The Future of the Internet
Some 66 percent of the experts responding to a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and Elon University agreed with the following prediction: At least one devastating attack will occur in the next 10 years on the networked information infrastructure or the country's power grid.
In addition, there was notable agreement among the 1,286 experts in this survey that in the next 10 years the Internet will be more deeply integrated in our physical environments and high-speed connections will proliferate – with mixed results. They believe the dawning of the blog era will bring radical change to the news and publishing industry and they think the Internet will have the least impact on religious institutions.
Some other predictions with which a majority of respondents agreed:
- 59 percent of these experts agreed with a prediction that more government and business surveillance will occur as computing devices proliferate and become embedded in appliances, cars, phones, and even clothes.
- 57 percent of them agreed that virtual classes will become more widespread in formal education and that students might at least occasionally be grouped with others who share their interests and skills, rather than by age.
- 56 percent of them agreed that as telecommuting and home-schooling expand, the boundary between work and leisure will diminish and family dynamics will change because of that.
- 50 percent of them believe that anonymous, free, music file-sharing on peer-to-peer networks will still be easy to perform a decade from now.
At the same time, there were stark disagreements among experts about whether Internet use would foment a rise in religious and political extremist groups, whether Internet use would usher in more participation in civic organizations, and whether the widespread adoption of technology in the health system would ameliorate the most knotty problems in the system such as rising costs and medical errors. “Nobody knows for sure what lies ahead – and the history of the Internet has taught us to expect the unexpected – but this group of experts provides the perspective of long experience. Half were online before the advent of the Web,” said Susannah Fox, associate director of the Pew Internet Project and lead author of the report. “Institutions that resist change, like education and health care, come in for the sharpest criticism among these information revolutionaries.”
The experts were relatively unconvinced about two suggested impacts of the Internet related to democratic politics and processes:
- Just 32 percent of these experts agreed that people would use the Internet to support their political biases and filter out information that disagrees with their views. Half the respondents disagreed with or disputed that prediction.
- Only 32 percent agreed with a prediction that online voting would be secure and widespread by 2014. Half of the respondents disagreed or disputed that idea.
The survey was conducted online survey between September 20 and November 1, 2004. It grew out of an effort by the Pew Internet Project and the Elon University School of Communications to look at predictions made about the impact of the Internet in the period between 1990 and 1995. A database of more than 4,000 predictions and commentary by experts is available at http://www.elon.edu/predictions/ and those who go to the site are invited to make their own predictions. The predictions from this survey are being added to the database.
“We were struck by the prescience of many experts at the dawning of the Web era about the way the Internet would affect people and organizations,” said Asst. Prof. Janna Quitney Anderson, a co-author of the report and lead organizer of the predictions database. “It just made sense to us to go back to many of them and ask what they foresee in the next decade. And they see dramatic change in many realms – some of it good, some of it not-so-good.”
The Pew-Elon survey asked the experts to describe what dimensions of online life in the past decade have caught them by surprise. Similarly, we asked about the changes they thought would occur in the last decade, but have not really materialized. Their answers:
Pleasant surprises: These experts are in awe of the development of the Web and the explosion of information sources on top of the basic Internet backbone. They also said they were amazed at the improvements in online search technology, the spread of peer-to-peer networks, and the rise of blogs.
Unpleasant surprises: They are startled that educational institutions have changed so little, despite widespread expectation a decade ago that schools would be quick to embrace change. They are unhappy that gaps exist in Internet access for many groups – those with low income, those with lower levels of educational attainment, and those in rural areas. And they still think there is a long way to go before political institutions will benefit from the Internet.
The Pew Internet Project is a non-partisan, non-profit initiative of the Pew Research Center that researches the social impact of the Internet. The Project does not advocate policy solutions or take positions on policy issues.