Monday, February 22

Revealing Research: The Future of the Internet IV

The Pew Internet & American Life Project released its fourth Internet expert study on Friday. The Future of the Internet IV compiles survey responses from almost 900 prominent scientists, business leaders, consultants, writers, and technology developers around five key Internet related topics.

The five topics included (paraphrased): the value of online content, the impact on the written language, the extent to which innovation can be predicted, the freedom of access and information, and the protection of privacy.

Dominant Themes of Discussion For The Next Decade

The value of online information.
• 76 percent believe more information leads to smarter people who make better choices.
• 21 percent believe the Internet could be lowering the IQs of the people who use it.

The discussion, spurred by Nicholas Carr, is underpinned by the thought that people are moving away from a meditative or contemplative intelligence and toward a utilitarian intelligence. (The price of zipping among lots of bits of information is a loss of depth in our thinking, he says.) There is some truth to the argument, with content being distilled into little nuggets of easily accessed information (sometimes incorrect information). Many arguments against the idea suggest the Internet will change cognitive capacities so people won’t have to remember as much, but will have to have better critical thinking and analytical skills.

It seems that any real direction has yet to be set. With the emphasis on short popular content, the depth and accuracy of information has diminished. However, this seems to be a short-term problem as objective human editors may eventually have a role in vetting information on the net much like yellow journalism gave rise to objective journalism around the 1920s. Of course, Gordon Lightfoot might have a different view.

*Amazingly, many newspaper headlines have actually sold this portion of the study as evidence that the Internet makes us smarter, which makes us wonder if anyone read it.

The Internet enhances reading, writing, and knowledge.
• 65 percent believe the Internet has enhanced reading, writing, and the rendering of knowledge.
• 32 percent believe the Internet has endangered reading, writing, and intelligent rendering of knowledge.

Almost all of the survey respondents seem to agree that the written language is suffering as a result of online communication. However, how the two sides frame the outcome is where they part company. Some suggest language is shifting to be more visual and/or simply different with communication becoming more fluid (but not necessarily better written).

Without question, the acceleration of communication, quantity of communication, and format of communication tend to have consequences. The quality of the communication is often diminished. However, long-time content creators consistently suggest that their writing has improved as a result. It could be that the Internet has simply invited more people who would otherwise not write to write more often, which means the abuse of the language is short term or format related. Time will tell.

The hottest gadgets of the next decade are already evident today.
• 17 percent believe that the applications of tomorrow will not take people by surprise.
• 80 percent believe that the applications of tomorrow cannot be anticipated today.

With rare exception, almost everyone agrees that predicting future technologies beyond broad conceptual thinking is futile. Nobody can accurately guess what the breakout applications and gadgets will be by the year 2020. Only a handful believe that trend spotting provides an accurate glimpse of the future.

Given the advancements over the last 20 years, it seems likely that innovation will follow two paths. There are innovators who enhance existing models, making them more efficient. And then there are innovators who create disruptive leaps forward that undo those enhancements. For example, Photoshop recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. Few predicted the explosive growth of Facebook.

The Internet will be dominated by an end-to-end principle.
• 61 percent believe there will be minimal restrictions over online access and information.
• 33 percent believe there will intermediary institutions that control significant amounts of content.

While most believe that public pressure will keep the Internet mostly free, the public will only succeed if they remain vigilant in guarding against government and network takeovers. Pessimistic views point to China and even the United States. In the U.S., the net neutrality debate has only temporarily restrained cable and telcos from exerting centralized control.

With the exception of government intervention (which varies by country), scalability and scarcity will likely be the deciding factors of whether the Internet remains free as people see it today. Mass content creators, not distributors, will likely be those who determine to what extent information and content remain accessible. With more publications attempting to return to subscriber-based content, this stands to be the more viable threat to limiting communication.

The future of online anonymity will evaporate.
• 41 percent believe there will be tighter, more formal controls over the Internet, including scanning devices.
• 55 percent believe it will be relatively easy to remain anonymous without public disclosure.

There is greater and increasing pressure for authentication online. Ironically, proponents of an authenticated world do not always appreciate the severity of privacy abuses nor how such a move hinders concepts such as freedom of speech. The minor majority believes the Internet is well past a need for authentication.

The reality is that online privacy is collapsing under the weight of uncoordinated, unrelated, and unlikely allies. There is pressure from communicators who chastise anonymity, pressure from governments and businesses to investigate dissent, and a general willingness of the public to surrender privacy for the smallest of carrots. The question is not whether online privacy will no longer exist, but when and to what extent.

The full study, The Future of the Internet IV, can be found at the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The project is supported by the Pew Research Center, which is a nonpartisan "fact tank" that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.

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