Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project
What We Don’t Know About the Future of the Internet
Access video excerpts from the opening plenary here:
When Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, was invited to be a keynote speaker to set the tone for the first-ever Internet Governance Forum-USA, he was asked to talk about “emerging issues” online.
He wisely chose the title “What We Don’t Know About the Future of the Internet.” His leadership in studying the impact of the Internet for the Pew Research Center for the past decade or so has put him in perfect position to address the topic.
Rainie described four areas of “critical uncertainty whose resolution will shape the future of the Internet” in ways we cannot yet fully foresee:
1) The unknowns tied to the future structure of the Internet’s architecture and how it is shaped by its adoption.
2) The unknowns presented by complexities in the future of information policy (he singled out “the kind of rules we develop about information property such as copyright, patents and trademarks” and other property issues).
3) The unknowns tied to the policies and norms we might develop to deal with our online identities – how we deal tackle issues like online privacy, anonymity and surveillance.
4) The unknown social, political and economic impact of the Internet. “The social science community is just beginning to tackle issues related to the value of the Internet – both good and bad – in empirical terms,” he said.
Rainie said some aspects of the future of the Internet are fairly predictable. “In the next decade the computing power at our disposal will be more than 20 times greater than it is now and considerably cheaper if Moore’s law continues to hold,” he explained.
He noted data storage capabilities will be improved. He talked about ubiquitous wireless communications involving smart devices built into our environment – including our clothes, our architecture, our vehicles and our homes.
“Chips embedded in our cars, our household furnishing, even the soil, will feed data to each other and help us figure out how to skirt traffic jams, when to water our flower beds and even when the pizza delivery van has pulled up to our house,” he said.
What kind of Internet will we have?
Rainie noted the expectation of a “broadband tsunami” but added that “there are two public policy disputes in the realm of Internet architecture where the outcome will determine how widely that tsunami washes over things.”
The two architecture points he illuminated are the broadband issue and the question of how best to make the current Internet architecture more secure and robust, scaling it up to meet escalating needs. Regarding broadband, he said the latest Pew survey (Sept. 14) shows 77 percent of American adults use the Internet and 63 percent have broadband access at home. This ranks the United States somewhere between 15th and 25th among advanced nations in broadband penetration, depending upon which global study of uptake you choose to cite.
“Whatever the United States’ place in the world rankings,” he said, “it is clear that 27 percent of Americans do not have high-speed connections and there is substantial policy ferment about the best way to bring broadband connections to rural areas and to those with relatively low household incomes.”
Rainie said there is hope in mobile connectivity for closing this digital divide somewhat because the uptake of these devices is more even across regional and economic categories. “But,” he added, there’s a question “about whether phone access to the Internet is as important and as useful as access on computers in terms of experience and personal satisfaction.”
Rainie also touched on the issue of network neutrality, which he described as “whether providers can offer premium media content over their networks and give that content preference to some digital material in exchange for charging higher prices to recoup their investments, or whether all digital material, from e-mails to medical records to high-resolution movies should be treated equally by the network as it currently is.”
When he addressed the future of Internet architecture, Rainie said there are four key problems with the current Internet:
Security: “The ‘start-over’ planners would love to build a new system that would do a better job of authenticating people and their computers in a way that would keep hazards at bay,” he said.
Mobility: “The ‘start-over’ folks hope to create a new system to assign Internet addresses” in the many varied devices in the Internet of things,” he noted.
Instrumentation: “The ‘start-over’ group would like to build something allowing all pieces of the network to have the ability to detect and report emerging problems due to traffic overloads, replicating worms” and other difficulties,” he explained.
Protocols: “These traffic-flow concerns also prompt ‘start-over’ architects to want to structure better traffic routing agreements between Internet service providers that would allow them to collaborate on advance services without compromising businesses,” he said.
Who owns information? For how long?
Rainie delved into his “second uncertainty,” by asking questions.
“How much of information and media can legitimately be remixed or shared?
“How much will people pay to access information and media that matters to them?
“How much personal information that is revealed online – advertently and inadvertently – should be catalogued and synthesized and then used for marketing purposes?”
He cited a new Pew Internet survey that found that more than half of adult Internet users in the United States and three-quarters of teens create content and share personal profiles on social networks. Pew found that 15 percent of adult Internet users and 21 percent of teen users mash up digital content, finding information and reworking it to share with others. “Every knowledge industry and media company is affected by these changes,” he said. “Every individual whose personal information ends up online or in a database is affected. And yet we are still in the early stages of figuring out what business models will survive and what social activities will be affected.”
Rainie’s prediction? He said when Generation Y (those under 25) come of age and come to power the idea of property will be different.
“The generation that grew up with the Internet and other digital technologies,” he explained, “has very different notions from its parents’ generation about what constitutes fair use, the power or impotence of copyright protections, what it means to mash up and share content and what it means to live life with higher levels of personal disclosure.
What about identity, privacy and surveillance?
Rainie said Pew Internet studies on privacy and identity questions have shown conflicting values make it one of the most difficult policy areas to tackle. “Our surveys show that users live in a paradox,” he said.
“They like the empowering aspects of the Internet that permit them to be their own broadcasters, their own publishers, indeed, their own story tellers and culture creators. The paradoxical point is that at the same time they are sharing all this material, they say they cherish, privacy, anonymity and the ability to control their identities, even after information about them has passed into others’ hands.
“My sense from many of the Internet users we interview – especially the teens – is that they have not fully weighed the pluses and minuses of this volume of disclosure.”
He introduced researcher danah boyd’s five properties of individual identity:
1) Persistence – what you say becomes a part of a permanent record.
2) Replicability – digital information can be easily copied and spread far and wide.
3) Searchability – it’s easy to find that which could once be hidden or obscured.
4) Scalability – conversations that were private can spiral out of control and even scale to the whole world. “Contexts are collapsed in this new environment,” Rainie noted.
5) (De)locatability – mobile communication allows you to be dislocated from any particular point in space but, simultaneously, location-based technology can make location relevant thus we are “more and less connected to physical space.”
Rainie predicted that outcomes in this policy area might come from some sort of compromise.
“Some of the policy suggestions will revolve around ideas that promote parallel transparency – if you can watch me, I should be able to watch you watching me,” he said. “And it also might include discussion of opt-out mechanisms that would allow people to step off the digital grid under some circumstances.”
What is the value and influence of the Internet?
Rainie came up with a bevy of statistics to show how Americans see the Internet bringing value to their lives. Among them:
– 42 percent say they or someone they know has been helped by health advice found online
– 68 percent of broadband users say it is important for finding out what is going on in their communities
– 62 percent say it is vital to economic growth in their communities
– 58 percent say it is important to their ability to share their views with others
– 57 percent say it is valuable in communicating with local officials
– 25 percent say the Internet and cell phones have made their current family life closer than the life they knew when they were young
But, he said we still do not know the economic impact of broadband, the true value of the Internet in formal educational outcomes, the impact on medical outcomes from the sharing of personal experiences, the influence of the Internet on those who might otherwise be politically disengaged.
“We also don’t yet have a deep understanding of the ways that information markets perform,” Rainie said.
“There is enormous concern that the Internet is enabling bad information and bad actors to influence others in bad ways,” he said.
He noted that medical professionals, media people and librarians, scholars and social critics “are dismayed that those full of hate and ill-intentions have new ways to organize and new outlets for expressing themselves,” adding that “what we don’t know with any certainty is whether those concerns are outweighed by the benefits that are afforded by the Internet.”
* To read responses to Lee Rainie’s talk by Andrew McLaughlin, Phil Bond, Lee McKnight, Randy Gyllenhaal and Marc Rotenberg, click here.
* To return to the homepage for Imagining the Internet’s coverage of IGF-USA 2009
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