Where the web is taking us

From the dynamic to the dystopian, ideas about the future of the Internet.

Stewart Schley

Privacy gets trampled, individuals get empowered, the global economy gets a boost and governments get a grip.

Welcome to the Internet 2025 – or at least a picture of how it might look, thanks to some provocative views captured by the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project in association with Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center.

As part of Pew Research’s year-long effort marking the 25th anniversary of the world wide web, the organization polled hundreds of experts from business, academia and government about how they think the web, broadband and related technologies will influence the world in the next 25 years.

Download Digital Life 2025 from the Pew Research Center.

The views are a mix of enervating and disturbing. Optimists see a future where global connectivity helps to solve critical issues surrounding education, the environment, economic growth and inequality. Pessimists see a darker side of the Internet, where privacy is invaded by machines, cybercrime is prolific and gaps between economic haves and have-nots widen.

On the positive side, there are soul-stirring observations like this one, from Google’s Chief Economist Hal Varian:

“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.”

The flip side: a view of the Internet as a conduit for malware and manipulation. Here’s New York Times science writer John Markoff on a change of heart about the Internet’s promise:

“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?’”

Ambience reigns
Pew’s researchers describe the future of the Internet as “A global, immersive, invisible, ambient networked computing environment built through the continued proliferation of smart sensors, cameras, software, databases, and massive data centers in a world-spanning information fabric known as the Internet of Things.”

This is a theme played out further by David Clark, a senior research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, who believes that “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.”

And as it does, many believe good things will happen. Mike Roberts, Internet pioneer and longtime leader with ICANN and the Internet Society, wrote that “The two biggest impacts are creating instantaneous global marketplaces that have  materially improved daily lives and creating global social interaction mechanisms that are  reaching across cultural, political, and religious barriers to improve human relations.”

Unless, of course, something else occurs.

“Governments will become much more effective in using the Internet as an instrument of political and social control,” worries Paul Babbitt, associate professor at Southern Arkansas University

Mike Osswald, a futurist at Hanson Inc., also sees global challenges around gaps in Internet availability and adoption. “The rapid pace of technological change will only hurt the poor and lower-middle class (and third-world and mass-labor markets) who will not be able to benefit fully from the improvements, and will only continue to be displaced by technical/robotic solutions that limit their ability to earn a living and provide for their families. To this extent, technology will make society as a whole worse than in the past.”

Anonymity begone
A number of contributors also worried about the potential for privacy invasion and cybercrime. One possible solution: Make people more visible on the web. Stewart Baker, a partner at Steptoe & Johnson, a Washington law firm, wrote, “In the long run, criminal activity will swamp us if we do not find a better way to identify and then punish antisocial action on the Internet. The Chinese will realize this first, because doing so does not challenge their ideology the way it challenges ours. But some time close to 2025, we’ll give up on anonymity and begin building attribution into the fabric of the Web.”

There are also differing opinions about just how revolutionary the Internet will be.

Henning Schulzrinne, a technology developer and professor at Columbia University, wrote that “Generally, I see the Internet as a 10% solution — i.e., it can make things (very roughly) 10% more efficient or less costly. This is quite helpful in many situations, but is unlikely to reduce income inequality significantly, fundamentally change access to education or reduce carbon dioxide levels dramatically.”

Some experts polled by Pew pointed to the fundamental importance of the Internet. “By 2025, Internet access will be considered a ‘right’ and will replace the ‘universal access’ currently reserved for phone lines. Increased access and greater capabilities will change the digital divide from access to quality of tools and the skills required for digital participation,” observed Pamela Rutledge, Media Psychology Research Center.

And the game is still only in the early innings, wrote Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.  “The impact of the press — the physical impression of ink on paper — is only now, 600 years later, diminishing. In the development of the net and its impact on society, we are at 1472 in Gutenberg years.”

But it’s this very same importance that makes decisions about regulation critical, others believe. Jonathan Sterne, a professor in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University, worries industrial control of the Internet will dilute its true potential. “Right now, it is headed toward a highly commercialized, profit-driven, opaque and privatized domain, much like the mass media of the 1980s that net boosters of the 1990s claimed to displace. Its main guardians seem to treat it as an agent of the commercialization of life, and other benefits are at best seen as side effects.” Sterne’s suggestion: “The best possible outcome for the Internet would be if its major functions came to be understood as public utilities like water or power, or better, as resources, like clean air.”

A similar view was expressed by David Weinberger, Senior Researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “The future of the Internet depends on many imponderables,” he wrote, “including whether the Internet gets sold to the access and content providers.”

Thanks to flickr contributor Christian Schnettelker for the image.

Pew Research
Elon University
World Wide Web