Elon University

Keynote Session: Lee Rainie’s FutureWeb Keynote Talk, April 28

Reveals details of latest “Future of the Internet” expert survey

Brief description: Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project delivers a keynote on the Future of the Web and answers audience questions. Rainie’s initiative is a “fact tank” known around the world for its assessment of the influence of Internet evolution on every aspect of global life. He and his team release new reports nearly weekly, detailing our use of the Internet and the impact it has on our lives.

Details of the session

FutureWeb speaker Vint Cerf would be happy to know: Experts say Google is NOT making us stupid.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project posed the “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” question in the latest “Future of the Internet” survey in 2010. Nearly 900 respondents made their predictions, most of which expressed high hopes for the Internet’s positive impact on the future of intelligence, reading, writing and the sharing of knowledge, Pew Internet director Lee Rainie explained.

A former managing editor of U.S. News and World Report, Rainie started researching the Internet with Pew and about a decade ago. At the time, he asked Elon University researchers to look into the predictions experts were making in the early 1990s about the future of the Internet, thinking that by analyzing predictions of the past, they would find a snarky collection of “howlers.”

To his and the other researchers’ surprise, most of the 4,000 expert predictions they found were intelligent, insightful and, sometimes, dead-on. So, in order to continue gathering such data they came up with a Plan B that would document the predictions of the future in the present, the idea from which the Imagining the Internet project at Elon University was born.

Partnering with Elon Communications Professor Janna Anderson, Rainie has conducted and published four surveys of predictions by Internet experts at two-year intervals, beginning in 2004. The most recent survey, published this year, also asked questions about the influence of the Internet on institutions, if online anonymity will prevail, whether takeoff technologies are evident,.

Though respondents to the 2010 survey were asked to choose one of two outcomes in each topic, Rainie said it is their expository responses that gave meaning to the quantitative data.

Though the greatest portion of respondents identified themselves as “other,” the survey had a number of research scientists, technology business leaders, journalists, academics and even librarians contribute responses about the trends they’ve noticed.

“Librarians have adopted us,” Rainie said. “We’re like their Chia Pets.”

Rainie highlighted several of the key questions and the reactions from respondents, noting which option was most popular and drawing upon themes from respondents’ reasoning for their choices.

Eight-one percent of experts said Google was not likely to make people less intelligent, many remarking that it will shift cognitive capacities instead. Some respondents worried that “junk information” might overtake quality information, but most agreed that Google will improve and may be able to filter information quality.

“It just lets people be more of what they already are,” Rainie said, noting that it allows people to find more of the information in which they are interested.

The survey asked whether the likely hot new gadgets and apps of 2020 are evident now, and 81 percent of respondents thought that the most successful ones would “come out of the blue.” Experts noted that the iPhone wasn’t dreamed of 10 years ago, so it is likely that we don’t know what will be hot in 2020 – we don’t know for certain what the future will hold but we know that the innovation ecosystem will change things.

When asked about their thoughts on the viability of online anonymity, respondents were fairly evenly divided. Fifty-four percent indicated that in the year 2020 people will still be able to conduct a reasonable amount of activity online anonymously, but the other 46 percent was convinced anonymity might disappear.

With social media increasingly shaping users’ online identity, some worry that their privacy is eroding, but a slight majority felt that it would still be protected by gatekeepers. Respondents felt that users would demand this protection as well as the specifics of how their personal information would be used by gatekeepers.

In answering a question about the viability of the end-to-end principle, 63 percent of experts thought that people would rule in favor of minimum restrictions, although Rainie notes that they were a self-selecting sample. The themes from the responses predict that businesses will change most and governments will change least, and there were some anonymous worries about the implications of corporate power.

Imagining the Internet’s next survey may touch on a theme Rainie said he regrets leaving out of the question set posed in 2010. “The ‘Internet of Things’ has exploded in the past year,” Rainie said, ruing the fact that he did not ask experts about it this year. “There’s always blood on the floor at the end of the survey, and it’s the pain of my work.”

– By Rachel Cieri, Imagining the Internet

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