Passionately Curious: Janna Anderson on how technological changes impact society

Janna Anderson, professor of communications, was one of eight Elon faculty members featured this year in "Passionately Curious," the annual Elon University President's Report. 

Each year, Elon University points a spotlight on its truly exceptional faculty and their dedication to excellent teaching, scholarly accomplishment and transformative mentoring in the President’s Report. In this year’s report, “Elon University Faculty: Passionately Curious,” featured educators were asked to write about their intellectual passion and how they share that passion with their students inside and outside the classroom. 

I have always been intrigued by innovation and systems thinking. When I first got online in 1994, the potential of an emerging system – the internet – came into view and, with it, a new, wondrous, promising and scary future. When I became a teacher-scholar-mentor at Elon in the late 1990s, I had no doubt that my energy and that of our students should be focused on this system that changes everything.

We live in a global, immersive, invisible, ambient computing environment driven by an increasingly massive and complex system, a world-spanning information fabric of artificial-intelligence-based, glitchy and hackable software and hardware, connected databases, sensors, cameras and more. We blindly depend upon it. This has increasingly impactful and potentially dangerous implications. At this amazing time of accelerating change, a better tomorrow can be inspired by foresight today. How will free expression, property, privacy, presence, identity, security, trust, economic development, human development, human relationships and human rights evolve?

The Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University documents people’s hopes and fears about the likely positive and negative impacts of disruptive change. Its mission is to explore and provide insights into emerging issues to inform the public and serve the greater good. We have documented experts’ expectations, hopes and fears on our website in thousands of videos, hundreds of written research reports and near-real-time news stories produced at international internet events. Important innovators such as John Perry Barlow, Vint Cerf, Leonard Kleinrock, Esther Dyson and Tim Berners-Lee have shared their inspiring dreams of a better future but also warned about the tough issues we face as the digital age shakes up and overtakes our societal norms and economic and political systems.

Imagining the Internet didn’t become a formally funded center at Elon University until 2007, but since its start in 2000 its work has involved nearly 400 students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends of the university. They research issues, travel the world to report on important communications policy events, and in the process, they become informed, inspired advocates for a positive future.

Imagining the Internet began thanks to two grants initiated by Elon University parent Lee Rainie, who had just become the founding director for a new center at Pew Research examining the impact of the internet. First, in 2000 I innovated “One Neighborhood One Week on the Internet,” a project in which 25 students examined 25 families’ uses of the internet in one small neighborhood in the town of Elon. Second, in 2001-02 Connie Book (now the university’s president) worked with 12 students on a retrospective research project in which they analyzed a sampling of predictions about the future of the internet made from 1993 to 1995 and published it as “Forecasting the Internet.”

In 2003 Pew agreed to fund a wider-ranging study of predictions made from 1990 to 1995 about the likely impact of the internet. I involved nearly 70 students in this work and posted it online as a Predictions Database with more than 4,200 predictions made in the early 1990s. The database project was so well received that Wired author and futurist Bruce Sterling suggested Elon and Pew begin doing ongoing surveys to collect and analyze current expert opinions about issues tied to technological evolution. Since then, dozens of public-interest reports based on our expert surveys have been issued by Elon and Pew and read by millions.

In 2017 and 2018 alone, we have issued reports illuminating ideas and concerns tied to digital life and well-being; misinformation; pluses and minuses of the Algorithm Age; trolls, fake news and online discourse; the future of job training; Internet of Things security; and the public’s trust in online interactions. Many of the center’s findings are included in the digital archives of the Library of Congress, and its documentary journalism is part of the official archives of the United Nations’ Secretariat for the Global Internet Governance Forum.

Imagining the Internet is a mirror we hold up to humans’ changing lives in an ever-evolving world of interactive information. It exposes vital issues to better inform our planning for the future and it provides historical documentation of a revolutionary time. It assists all of us in understanding the impact of the technology we are allowing to gradually insinuate itself into our lives to a point at which we cannot thrive without it.

We have to examine how we are changing as our tools change. We must work diligently to identify challenges and opportunities in order to make informed choices today to create the future we want.

If we don’t, we may fall victim to a tomorrow we never saw coming.