Tomorrow marks the 25th anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee’s initial proposal for what would become the World Wide Web. Think about how different media and technology were in 1989 from today. Now imagine how different things might look at a year that sounded like science fiction not that long ago: 2025.
That’s the idea behind a new report from the Pew Research Center that asked a lot of smart people what digital life might look like a little over a decade from now. The good? Optimism about the Internet of the future’s capacity to improve education, enhance global partnerships, better our healthcare system, increase political awareness and engagement, and generally follow through on the promise of the Internet of Things. The bad? An expanded global wealth gap, privacy reduced to a luxury for the rich, and…mind control.
The project, done in conjunction with Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Project, involved reaching out to experts in fields of communication, finance, government, security, physical and social science, the arts and beyond. While many respondents chose to remain anonymous, about 10 percent self-identified as authors, editors, or journalists. The effort was headed by Lee Rainie and Maeve Duggan of Pew and Elon professor Janna Anderson, who analyzed the responses and organized them into categories of “more hopeful” and “less hopeful” and into more specific themes.
Interestingly, it was often the most pessimistic contributors who chose to contribute their predictions anonymously. Write the authors: “[I]t seems that being online augments humans’ tendencies toward all of the ‘seven deadly sins’: envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath.” One contributor, Mikey O’Connor, took it even further, writing, “The Internet will be used as the most effective force of mind control the planet has ever seen, leaving the Madison Avenue revolution as a piddling, small thing by comparison.”
Only a few contributors commented on issues of media consumption, news networks, sharing behaviors, and the future of digital journalism. Many said we’d continue to see more of what we’ve already seen — namely, disruption. Wrote Caroline Haythornthwaite of the iSchool at the University of British Columbia, “The most significant impact will be on the ability to maintain work, socialize, family connections across distances. Open access will also be an impact, with continued reshuffling of publication and dissemination practices (scholarly communication, music, film, news.) There will also be a re-juggling of economic infrastructure — i.e., news business as a key example, but higher education coming right behind.”
Bill Woodcock of the Packet Clearing House also spoke to how increased connectedness will reduce the importance of place. In addition to highlighting, as many participants did, the profound impact of society’s access to information, Woodcock wrote, “It’s also important that the Internet facilitates communities of interest, rather than communities of coincidental geographic proximity. People who would in prior generations have assumed themselves to be abnormal now find themselves at the centers of thriving communities.”
Other arguments familiar to the journalism crowd that pop up in the report have to do with the nature of truth on the Internet. In the age of viral hoaxes, we’re almost too accustomed to the arguments made by John Saguto, who works on disaster response with GIS. He writes, “Truth and accuracy will be the challenge. The bad impacts include purposeful misinformation and nanosecond attention spans. Immediate satisfaction and ADD-type mentalities will be accepted as being normal.” He adds, however, a caveat that, while not commonly considered today, appears more than once in the report: “We will see mental illness from overwhelming information access, as well as degenerative body fitness.”
While Saguto believes that unlimited access will impair our ability to recognize truth, others, including founder of the first commercial ISP William Schrader, ultimately believes that in the future, the web will function in service of greater truth. Writes Schrader, “The Internet will help everyone understand, without government or the wealthy interfering with transmission, the challenges facing mankind…The problem in times before the Internet was the government could easily manipulate the news that went out to its population — lies and secrets. Now, the Internet tells everything about the government’s manipulations, even if it is considered illegal to do so (witness Edward Snowden’s actions).”
The question of whether that kind of access to the truth was more likely to cause global unrest or an overall more peaceful way of living was largely undecided in the report. For example, mobile technologies are undoubtedly increasing and expanding access to information at a rapid rate, but while closing the digital divide is important, the results may not always look good on the surface. Writes Rui Correia from Namibia, “With mobile technologies and information-sharing apps becoming ubiquitous, we can expect some significant improvement in the awareness of otherwise illiterate and ill-informed rural populations to opportunities missed out by manipulative and corrupt governments. Like the Arab Spring, we can expect more and more uprisings to take place as people become more informed and able to communicate their concerns.”
Almost all respondents seemed to agree on one thing — what the Internet will increasingly allow us to do in terms of communicating with other people and distributing information is unprecedented. The onus is often on us, however, to determine whether the content we push out into the digital world is quality, compelling information or garbage.
This dilemma is of special interest to the journalism community, of course, which is likely what led the AP’s Jim Kennedy to write, “The great risk is that we will fail to harness that power in ways that are more useful than useless and more beneficial to our world than harmful. Enabling the flow of information to be constant and contextual at the same time will unleash opportunity in almost every realm of our experience.” An anonymous professor echoed that warning, praising the potential of rapid communication and the democratization of information, but warning, “We just have to be sure we have backup plans because we are all a little too trusting that the network, power, and so forth will always work. And we also have to find ways to get exercise, communicate face-to-face, and use the Internet as a tool for change, not just a place to watch cat videos.”
Another anonymous professor was more pessimistic, offering frequently heard cautions about the filter bubble:
While there are many concerns, the greatest may be the most easily overlooked. This is the change in how ordinary citizens gather information (i.e., receive news) about any issue/topic. As ‘news’ and information are increasingly gathered from a variety of outlets (i.e., traditional, new, interpersonal, networked, and not), and outlets are increasingly polarized, it is obvious that the Internet is not the ‘great equalizer’ that we once thought it was. There is a dark side, which is seen as people increasingly link to like-minded others/information and disassociate with dissimilar others/information. The need to foster media literacy education will increase (and we should be greatly concerned if nothing is done about it).
Despite digital media’s disappointments, Doc Searls appears to have retained some faith in his fellow man, writing: “Organizations in the meantime will continue rationalizing negative externalities, such as we see today with pollution of the Internet’s pathways by boundless wasted advertising messages, and bots working to game the same business. But, as Clay Shirky says, the sign of a good idea is that it’s easy to imagine bad uses of it. Civilization deals with bad acting through development of manners, norms, laws and regulations.” Indeed, it’s essential to remember that, in the future, news producers will continue to be shaped by the Internet, but in the present, they have an opportunity to shape it.
Not all of the rhetoric in Pew’s report was so high minded, nor so dour. At turns, the contributions took on slightly more fantastical roles. For example, Tom Standage, digital editor at The Economist, wrote, “We will see augmented reality as the new interface for information. Overlaying it on the real world will come to be seen as an enormous shift; historically, there will be a period before and after the advent of the ‘aug,’ as some sci-fi writers call it. In retrospect, telephony and smartphones and social media and Wikipedia will be seen as mere steps towards this larger goal.”
And, from a mysteriously anonymous source who purports to be an executive at a national news organization, we get this tantalizing peek into the future of news: “Artificial intelligence will be much more ubiquitous and will revolutionize how we travel, manufacture products, and communicate.”
Overall, the Pew report raises few radically new concerns, and it might have been interesting to include the voices of some the less renowned, younger Internet architects who are actively shaping technology today. But it’s important to chart how far we’ve come, and to get a sense of where the leading minds think we’re going, even if, as Jeff Jarvis argues, that is perhaps a tad overambitious:
In the development of the net and its impact on society, we are at 1472 in Gutenberg years. John Naughton, a columnist for London’s Observer, asks us to imagine the good citizens of Gutenberg’s hometown, Mainz, using Gutenberg’s folly to predict the undermining of the authority of the Catholic Church; the birth of the Reformation and scientific revolution; the transformation of education, changing our sense even of childhood; and I would add, upheaval in our notion of nations. Today, we wouldn’t know our Martin Luther if he hammered on our door. Consider the change brought by the web its first 20 years and now you ask us to predict the next dozen? Sorry.