Innovative research project
forecasts the digital future

 

When Janna Quitney Anderson, director of Internet projects for the School of Communications, works with students on her research, she encourages them to expand their thinking beyond today's technology. The digital tools of the moment are certain to become obsolete, so Anderson wants students to take a long-term view, learning about the past to understand what the future holds.

Working in partnership with Lee Rainie, a member of the School of Communications Advisory Board and director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, Anderson has created "Imagining the Internet," a complex research project that has positioned the School of Communications as a leading authority on the history and future of networked communications.

Understanding early Internet pioneers

In the spring semester of 2003, more than 60 students dug into the history of the Internet, documenting what technology pioneers envisioned in the early 1990s. Their findings, along with thousands of predictions documented by Anderson, were posted on a public Web site. This unique database provided the foundation for looking into the future.

"Those early Internet pioneers had a remarkably clear vision of the power of their creation," Anderson says. "They understood that they were at the dawn of a communications revolution."

The student researchers gained a deeper understanding of today's technology by taking a retrospective look at the past decade.

"A lot of people believed that no one in their right mind would ever buy things on the Internet," says senior Travis Lusk. "That stuck with me because I buy things online all the time. Plus, I pay all my bills online, too."

Rainie, who conceived the research project and provided funding through his organization, was impressed with the quality of research produced by the students. He is a member of the School of Communications Advisory Board and an enthusiastic ambassador for Elon.

"This important research is leading the way to an understanding of how the Internet is fundamentally changing the institutions of society," Rainie says. "I'm sure it is helping those who make policy about how the technology evolves. I'm very proud of the partnership between the Pew Internet Project and Elon."

The predictions database is winning rave reviews from Internet-savvy people around the world. CNN technology columnist Christine Boese said the project "forms an amazing time capsule to look back on as Internet cybercultures evolve into the future."

Well-known blogger Gardner Campbell told readers of his online journal that Elon's work is a "cabinet of wonders, a beautifully arranged database that can't help being inspiring and provocative."

Experts envision the future

Once the early 1990s predictions database was in place, the stage was set for the next phase of the project. Rainie and Anderson created a survey to find out what technology experts predict will happen in the next decade. The findings, released in January, made headlines around the world and drew tens of thousands of visitors to Elon's "Imagining the Internet" Web site.

The 1,300 engineers, business executives, educators, government officials and others who responded to the survey predict that the workplace, family life, education and many other foundations of society will undergo fundamental changes in the next 10 years. Many experts warn that a devastating attack on Internet infrastructure is inevitable, while a majority predict increased electronic surveillance by government and business. There were also predictions of changes in family dynamics and a blurring of the boundaries between work and leisure. Some envision a new age of creativity in which people use the Internet to share music, art and literature. While some experts look for the development of a more thoughtful Internet, others are pessimistic, calling the increasing online data "drivel" that is diluting the quality of information that is available.

Media coverage, led by a feature story in The New York Times, spread the survey findings around the globe, including stories in hundreds of print and Web outlets in the United States, Europe, Africa, South America and the Far East.

Anderson says the predictions are valuable because they allow society to be better prepared for the future.

"We need to deal with the conflict between our desire for privacy and security and our desire for convenient access to information customized to our needs," she says. "We're also conflicted by our demand for more and more information while we try to simplify our lives."

Anderson and Rainie plan to continue the research with an annual Internet predictions survey.

Find out more about "Imagining the Internet" and add your predictions for the Internet's future at www.elon.edu/predictions.

 

 

Share your news and items of interest. To contact us, e-mail: communications@elon.edu
School of Communications 
2850 Campus Box 
Elon, NC 27244-2010   (336) 278-5724 
E-mail: communications@elon.edu
Last Modified:  5/12/05
Copyright Elon University