The Pew Research Center is marking the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web with a number of reports on the current state and potential future of our digital lives. Last week I discussed the first such report, The Web at 25 in the US, which looked at the fast growth of the Internet and mobile usage and presented the findings of a national survey on their impact on everyday life. “The internet has been a plus for society and an especially good thing for individual users,” was the survey’s overall verdict.
But what about the future? A second report, Digital Life in 2025, analyzed the responses of over 1,800 experts to an open-ended question: “Good and/or bad, what do you expect to be the most significant overall impacts of our uses of the Internet on humanity between now and 2025?”
“Experts predict the Internet will become like electricity - less visible, yet more deeply embedded in people’s lives for good and ill,” was the report’s overriding consensus. But, beyond this general agreement, there were widely different views on the Internet’s impact on the economy and society. The Pew study grouped its diverse responses into 15 different theses about the digital future, - with eight classified as hopeful, six as concerned, and the last one as neutral, sensible advice. Let’s discuss a few of the theses.
“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.” Not surprisingly, this thesis tops the list. We’ve become so accustomed to the metaphor of the Internet as a kind of second electrification of society, that we generally skim past the phrase without reflecting on its meaning. What does it mean for a technology, - whether electricity, cars, TV, or the Internet - to become invisibly and effortlessly interwoven into daily life?
Electrification tops the list of the Greatest Engineering Achievements of the 20th Century compiled earlier this year by the National Academy of Engineering. Electricity was first used in daily life in the 1880s with the deployment of electric lights in the US, UK and other countries. Widespread electrification followed, with major advances in the generation and distribution of electric power. Electrification was generally completed around the 1950s in the more advanced economies, leading to innovations of all kind, from the assembly line that revolutionized manufacturing, to the appliances that have so transformed just about all aspects of our lives. But electrification remains a work in progress in developing economies, where around a quarter of the population, - mostly in rural areas,- still lacks electricity.
In his 2008 bestseller, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google, Nicholas Carr predicted that the economic and social consequences of the Internet, and of cloud computing in particular, will be comparable to the impact of widespread access to inexpensive electric power. The experts responding to the Pew survey generally agreed. The Internet is rapidly becoming “a background capability that will be a seamless part of how we live our everyday lives. We won’t think about ‘going online’ or ‘looking on the Internet’ for something - we’ll just be online, and just look.”
But, they also reminded us that there are negative consequences to being online all the time. “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.”
Transformative technologies have downsides as well as benefits. The advent of cars, for example, brought us traffic accidents, congestion and pollution, to list just a few. Along with its many pros, a ubiquitous Internet will be accompanied by serious cons, including “the loss of privacy - you may be tracked/watched/recorded without you even knowing it; people being connected all the time in the sense that you don’t/won’t know what it was like to be disconnected; people lacking critical thinking and information literacy skills and being unable to manage their digital identities; new illnesses based on anxiety, stress and being connected all the time.”
Survey respondents worried that most Internet users will mindlessly exchange personal information for near-term benefits and convenience. Some worried about our democratic institutions and personal freedoms, as governments become more effective in using the Internet as an instrument of political and social control. Others worried about the increased commercialization of our digital lives, as companies learn to accurately predict our interests. “Connectivity will reduce privacy and trade technology dependence for convenience. . . The Internet will be used as the most effective force of mind control the planet has ever seen.”
“The spread of the Internet will enhance global connectivity that fosters more planetary relationships and less ignorance,” is another hopeful prediction. From the printing press in the 15th century to the telegraph, telephone, radio and TV, we’ve been developing tools to help us disseminate information and communicate with each other. The Internet and World Wide Web are the ultimate such tools, effectively turning our planet into a true Global Village, a term closely associated with Marshal McLuhan. In the 1960s, McLuhan presciently predicted that advances in technology were transforming the globe into a village by enabling the instantaneous movement of information from every quarter to every point at the same time.
Survey respondents viewed the Internet as an empowering force for individuals and communities. “By far the largest impact of the Internet is the ability it gives people to inform themselves”; “The Internet facilitates communities of interest, rather than communities of coincidental geographic proximity”; “We will see more planetary friendships, rivalries, romances, work teams, study groups, and collaborations”; “It will be the best time in history for those who want to study.”
Others remarked on the potential economic impact of this enhanced connectivity. “Some people think that our economies will not grow much in the future, . . . In many countries, the working population will actually decline. But it seems obvious that the global economy operates at a tiny fraction of its potential efficiency. Over the next twenty years, the Internet will allow this potential to be tapped, and that will lead to real increases in wealth, regardless of what happens with technology.”
But, there are serious dark sides to this emerging digital economy. “Dangerous divides between haves and have-nots may expand, resulting in resentment and possible violence.” As some noted: “Significant numbers of people will become structurally unemployed because they were unable to keep up their skills with the changing technology or unwilling to accept the changing technology. . . The biggest concern is if it will increase the divide between the wealthy and the poor.”
The increased divide between haves and have-nots could lead to conflicts within and between countries. “We have to think seriously about the kinds of conflicts that will arise in response to the growing inequality enabled and amplified by means of networked transactions that benefit smaller and smaller segments of the global population. Social media will facilitate and amplify the feelings of loss and abuse. They will also facilitate the sharing of examples and instructions about how to challenge, resist, and/or punish what will increasingly come to be seen as unjust.”
But others are more hopeful, especially with the prospect of billions around the world becoming digital citizens. “The digital divide between people in more developed nation-states and lesser developed nation-states will be non-existent, or at a minimum, non-consequential”; “Wireless broadband and computing capabilities will be available to even the poorest and most remote regions of the world. Imagine the collective intelligence locked up in the minds of the rural poor. Providing them the tools for creativity, collaboration, and learning will produce significant benefits.”
In the end, there is no way of knowing how our fast changing future will play out 10 years from now, let alone beyond. Which brings us to the advice offered by some of the experts in lieu of predictions. “Foresight and accurate predictions can make a difference; The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
“The Internet, automation, and robotics will disrupt the economy as we know it. . . The good news is that the technology that promises to turn our world on its head is also the technology with which we can build our new world. It offers an unbridled ability to collaborate, share, and interact.”
“Just as the architects of the ARPANET never anticipated the Internet of today, it is equally hard for us to predict the Internet’s evolution - its future and its impact. . . By allowing ourselves to explore and rehearse divergent and plausible futures for the Internet, not only do we become more prepared for any future, we can also help shape it for the better.”