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Predicting the Future of the Internet

I'm afraid I've been a very slack blogger over the summer - a range of existing and emerging research projects, and various other have got in the way. More on many of these soon; for now, I wanted to point to the latest report released by the Pew Internet research centre, "The Future of the Internet IV". In this series of reports, Pew presents the responses of high-profile experts from industry and academia to a series of controversial questions about the future of the Net. To stimulate responses on each question, Pew offered two relatively extreme scenarios of what the future may look like.

There's coverage of the report in a number of leading technology and culture publications, including ReadWriteWeb and Fast Company. For the latest edition, I was asked to contribute my thoughts, and I'm happy for some of those responses to have made their way into the report itself. For completeness's sake (and perhaps to see in ten years' time how far off the mark I was), here are my answers in full:

Will Google make us smart or stupid?

By 2020, people's use of the internet has enhanced human intelligence; as people are allowed unprecedented access to more information, they become smarter and make better choices. Nicholas Carr was wrong: Google does not make us stupid (

By 2020, people's use of the internet has not enhanced human intelligence and it could even be lowering the IQs of most people who use it a lot. Nicholas Carr was right: Google makes us stupid.

The idea that Google makes us stupid sits right next to Andrew Keen's rants about the 'cult of the amateur' in a long line of statements that are designed for maximum media impact but are backed up by nothing more than a vague notion that 'things were better in the old days'.

What Google does do is simply to enable us to shift certain tasks to the network - we no longer need to rote-learn certain seldomly-used facts (the periodic table, the post code of Ballarat) if they're only a search away, for example. That's problematic, of course - we put an awful amount of trust in places such as Wikipedia where such information is stored, and in search engines like Google through which we retrieve it - but it doesn't make us stupid, any more than having access to a library (or in fact, access to writing) makes us stupid.

That said, I don't know that the reverse is true, either: Google and the Net also don't automatically make us smarter. By 2020, we will have even more access to even more information, using even more sophisticated search and retrieval tools - but how smartly we can make use of this potential depends on whether our media literacies and capacities have caught up, too...

Will we live in the cloud or on the desktop?

By 2020, most people won't do their work with software running on a general-purpose PC. Instead, they will work in Internet-based applications, like Google Docs, and in applications run from smartphones. Aspiring application developers will sign up to develop for smart-phone vendors and companies that provide Internet-based applications, because most innovative work will be done in that domain, instead of designing applications that run on a PC operating system.

By 2020, most people will still do their work with software running on a general-purpose PC. Internet-based applications like Google Docs and applications run from smartphones will have some functionality, but the most innovative and important applications will run on (and spring from) a PC operating system. Aspiring application designers will write mostly for PCs.

I do think the cloud will become ever more important, but - are these my only options? Globally, 'most people' may still struggle to have reliably access to computers and the Internet by 2020 (and may be connecting via mobile phones more than via conventional computers), and may not have a choice between clouds and desktops.

Ultimately, the most likely development is perhaps a blend between these different modes, depending on circumstances and interests - overall content storage and content access will be even more cloud-based than they already are, for example, but many more specific purposes (software development, small business accounting, ...) will continue to be strongly desktop-focussed. And those users relying on mobile devices for their access (including substantial chunks of the developing world) may well be pushed towards cloud computing by necessity rather than choice.

Will social relations get better?

In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal friendships, marriage and other relationships, I see that the internet has mostly been a negative force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future.

In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal friendships, marriage and other relationships, I see that the internet has mostly been a positive force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future.

I am tending towards the more optimistic view, if cautiously so. The impact of the Net on social relations, especially through social media, is far from exclusively positive, but overall, I believe it has enhanced - and in some cases, rekindled - human relationships.

A number of clear dangers remain, however: chiefly, the abuse of social media to promote populist and disruptive agendas and ideologies; the increasing corporatisation and astroturfing of social media spaces; the exploitation of personal information made public through social media by criminals and overzealous law enforcement agencies. On balance, social media spaces and communities have to date remained remarkably resistant to such interference, but there are no guarantees that this will continue. But social media also enable their users to organise to combat infringements and interference, and this is a cause for optimism.

Will the state of reading and writing be improved?

By 2020, it will be clear that the internet has enhanced and improved reading, writing, and the rendering of knowledge.

By 2020, it will be clear that the internet has diminished and endangered reading, writing, and the intelligent rendering of knowledge.

Again, I'm cautiously optimistic here - already, I think the continuing dominance of text online has been an important driver of literacy, and even as the balance on the Net shifts further towards non-text-based multimedia formats, reading and writing remain crucial for any meaningful Internet participation.

So, in my view the Net is an important driver at least of functional literacy, but that does not mean that the reading and writing skills which users develop as a result are necessarily seen to conform to conventional literacy criteria. This has already become evident in the occasionally rekindled debates about txting (the condensed language used by mobile phone users) - what Internet users are proficient, even expert in are not the literary languages of printed text, but the languages of online spaces. This clearly irks some parties, but takes nothing away from the fact that users are developing a literacy that is appropriate to the texts with which they engage.

As for the future of books: I'm ambivalent about the future of the printed book as artefact; Amazon's Kindle and other technologies present a range of increasingly viable alternatives, and I can imagine a future where dead-tree books are as exotic as vinyl records are now. The book as a defined notion, as a cultural form, as a unit of content, however, has a future well beyond its physical manifestation, I believe - but any transition to a new carrier medium must inevitably also change the parameters of the form (and current book-carrier media, from PDFs to Kindles, barely even scratch the surface here).

Will the willingness of Generation Y / Millennials to share information change as they age?

By 2020, members of Generation Y (today's "digital natives") will continue to be ambient broadcasters who disclose a great deal of personal information in order to stay connected and take advantage of social, economic, and political opportunities. Even as they mature, have families, and take on more significant responsibilities, their enthusiasm for widespread information sharing will carry forward.

By 2020, members of Generation Y (today's "digital natives") will have "grown out" of much of their use of social networks, multiplayer online games and other time-consuming, transparency-engendering online tools. As they age and find new interests and commitments, their enthusiasm for widespread information sharing will abate.

People don't 'grow out' of fundamental practices for which they see no viable alternatives, especially once they have invested so much energy into the networks and spaces within which they operate, and while there are so many social connections and so much social capital pulling them back in. No, I believe this ship has sailed, at the private and interpersonal as much as at the professional and commercial level - sharing, rather than secrecy, is now the preferred option by far, and what isn't shared might as well not exist in the first place.

Two points of caution, however: first, there is a need for users from all generations to become much more sophisticated in their understanding of the implications of their choices of what they choose to share or not to share, and I think this more sophisticated understanding will develop over time (the hard way, for some). Second, even by 2020, there may still be a substantial minority of holdouts, of non-participants, who do not engage in those practices. The more dominant sharing as the default practice becomes, though, the harder it will be for these non-participants to continue to abstain.

Will our relationship to institutions change?

By 2020, innovative forms of online cooperation will result in significantly more efficient and responsive governments, businesses, non-profits, and other mainstream institutions.

By 2020, governments, businesses, non-profits and other mainstream institutions will primarily retain familiar 20th century models for conduct of relationships with citizens and consumers online and offline.

I choose to be optimistic here, though current events from the resurgence of the extreme right in the US to the attempts of EU and national institutions in Europe to subdue Internet activists point to the fact that the struggle for progress on such fronts will be a long and hard one.

Right now, there is a remarkably mixed picture, and even governments which take some very promising steps towards citizen engagement and participation on the one hand are at the very same time pursuing legislation which will have a chilling effect on online participation and innovation on the other, for example. Ultimately, I think that popular pressure will win the day, and the very inertia of many large institutions leaves them vulnerable to user-generated change which moves too quickly for them to react to (current debates about 'three strikes' laws and Internet censorship mechanisms as they are taking place in a range of Western democracies can be understood in this light - such debates may have made sense in the late 90s, but are out of place in the late 2000s).

What we are likely to see will proceed from the grassroots, I think - in politics, from small, mobile, and possibly local organisations; in business, from a changing mix of start-ups and networked organisations; in the non-profit sector through loose alliances of like-minded groups. I don't quite know where all of this will lead, yet, but I like Pierre Lévy's formulation of 'molecular democracy', and I think we might well see that idea filled with life.

Will online anonymity still be prevalent?

By 2020, the identification ID systems used online are tighter and more formal - fingerprints or DNA-scans or retina scans. The use of these systems is the gateway to most of the internet-enabled activity that users are able to perform such as shopping, communicating, creating content, and browsing. Anonymous online activity is sharply curtailed.

By 2020, internet users can do a lot of normal online activities anonymously even though the identification systems used on the internet have been applied to a wider range of activities. It is still relatively easy for internet users to create content, communicate, and browse without publicly disclosing who they are.

I think the choice is less one between anonymity and eponymity, but between anonymity and pseudonymity. I can't see the pipe dreams of law enforcement agencies - taken to the extreme, biometrics in every device - come true any more than I can see users accept the intrusive copyright protection mechanisms which the music and movie industries would like to implement. Other than for law enforcement hardliners, the challenge is not to tie every online activity to a specific identified user, but simply to verify that the activity is carried out by (or at least on behalf of) an actual human being rather than by a spambot or other malicious and disruptive entity - and for this, verified pseudonymity is sufficient.

This is where OpenID and similar verification systems come in, of course - and I think we'll see increasing standardisation here. To require eponymity for all Internet activity ends up squeezing the life out of the Net, to allow unverified anonymity allows it to be overwhelmed with spam and identity theft - the only workable middle way is reliable, verifiable pseudonymity.

Will the Semantic Web have an impact?

By 2020, the Semantic Web envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee and his allies will have been achieved to a significant degree and have clearly made a difference to the average internet users.

By 2020, the Semantic Web envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee will not be as fully effective as its creators hoped and average users will not have noticed much of a difference.

I firmly believe that the Web of 2020 will be substantially more semantic than it is today - but it won't be the Semantic Web in the orthodox definition promoted by Berners-Lee et al. The trajectory of recent years (especially with the transition to 'Web 2.0') has been one of increased metadata generation, and those data can be harnessed as semantic information, of course - but they will continue to conform to their own, continually emerging and changing schemata rather than to a uniform semantic description language as the Semantic Web initiative postulates it.

This need not make the semantic information available on the Web any less useful or effective, however, as the tools for extracting and processing such non-standard metadata from the folksonomic jumble that is the Web have also become more and more powerful - but it is a user-generated, semantic Web from below rather than a well-ordered, well-structured Semantic Web from above. It's the triumph of a Google-style 'brute processing power' approach to making sense of the Web over a Yahoo!-style 'orderly ontologies' approach, all over again.

Are the next takeoff technologies evident now?

The hot gadgets and applications that will capture the imagination of users in 2020 are pretty evident today and will not take many of today's savviest innovators by surprise.

The hot gadgets and applications that will capture the imagination of users in 2020 will often come "out of the blue" and not have been anticipated by many of today's savviest innovators.

Some killer technologies _seem_ evident today, but we may still be wrong. Also, it's not technologies alone that make the difference, but how they're configured and used: Twitter as an idea isn't really much different from IRC or instant messaging, but it's been the small differences in its implementation which have made it succeed where so many others before it failed to generate attention.

In the end, the best way to identify the hot new technologies and applications is to wait which of them are bought up by Google...;-)

Will the internet still be dominated by the end-to-end principle?

In the years between now and 2020, the internet will mostly remain a technology based on the end-to-end principle that was envisioned by the internet's founders. Most disagreements over the way information flows online will be resolved in favor of a minimum number of restrictions over the information available online and the methods by which people access it.

In the years between now and 2020, the internet will mostly become a technology where intermediary institutions that control the architecture and significant amounts of content will be successful in gaining the right to manage information and the method by which people access and share it.

I'll take a fundamentalist approach here - if you move away from the end-to-end principle, you move away from the Internet itself, and back towards an older mass media model. I cannot see such a move proceed without significant protests from Internet users themselves, and without some bright spark finding a way to implement an alternative, end-to-end Internet that piggybacks onto existing infrastructure.

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