Elon-Pew “Future of the Internet III” survey looks ahead to technology in 2020

A new survey of world Internet leaders outlines predictions for the wired world of 2020, including sophisticated mobile online access, voice-recognition, and artificial and virtual reality. The study was conducted by the Imagining the Internet Center in Elon's School of Communications and the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

(For release Dec. 14, 2008) A survey of internet leaders, activists and analysts shows they expect major tech advances as the phone becomes a primary device for online access, voice-recognition improves, artificial and virtual reality become more embedded in everyday life, and the architecture of the internet itself improves.  

They disagree about whether this will lead to more social tolerance, more forgiving human relations, or better home lives.

Here are the key findings in a new report based on the survey of experts by the Pew Internet & American Life Project that asked respondents to assess predictions about technology and its roles in the year 2020:

  • The mobile device will be the primary connection tool to the internet for most people in the world in 2020.
  • The transparency of people and organizations will increase, but that will not necessarily yield more personal integrity, social tolerance, or forgiveness. 
  • Voice recognition and touch user-interfaces with the internet will be more prevalent and accepted by 2020.
  • Those working to enforce intellectual property law and copyright protection will remain in a continuing “arms race,” with the “crackers” who will find ways to copy and share content without payment.
  • The divisions between personal time and work time and between physical and virtual reality will be further erased for everyone who is connected, and the results will be mixed in their impact on basic social relations.
  • “Next-generation” engineering of the network to improve the current internet architecture is more likely than an effort to rebuild the architecture from scratch.

“The internet is now used by 1.6 billion people, with another billion expected to be added soon,” said the report’s principal author Janna Anderson, director of the Imagining the Internet Center and associate professor of communications at Elon University. “These experts’ answers reflect continuing concern over the tension between security and privacy issues. They emphasize the importance of enhanced and enlightened cooperation between the leaders involved in decisions about internet architecture and policy.”

Responding to an invitation to participate in an online survey, 578 leading internet activists, builders and commentators submitted their ideas about the impacts networked technologies may have on world societies by 2020, with an additional 618 stakeholders also participating, for a total of about 1,196 participants sharing their views.

The report entitled “Future of the Internet III” is built around respondents’ responses to scenarios stretching to the year 2020, and hundreds of their written elaborations address such topics as: the methods by which people will access information in the future; the fact that technology is expanding the potential for hate, bigotry and terrorism; the changes that will occur in human relationships due to hyper-connected communication; the future of work and employer-employee relationships; the evolution of the tools for and use of augmented reality and virtual reality; the strength of respondents’ concerns that the global corporations and governments currently in control of most resources might impede or even halt the open development of the internet; and the challenges to come as issues tied to security, privacy, digital identities, tracking and massive databases collide.

“A strong undercurrent of anxiety runs through these experts’ answers: They are quite sure the internet and cell phones will continue to advance at an amazing clip, but they are not at all sure people will make the same kind of progress as they embrace better, faster, cheaper gadgets,” said Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. “The picture they paint of the future is that technology will give people the power to be stronger actors in the political and economic world, but that won’t necessarily make it a kinder, gentler world.”

The Pew Internet/Elon University survey was conducted online by invitation to experts identified in an extensive literature review and to active members of several key technology groups, among them:  The Internet Society, The World Wide Web Consortium, the Multistakeholder Group on Internet Governance, ICANN, Internet2 and the Association of Internet Researchers. Many respondents are at the pinnacle of internet leadership. Some respondents are “working in the trenches” of building the Web; most of the people in this latter category came to the survey by invitation to those on the email list of the Pew Internet Project. The survey was an “opt in,” self-selecting effort. That process does not yield a random, representative sample.

Full results of the survey, including engaging quotes from hundreds of respondents and brief biographies on many of these people, can be found on the Web at http://www.imaginingtheinternet.org by using the “Predictions Surveys” link. Visitors to the site are invited to share their own visions for the future of the internet in the section of the site labeled “Voices of the People” (http://www.elon.edu/predictions/RecentPredictions.aspx).

The Pew Internet Project is a nonprofit, non-partisan think tank that explores the social impact of the internet. Support for the project is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The Project is an initiative of the Pew Research Center: www.pewinternet.org. The Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University’s School of Communications informs policy development, exposes potential futures, and provides a historic record. It has teamed with the Pew Internet Project to complete a number of research studies under the direction of Janna Anderson. Elon University’s School of Communication site: http://www.elon.edu/e-web/academics/communications/.