

We expect opposite trends in matters of identification and anonymity on the Net.

On the one hand, as e-commerce, e-administration, e-democracy or e-learning grow (and we definitely think they will), robust and fool-proof identification systems will become more and more usual and even normal in everyday life. We will grow used to real identification in many places and will be happy to, as the user experience will benefit from it: more personalization in services, less hazard of being the victim of cybercrime, more efficiency in online transactions, etc.

The rise of the e-portfolio (academic or professional, personal or institutional) will have its multiplier effect in requiring more formal and frequent online identification.

On the other hand, better search engines (absolutely pervasive in their web scanning), augmented reality and the blurring of online and offline life, and more surveillance by governments and criminal organizations (and especially when both collude in corrupt or non-democratic regimes) will demand an increased need for anonymity just for the sake of personal security.

 

Will the Semantic Web have an impact?
By 2020, the Semantic Web envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee and his allies will have been achieved to a significant degree and have clearly made a difference to the average internet users.
By 2020, the Semantic Web envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee will not be as fully effective as its creators hoped and average users will not have noticed much of a difference.

Please explain your choice and share your view of the likelihood that the Semantic Web will have been implemented by 2020 and be a force for good in internet users’ eyes.

The Semantic Web is a liquid concept that has changed as technology – and socioeconomic – interests have evolved along time. In a broad sense, the Semantic Web is about machines understanding humans – their behaviour, their actions, their knowledge outcomes – without these having to tell or command them.

In this broad sense, the Semantic Web is likely to leap forward in the coming years. Augmented reality will begin to seriously bridge the offline and the online worlds or, better said, to bridge analogue and digital worlds.

This bridge will accelerate the already vertiginous path towards pouring immense amounts of data in digital format, which will definitely help search engines and all computing tasks in general in performing semantic activities. Of course, the evolution of hardware will also contribute in this, and we are likely to see an understandable “step back” in software design: it might become worth it to replace clever algorithms with brute force ones, where quantitative approaches (more data with more computing power) might be better than qualitative ones (related with efficiency based on metadata attached to data).

In any case, despite the state of evolution of the Semantic Web, a point of no return will by then have been reached in the way we understand the dichotomy of analogue and digital, and having entered a new paradigm where offline vs. online will no more make much sense.

 

Are the next takeoff technologies evident now?
The hot gadgets and applications that will capture the imagination of users in 2020 are pretty evident today and will not take many of today’s savviest innovators by surprise.
The hot gadgets and applications that will capture the imagination of users in 2020 will often come “out of the blue” and not have been anticipated by many of today’s savviest innovators.

Please explain your choice and share your view of its implications for the future. What do you think will be the hot gadgets, applications, technology tools in 2020?

There is always a temptation to think that everything has already been discovered and there is plenty of examples that any predictions in this sense have almost always failed.

Thus, more than a forecast, we would like to state a will that seems to be shared quite broadly amongst the society at last: consolidation instead of novelties.

The path of innovation in gadgets and online applications in the last years has been so incredibly accelerate that there seems to be a common voice towards leaving room for clever and useful adoption. We believe, hence, that this demand will resonate in suppliers, that might turn and look at how helping the user (the customer) in getting the best of innovation rather than in innovation per se.

This will, indeed, decrease cutting edge technology in favour of major and mass adoption.

Despite this “democratization” of cutting edge technology and “geekery” at large, ubiquity and the blurring of the lines that separate online from offline and analogue from digital will doubtlessly push forward innovations that will (hopefully) seem to come out of William Gibson’s novels.

 

Will the internet still be dominated by the end-to-end principle?
In the years between now and 2020, the internet will mostly remain a technology based on the end-to-end principle that was envisioned by the internet’s founders. Most disagreements over the way information flows online will be resolved in favor of a minimum number of restrictions over the information available online and the methods by which people access it.
In the years between now and 2020, the internet will mostly become a technology where intermediary institutions that control the architecture and significant amounts of content will be successful in gaining the right to manage information and the method by which people access and share it.

Please explain your choice, note organizations you expect to be most likely to influence the future of the internet and share your view of the effects of this between now and 2020.

There will be an increase in the will to monitor and control the Internet, but it will not take place in the carriers but in the ends. We believe that the Web 2.0 has reinforced the decentralized structure of the Internet, not only technologically, but also conceptually, where anyone can create a knowledge node in matters of minutes.

But this individual empowerment has also provided tools to people and institutions aiming at monitoring or controlling the Internet. Thus, it will be more efficient to, as in judo, gain momentum by benefiting from others’ energy rather than to fight it. E.g. it will be more effective to identify political dissidents by monitoring social networking sites rather than applying rough censorship on ISPs.

On the other hand, we are likely to see a definitive acknowledgement that some business models have changed forever and that controlling the Internet and the carriers will provide no positive results – on the contrary, loss of opportunities and revenues in benefit of competitors adapting more quickly.

More Information

The report has already been published:

Anderson, J. Q. & Rainie, L. (2010). The Future of the Internet IV. Washington, DC: Pew Internet & American Life Project.

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2009) “PEW: The Future of the Internet IV” In ICTlogy, #75, December 2009. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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