Since the advent of computer networks and the World Wide Web, much has been said about how the Internet is going to impact our world in the future. On one hand, there is optimism about the potential for technological advancements. On the other, concern for unintended effects that can drastically change our way of life.
“The human connections we are building and the information we are databasing on the Internet are creating a shared global intellect that is growing and evolving every day,” says Janna Anderson, an Elon communications professor and director of Imagining the Internet Center, which works to identify, explore and engage with evolving communications forms and issues to inform policy development.
When Anderson started looking at what people in the 1990s were saying about the future of the Internet, she expected to find kooky predictions. What she found instead were 4,200 sound predictions that dealt with intellectual property, privacy and other issues that are still relevant today. Intrigued by this discovery, Anderson partnered with the Pew Internet & American Life Project and started conducting surveys to see what people today expect for the future of this new technology. The project morphed into the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon. So far, their research has shown that the future of the Internet is pervasive, personal, portable and precarious.
“There are so many different wonderful things that people are saying about the great future that lies ahead,” Anderson says. “At the same time, there are people who are extremely concerned about a loss of privacy or a loss of security; too much information overloading us, too much demand on our personal time from our work life and from other people.”
With broadband and 4G connectivity to mobile devices, she says, we are entering the earliest phase of a new era of hyper connectivity, where people are always on, always able to access information and connect with others. For instance, people are talking about being able to walk into a store, take anything off the shelf and just walk out; because you are connected to the Internet, your phone will identify you. When that item’s chip gets scanned as you walk out the door, the vendor will be able to automatically bill you for it. Anderson says other people are predicting that in the near-to distant future our cars will be able to call repair centers, get instructions and repair themselves, avatars will do our shopping for us, and virtual reality will be so much better than real life that some people will choose to live there instead.
But if in the future we no longer have to rely on our brains to gather information, since we can just ask the Internet for answers to any questions, Anderson says there are some concerns about how our thinking process will be affected. Based on Imagining the Internet surveys, most people don’t quite comprehend how much this hyper connectivity is going to change things in the future. She adds that, as new technologies converge and accelerate the waves of change, it’s difficult to foresee the future, even over the next five or 10 years.
“It’s going to be interesting to see where all that takes us,” Anderson says. “While we have positive impacts from this new technology, just as with every other technology that preceded it, we have a lot of negative impacts as well, and we have to try to assess what’s going on now, what might be happening and prepare for the best future possible.”