Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What Will the Internet Look Like in 2020?

The nonpartisan Pew Internet and American Life Project recently posed that question to over one thousand members of the digital elite (analysts, policy-makers, academics, technologists and other Internet experts).

Pew asked them if they agreed or disagreed with various scenarios regarding the social, political and economic impact of the Internet ten years hence. The scenarios spanned everything from the effect of the Internet on social tolerance, to the impact social computing will have on individual transparency and responsibility, to the blurring of boundaries between professional and personal lives.


1. More powerful and better designed smartphones will be the primary means of Internet access for a majority of people across the world

The good news: Greater access for all - more people (especially the poor and those in remote locations) will have access to the Web through affordable, readily available mobile devices.

A big unknown: Will governments, regulatory bodies and wireless carriers align behind one universal standard for connectivity? Not likely if the current CDMA versus GMS situation in the U.S. cellphone market is any indication.

2. The ability of digital communications and social networks to rapidly spread information will result in a less socially tolerant global community

What this means: More tribes, more fragmentation, more polarization and more people using the Internet to spread hate, dogmatism and even fanaticism.

On the other hand: Increased access to information can mean more government, corporate and individual transparency and the potential for greater cross-cultural understanding.

Let’s hope this trend appeals to the better side of human nature.

3. Copyright and intellectual property protection will still be elusive

The good: More free online content (is it possible that the Wall Street Journal online will one day abandon its paid subscription model?)

The bad: More regulation and complex IP-control technologies and even more entangled workarounds to circumvent them.

4. As social media grows individual transparency (if not responsibility) will increase and privacy will become an even scarcer commodity

The new creed: “Never trust anyone who doesn’t have embarrassing stuff online.”

But people will still set boundaries: As one respondent commented – “Although society will seem more transparent, most people will guard many…aspects of their lives with great tenacity.”

5. The growth of artificial worlds and augmented reality means that some people will spend just as much time in virtual reality as they do in “real life”

The upside: More realistic virtual environments will be used to drive advancements in education, engineering, medicine and science.

The downside: For some people it will mean increased isolation, alienation and even violence and more sedentary lifestyles.

6. Ubiquitous computing will make it harder for some workers to separate their professional and personal lives

The positive: An always-on culture will have benefits such as time shifting and more employers may finally start measuring results (i.e., completed work) versus activity (i.e., time in the office). And to paraphrase one respondent, it’s not hard to argue that the 9-to-5 workday was an industrial era creation that doesn’t apply in idea driven economies.

The negative: This hyper-connected lifestyle will be bad for familial and social stability, and will increase stress levels and the likelihood that businesses and governments will use technology to intrude into people’s private lives.

For many, especially those in Internet related industries, this is already a reality so as one respondent said: “get over it.”

7. The basic architecture and technology of the Internet will not change but will evolve; a less secure Internet will cause some to create gated communities

Don’t expect a new “clean slate” Internet, it will take too long and cost too much: Improvements will occur gradually as security and performance requirements demand a more advanced platform. Incremental enhancements such as Internet Protocol v6 and the Semantic Web (allowing easier access to online content) will slowly improve performance.

Do expect more “walled gardens” and other restricted areas of the Internet: In response to the increasing frequency and scope of security breaches, large entities and other online communities will create secure environments where members will give up some control and privacy in exchange for added protection and utility.

Bottom line - the Internet will evolve dramatically over the next decade. And for better or worse many of the economic, cultural and social trends that it instigated will become more pronounced and prevalent in our lives. Let's just hope we don't lose control over it against our collective best intentions.

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