The Pew Research Center is out with another fascinating report on the Internet. This one contains more than a dozen predictions of where the Web is headed, gathered from more than 2,500 surveys of technologists. Unlike the prognosticators of the mid-20th century, today's futurists are a little more measured in their expectations (still no jetpacks, sadly). In fact, you don't have to look far to see where their ideas are coming from. In some cases, we're already in the thick of the change. Here are a few examples.
The Web "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.” — Joe Touch, director at the Information Sciences Institute, University of Southern California
For many Americans, the Web is already a seamless part of their existence. Push notifications tell us when our favorite coffee shop or restaurant is nearby; Google Now uses your online calendar to keep track of your appointments. Our most important computer files are stored in the cloud. Soon, even the telephone networks that carry our calls back to Mom will be data pipes. We don't go online anymore. We're already there.
“I expect the miasma of myth and ignorance and conspiracy theory to recede to dark corners of the discourse of civilization, where nice people don’t go." —Tim Bray, participant in the Internet Engineering Task Force
The Web has always been a multilayered place. Even Reddit, the self-proclaimed front page of the Internet, has its seedier side. In 2012, Gawker exposed one of the community's most controversial editors, Violentacrez, who was responsible for creating a subreddit dedicated to pictures of underaged girls. Then there's 4chan, the online forum that the New York Times compared to a high school bathroom stall. Never heard of it? Chances are you're one of Tim Bray's "nice people."
"When every person on this planet can reach, and communicate two-way, with every other person on this planet, the power of nation-states to control every human inside its geographic boundaries may start to diminish.” — David Hughes, Internet pioneer
Countries' varying responses to digital currencies like Bitcoin illustrate how officials have struggled to comprehend the technology, which was designed to operate outside the realm of corporate or government oversight. The Middle East uprisings of 2011, partly facilitated and broadcast to the world over social media, offer another example. The notion of the government's eroding control over people is hardly a new idea, but the pace at which that change is happening seems to be accelerating.
"The Internet will fragment. Global connectivity will continue to exist, but through a series of separate channels controlled by a series of separate protocols." —Ian Peter, Internet rights advocate
The balkanization of the Internet is already taking place. Iran is committed to building a "halal" Internet free of Western influence. China's Great Firewall effectively censors millions. And Brazil is increasingly interested in disentangling itself from U.S. servers amid surveillance concerns. Add to that the recent kerfuffle over net neutrality and the prospect of a fast-lane Internet in the United States, and Peter's prediction looks more grounded in the present than at first blush.
"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." — Oscar Gandy, emeritus professor, Annenberg School
It's hard not to think this idea is aimed squarely at Silicon Valley, where a focus on building the next hip app for wealthy white brogrammers eclipses the needs of those who've been shut out by the IT revolution. Some tech companies are working to counteract this image. But whether such attempts can effectively address a much deeper, structural problem is an open question.
"There will be greater group-think, group-speak and mob mentality … More uninformed individuals will influence others to the detriment of standard of living and effective government." — an unnamed former management consultant
As media-watchers will point out, the Internet has made it easier for people to seek out only the news and information that entertains them and confirms their own values. That has contributed to greater political polarization, if not outright radicalization. When everyone has his or her own megaphone, who has time to listen?
"The privacy premium may also be a factor: only the relatively well-off (and well-educated) will know how to preserve their privacy in 2025." — anonymous respondent
AT&T is already offering hundreds of dollars in annual discounts on its broadband service if customers will agree to give their behavioral data to the company and accept targeted advertising. Can't afford the extra charge? You'll be encouraged to pay in terms of privacy.
Meanwhile, NSA document leaker Edward Snowden is on a campaign to teach people tips to enhance their digital hygiene. But with many Americans still using common passwords like "123456," there's much room for improvement.
This prediction may turn out to be the most accurate of all:
"The greatest impact of the Internet is what we are already witnessing, but it is going to accelerate." — Nishant Shah, visiting professor at the Centre for Digital Cultures at Leuphana University in Germany