Predicting the future of the Internet on the Web's 25th anniversary

New Elon University-Pew Research study features opinions of world technology experts about "Digital Life in 2025"

​A new survey of technology experts conducted to mark the 25th anniversary of the birth of the World Wide Web outlines a fascinating set of predictions about the future. Hundreds of tech authorities agree that trends now under way will make the Internet significantly more important as it becomes significantly less visible in daily life. They say networked technology will be in the air, “like electricity,” altering everything from daily personal interactions to the decisions made by governments around the world.

This report, part of a series titled “Digital Life in 2025,” is a compilation of imaginings by nearly 1,500 experts who responded to an online canvassing by Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center in association with the Pew Research Center. The experts were asked an open-ended question about how technology will impact life by the year 2025. While most experts agreed on the trajectory of tech change that lies ahead, there was considerable disagreement about the ramifications.

Most say by the year 2025 there will be:

  • A global, immersive, invisible, ambient networked computing environment
  • A continued proliferation of smart sensors, cameras, software, databases and massive data centers in a world-spanning information fabric known as the Internet of Things
  • Portable/wearable/implantable technologies that will allow people to “augment reality”
  • Disruption of business models established in the 20 century, most notably impacting finance, entertainment, publishers of all sorts and education
  • Tagging, databasing and intelligent analytical mapping of the physical and social realms

Technology trends that are evident today are expected to continue, with both positive and negative effects on health, education, work, politics, economics and entertainment. Most say they believe the results of extreme connectivity will be primarily positive. However, when asked to describe the good and bad aspects of the future, many experts also clearly identified areas of concern, some of them extremely threatening.

“It is striking how much consensus there is among these experts on what will change, and equally striking how varied their answers are when they are asked how those changes will impact and influence users in good and bad ways,” noted Elon University Professor Janna Anderson, a primary author of the report. “This is the sixth ‘Future of the Internet’ survey we have conducted since 2004, and for the first time most people are seeing and vividly describing as many potential negatives as they are identifying positives. They worry about interpersonal ethics, surveillance, terror and crime and the inevitable backlash as governments and industry try to adjust.”

The predictions can be grouped into 15 common themes about the digital future – eight hopeful, six worrisome, and another as a neutral source of advice about choices that must be made. They are:

Mostly-hopeful 2025 scenarios identified by the experts

  • Information sharing over the Internet will be so effortlessly interwoven into daily life that it will become invisible, flowing like electricity, often through machine intermediaries.
  • The spread of the Internet will enhance global connectivity, fostering more positive relationships among societies. 
  • The Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and big data will make people more aware of their world and their own behavior.
  • Augmented reality and wearable devices will be implemented to monitor and give quick feedback on daily life, especially in regard to personal health.
  • Political awareness and action will be facilitated and more peaceful change, more public uprisings like the Arab Spring will emerge.
  • The spread of the “Ubernet” will diminish the meaning of borders, and new “nations” of those with shared interests may emerge online and exist beyond the capacity of current nation-states to control.
  • The Internet will become “the Internets” as access, systems and principles are renegotiated.
  • An Internet-enabled revolution in education will spread more opportunities, with less money spent on buildings and teachers.

The 2025 scenarios that raise concerns

  • Dangerous divides between haves and have-nots may expand, resulting in resentment and possible violence.
  • Abuses and abusers will ‘evolve and scale.’ Human nature isn’t changing; there’s laziness, bullying, stalking, stupidity, pornography, dirty tricks, crime, and the offenders will have new capacity to make life miserable for others. 
  • Pressured by these changes, governments and corporations will try to assert power – and at times succeed – as they invoke security and cultural norms. 
  • People will continue – sometimes grudgingly – to make tradeoffs favoring convenience and perceived immediate gains over privacy; and privacy will be something only the upscale will enjoy.
  • Humans and their current organizations may not respond quickly enough to challenges presented by complex networks.
  • Most people are not yet noticing the profound changes today’s communications networks are already bringing about; these networks will be even more disruptive in the future.

The Experts’ Advice: Make good choices today

  • Foresight and accurate predictions can make a difference; “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

“A modern adage is that change isn’t best measured when a small number of people try a new thing; the biggest disruption comes when adoption is ubiquitous,” said Lee Rainie of the Pew Research Center and a co-author of the report. “These experts are convinced that the spread of connectivity will yield changes that people will really appreciate and changes they might hate.”

The report about these predictions comes in the sixth canvassing of experts done by the Pew Research Center in association with the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University. It is the first report generated out of the results of a Web-based survey fielded from late November 2013 to early January 2014. It gathered opinions on eight Internet issues from a select group of experts and the highly engaged Internet public. (The full set of expert predictions, for-credit and anonymous can be found here:

The experts speak:
A wide-ranging selection of respondents’ remarks

Among the experts who contributed to this project were some of the most prominent Internet analysts of our generation. Here we highlight the predictions of some of the people most deeply involved in shaping and studying the digital present.

Devices will have their own social networks, pervasive and invisible
David Clark, an Internet Hall of Famer and senior research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, noted, “Devices will more and more have their own patterns of communication, their own ‘social networks,’ which they use to share and aggregate information, and undertake automatic control and activation.  More and more, humans will be in a world in which decisions are being made by an active set of cooperating devices. The Internet (and computer-mediated communication in general) will become more pervasive but less explicit and visible. It will, to some extent, blend into the background of all we do.”

New business models, Internet voting, privacy, MOOCs
Vint Cerf, Internet protocol inventor and Google vice president, predicted, “There will be increased franchise and information sharing. There will be changes to business models to adapt to the economics of digital communication and storage. We may finally get to Internet voting, but only if we have really strong authentication methods available. Privacy must be improved but transparency about what information is retained about users also has to increase. More business will be born online with a global market from the beginning. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) will become important revenue streams.”

‘More seamless and integrated’
danah boyd, a researcher for Microsoft and author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, responded, “People will continue to connect to people and information, and it will become more seamless and integrated into every aspect of daily life. We’re there in certain populations already, but it will be more widespread in 12 years.”

Exposure of human gaps between belief and activity
Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher for Microsoft Research, wrote, “The most significant impact of the Internet is that, by making so much activity visible, it exposes the gap between the way we think people behave, the way we think they ought to behave, the laws and regulations and policies and processes and conventions we have developed to guide behavior—and the way they really behave. This is happening in families, in organizations, in communities, and in society more broadly. Adjusting to this will be an unending, difficult task. We often or usually formulate rules knowing they won’t always apply, and ignore inconsequential violations, but now that is more difficult—the violations are visible, selective enforcement is visible, yet formulating more nuanced rules would leave us with little time to do anything else. Exposing violations can be good, when the behavior is reprehensible. Exposing harmless violations can impede efficiency. Behavior observed digitally, without the full context, can be misunderstood. Are we built to function without some illusions that technology strips away? Are we better off and happier when all of our leaders are revealed to have flaws or feet of clay? Human beings are flexible, yet we have some fundamental social and emotional responses; how technology will affect these must be worked out.”

We have entered the ‘post-normal’ world
Stowe Boyd, lead researcher for GigaOM Research, took many overlapping influences into consideration in his response, also figuring in the influences of robots and asking, “What are people for?” He then wrote: “The Web will be the single most foundational aspect of people’s lives in 2025. People’s companion devices—the 2025 equivalent of today’s phones and tablets—will be the first thing they touch in the morning and the last thing they put down to sleep. In fact, some people will go so far as to have elements of their devices embedded. The AI-mediated, goggle-channeled social interactions of the near future will be as unlike what we are doing today, as today’s social Web is to what came before. The ephemeralization of work by AI and bots will signal the outer boundary of the industrial age, when we first harnessed the power of steam and electricity to amplify and displace human labor, and now we see that culminating in a possible near-zero workforce. We have already entered the post-normal, where the economics of the late industrial era have turned inside out, where the complexity of interconnected globalism has led to uncertainty of such a degree that it is increasing impossible to find low-risk paths forward, or to even determine if they exist. A new set of principles is needed to operate in the world that the Web made, and we’d better figure them out damn fast. My bet is that the cure is more Web: a more connected world. But one connected in different ways, for different ends, and not as a way to prop up the mistakes and inequities of the past, but instead as a means to answer the key question of the new age we are barreling into: What are people for?”

Powerful trends intersect
Jim Hendler, a professor of Computer Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, wrote, “Three forces will continue to interact, weaving a braid that will be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. These are the increasing ease of sharing information (and the threat that makes to privacy); the increasing needs of business, and desires of individuals, to interact with people outside ones own physical locale; and the increasing change in the use of AI/robotics in the workplace displacing more and more workers. 2025 will be around the time that the intersections of these, and other forces, will be starting to cause major changes in where people live, what they do with their time (and what work is), and how they interact beyond the local situation. It won’t look all that different from today, but major forces will be starting to well.”

‘Potential for a very dystopian world’
John Markoff, senior writer for the Science section of the New York Times, wrote, “What happens the first time you answer the phone and hear from your mother or a close friend, but it’s actually not, and instead, it’s a piece of malware that is designed to social engineer you. What kind of a world will we have crossed over into? I basically began as an Internet utopian (think John Perry Barlow), but I have since realized that the technical and social forces that have been unleashed by the microprocessor hold out the potential of a very dystopian world that is also profoundly inegalitarian. I often find myself thinking, ‘Who said it would get better?’”

The Edison doctrine should return
Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said, “I hope there will be greater openness, more democratic participation, less centralized control, and greater freedom. But there is nothing predetermined about that outcome. Economic and political forces in the United States are pulling in the opposite direction. So, we are left with a central challenge: will the Internet of 2025 be—a network of freedom and opportunity or the infrastructure of social control? In the words of Thomas Edison, ‘What man creates with his hand, he should control with his head.’”

A literacy dividend arises
Hal Varian, chief economist for Google, wrote, “The biggest impact on the world will be universal access to all human knowledge. The smartest person in the world currently could well be stuck behind a plow in India or China. Enabling that person—and the millions like him or her—will have a profound impact on the development of the human race. Cheap mobile devices will be available worldwide, and educational tools like the Khan Academy will be available to everyone. This will have a huge impact on literacy and numeracy and will lead to a more informed and more educated world population.”

The age of the ‘global supercomputer’
Mike Liebhold, senior researcher and distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, commented, “The Internet is morphing from the global library into the global supercomputer. By 2025, almost every application or service we can imagine will be enhanced by the application of enormous computation enabling widespread applications of capabilities like mining, inference, recognition, sense-making, rendering modeling as well as proactive contextual computing.”

The fundamental unanswered questions
David Weinberger, senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, responded, “The Internet will be everywhere by 2025—the question is, who will control it, and for what end?”

Internet access will become a ‘human right’
Tiffany Shlain, creator of the AOL series The Future Starts Here, and founder of The Webby Awards, responded, “Access to the Internet will be a international human right. The diversity of perspectives from all different parts of the globe tackling some of our biggest problems will lead to breakthroughs we can’t imagine on issues such as poverty, inequality, and the environment.”

A ‘balkanized’ system
Paul Saffo, the managing director of Discern Analytics and consulting associate professor at Stanford, wrote, “The pressures to balkanize the global Internet will continue and create new uncertainties. Governments will become more skilled at blocking access to unwelcome sites.”

Threats persist
Fred Baker, Internet pioneer and Cisco Systems Fellow, responded, “The issues in security and privacy will have been improved in important ways, but will remain threats, primarily because human nature will not have changed, and there is always a percentage of people who seek to harm others.”

We need more agreements to make the future work
Seth Finkelstein, a prominent longtime programmer and consultant, argued, “When one combines Free Trade ideology with the ease of information flow, the entities which deal in data and content and associated items are going to need to have a set of agreements that work for the breadth of the Internet (assuming the world doesn’t fragment into isolated areas, which seems very unlikely in the modern economy).”

Additional responses of interest

Following are additional highlights from some of the predictions that had a summary quality to them or added new thoughts to the mix that extended beyond the theses or used especially vivid language:

Bob Frankston, Internet pioneer and technology innovator, said, “Once we get past the gatekeeper-based model of funding our ability to communicate we’ll start to rethink how we create systems. We’ll continue to define new topologies for social relationships and trust that they are less tied to geography. We’ll also see the rise of metadevices and understandings, some of which is latent in the terms big data and Internet of Things—terms that will fade away because reality will be far more interesting.”

Jerry Michalski, founder of REX, the Relationship Economy eXpedition, observed, Right now, we are obsessed with flow, with the immediate, with the evanescent. Persistence lets us collaborate for the long term, which is what we’ll slowly learn to do… We will begin to design institutions from a basis of trust of the average person, instead of mistrust, the way we’ve been designing for a few centuries. This will let us build very different institutions for learning, culture, creativity, and more.”

Laurel Papworth, social media educator, wrote, The current walls that separate humanity (demographics, psychographics) will diminish, and after a massive trolling war, value systems will be re-established with people fearful to say what they really think, in case their personal reputation score—online, viewable, actionable—diminishes. X Factor 2025 continues to rate well.”

Andrew Chen, associate professor of computer science at Minnesota State University Moorhead (MN), responded, “The Internet is —it spreads vice easily.  The Internet is a —it enables oppressed peoples to gather together and achieve power through a shared voice. The Internet is a —it provides multiple opportunities for people to ignore the rest of their lives. The Internet is —it starts out seeming powerful, then it becomes seductive, and then it becomes dangerous. The Internet is the fullest expression of human nature—and how you see it reflects you more than anything else. The Internet has already impacted too much. The seductive aspects are the worst. As people forsake the rest of their lives, it becomes a drain on humanity that transforms humans into just small parts of the Internet, whereas it should be that the Internet is a small part of human life.”

Mikey O’Connor, an elected representative to ICANN’s GNSO Council, representing the ISP and Connectivity Provider Constituency, wrote, “The Internet will be used as t, leaving the Madison Avenue revolution as a piddling, small thing by comparison.”

Andrew Bridges, partner, Internet law litigator and policy analyst at Fenwick & West LLP, wrote, “The Internet will facilitate the fundamental threat of governmental control—the threats to free speech, free association and assembly resulting from governmental surveillance and control; . It will happen because of the power of governments to hide their actions while exposing the actions of all others to their own scrutiny; the abandonment of the rule of law, which should but will not apply impartially to all sectors of society, politics, and the economy; and the willing sacrifice of Constitutional values by those who unpatriotically value their own short-term physical security over our long-term bedrock political principles.”

Marcel Bullinga, futurist and author of author of Welcome to the Future Cloud—2025 in 100 Predictions, responded, “The future will be cheap—due to the fact we can print everything, know almost everything, and share everything: knowledge, innovation, infrastructure. The future will also be highly competitive, raising much social distress, and we will suffer from a massive lack of focus and mindfulness. ”

Evan Michelson, a researcher exploring the societal and policy implications of emerging technologies, wrote, . What the Internet will do is make it more difficult to contemplate the longer-term implications of decisions made today. The future will, unfortunately, suffer in service of the present.”

Andrew Nachison, co-founder of We Media, said, “There will be . Ideas will spread everywhere, but people will continue to clash over beliefs and values.

David Solomonoff, president of the New York chapter of the Internet Society, “I think that (with open source designs distributed via the Internet) are two areas where the roles of government and large commercial/industrial entities will be challenged.  Again, those that accommodate these changes will succeed, those that don’t will be in a state of decline. The relationships between citizen/consumer and government/corporation will need to be more consensual and based on trust rather than coercion.”