To mark the 25th anniversary of the creation of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee, this year the Pew Research Center is conducting a series of studies examining the past, present, and future of the Internet. Dad jokes are expected to be a constant. Released by the center today, the report imagines what digital life in 2025 will look like based on a canvassing of more than two-thousand experts about future of such concerns as privacy, cybersecurity, the “Internet of things,” and net neutrality.
The report boils down the predictions into fifteen theses, helpfully arranged into categories like “more-hopeful” to “advice: make good choices today.” While there was widespread disagreement about the ramifications of the technological change ahead, most of the respondents agreed on the trajectory of that change. In their eyes, humanity is heading toward:
- • 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.
- • “Augmented reality” enhancements to the real-world input that people perceive through the use of portable/wearable/implantable technologies.
- • Disruption of business models established in the 20th century (most notably impacting finance, entertainment, publishers of all sorts, and education).
- • Tagging, databasing, and intelligent analytical mapping of the physical and social realms.
Or, basically, an extension of existing trends both positive and negative. Positive theses include predictions that enhanced global connectivity will foster “more planetary relationships and less ignorance,” and that the “Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and big data will make people more aware of their world and their own behavior.” Obviously, those consequences are good! The accelerating cross-country progress toward tolerance, if not enlightenment, when it comes to issues on which we humans don’t have the best historical record–the latest being gay rights–is heartening. I’ve lost track of how many states have legalized same-sex marriage at this point. I doubt we’d be here as a society without the fluidity that web provides the exchange of ideas and viewpoints. It’s getting harder everyday to ignore people who aren’t like you, and that’s a good thing.
Unsurprisingly, however, many experts voiced concern about how expanding connectivity might foster increased surveillance, terror, inequality, crime, and other violations of personal and interpersonal ethics. Representative of this alarm is John Markoff, a senior writer for the Science section of the New York Times, who warns of the “potential of a very dystopian world that is also profoundly inegalitarian.” It’s sadly fitting that, on the day before the study was released, Edward Snowden gave a rare public talk (via the web) at South by Southwest. Snowden also took questions from two moderators, the audience, and from Twitter. The first, fittingly, came from Tim Berners-Lee, who asked what Snowden would change about the nation’s surveillance system. “We need public oversight,” Snowden said. “Some way for trusted public figures to advocate for us. We need a watchdog that watches Congress, because if we’re not informed, we can’t consent to these (government) policies.”
The Pew study breaks down each of its fifteen theses in detail and includes a summary roundup of thoughts and forecasts that don’t slot as neatly into the theses. It’s a good read, albeit a worrying one, if you’re the anxious-about-the-future type.
Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso