Tech experts reflect on their past predictions and look ahead to the future.
A new report offers a look back at predictions made 10-15 years ago and shares experts’ updated opinions and insights for the decades ahead. They note the net’s immense impact on human intelligence and emotion is surprising and important.
A new report released on Dec. 29, 2020, by the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University examines experts’ past predictions about the evolution of networked technology and suggests what may lie ahead. Researchers examined the 12 “Future of the Internet” canvassings of leading technology experts by Imagining the Internet and the Pew Research Center between 2005 and 2011. Four of the studies contained questions in which experts were asked to make predictions about digital life in 2020. Several of experts quoted in those reports were recently asked to reflect on their earlier forecasts.
Co-authors of the report are Lee Rainie, director of Internet and Technology Research at Pew; Elon Professor Janna Anderson, director of the Imagining the Internet Center; and Emily A. Vogels, a research associate at Pew.
Anderson says several of the experts offered intriguing insights. “They note that we are just discovering the overwhelming impact of digital life on human intelligence and emotion. Over the 16 years we have engaged with these experts, they have offered affirming and positive hopes that new digital tools will make life healthier, safer, easier, more fulfilling and fun. At the same time, there has been a growing drumbeat of worry in recent years that dark forces are gaining the upper hand in ways that raise questions about whether humans will be able to live such free and unfettered lives in the future.”
Rainie says, “For the most part, most of the experts’ predictions for 2020 that were made 10 to 15 years ago have been striking in their accuracy. They are a tribute to the foresight of the experts we consult. Their thoughts prompt serious consideration of the ways technology is changing our lives and societies.”
Key insights of the report include the following:
The impact of the internet on intelligence and emotion
In 2009-10, 81% of experts agreed that the internet would enhance human intelligence by 2020. In this new report, two experts with divergent original predictions reflected in late 2020 on what has taken place over the past decade.
For more than a decade, Nicholas Carr has been speaking and writing about his fears that the internet is affecting overall human intelligence for the worse. Carr, the author of several acclaimed books on technology and culture, including The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, says it would be difficult to reverse longstanding trends.
“Once a technological system becomes deeply embedded in a society’s norms and processes, it takes on what the late historian Thomas Hughes termed ‘technological momentum.’ At that point, it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to back up and take a different route,” Carr says. “The technology begins to shape society, rather than vice-versa. I think that’s where we are with the internet today. We still, as individuals and as a society, have the ability to make certain beneficial changes — and I would suggest we begin with a thoroughgoing reassessment of the role of computers in education. But I don’t think we’re going to be able to alter the net’s fundamental reshaping of our lives and thoughts. We’ve made our bed, and we’re going to be sleeping in it for a good long while.”
Jamais Cascio, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, challenged Carr in his 2009-10 prediction. He says today that he and other futurists did not anticipate the rewiring of emotions that also accompanied innovations on the internet, including the proliferation of social media. Today he admits, “If Carr wrote his Atlantic essay [‘Is Google Making Us Stupid’] now with the title ‘Is Facebook Making Us Stupid?’ it would be difficult to argue in favor of ‘No.’”
“We saw the internet as a technology of the mind and immediately conflated ‘mind’ with ‘intelligence.’ The mind is the center of how we think, yes, but it’s also the center of how we feel,” Cascio explains. “And as good as the internet is at illuminating knowledge, it’s even better at manipulating emotion. Maybe I’m still too optimistic. I still believe that there are people out there who see facts – even or especially unpleasant facts – as important. That we still have the ability to use these technologies of mind – both intellect and emotion – as enhancements to our humanity, not replacements for it or suppressants of it. That we still have a chance to fix things. Maybe we’ll rise to the challenges we face.”
Fading chances for a rise social tolerance?
In the 2007-08 canvassing, 56% of experts disagreed with the statement that social tolerance would have advanced significantly by 2020 due in great part to the internet. Many at that time hoped the global village being built online would bring people closer together, but about the same number didn’t see it happening.
One of those who predicted tolerance would not grow over time was Christine Boese, a digital strategy professional.
“The real propaganda rallies of our age are not on grand vistas in Nuremberg, full of pomp and showmanship,” Boese says as she explains the ways in which intolerance appears to have been accelerated by humanity moving online. “Rather, they take place in the intimacy of living rooms, in front of televisions and on YouTube, with fragmented mass media audiences where the watchers can’t usually see other watchers. Audience conformity is presumed, with right-wing identity politics. And then, the online spaces offer solace, connection, as they always have, for those who are isolated in their face-to-face communities. Avid viewers are united around an organizing principle. They don’t feel alone in the dark…. Our authoritarian fellow citizens whose disassociation from reason and proof in a bifurcated reality could lead us to nothing less than a decline of civilization, to a new Know-Nothing dark age of plagues and wealth inequalities that are positively medieval.”
The impact of the internet on work/home-life balance
In the 2008 canvassing, 56% of the responding experts agreed with the statement that by 2020 “few lines divide professional time from personal time, and that’s OK.”
In that canvassing, ‘Gbenga Sesan, executive director for Paradigm Initiative, argued professional and personal life would run simultaneously with mobile phones playing a key role in this blurring process between work life and home life. Asked about how he sees things now, he says that blended time is – and will be – the norm: “Especially in the Global North, people will be able to determine when to work, when to rest, when to play. During the day when there is sunshine, they want to move around and be more healthy, rather than being in offices. Then, in the evening people will do the work for the tasks set before them.” At the same time, Sesan worries that social life could disappear. “Introverts used to be forced to go to workplaces,” Sesan says. “Now that technology allows you to work from anywhere you will see lots of people looking for jobs that will allow them to be by themselves.”
The fraught relationship between tech firms and governments
In the 2011 canvassing, 51% of experts said tech firms would protect users from government interference by 2020. Nine years later, tech firms and governments have complicated, cooperative and sometimes contentious relations.
One of those who accurately saw this complexity and complicity between governments and tech firms was Stowe Boyd, founder and managing director of Work Futures. “The internet has fallen into a patchwork quilt of government-constrained internets, that are not at all equivalent,” Boyd says. “In many of those internets, tech companies openly work with repressive governments to surveil citizens and block their access to information and connections considered dangerous to the state. States employ hackers and cyber-hucksters to disrupt and influence foreign interests. Even in more enlightened countries, internet use can be perverted by political interests, like the unemployment insurance system engineered by the GOP in Florida to intentionally make applying for benefits maddeningly difficult or impossible. Some parts of this state of affairs can be fixed by better governance, but we can anticipate a long stretch of bad road ahead.”
How organizations might change
In the 2010 canvassing, 72% of experts agreed with the thought that by 2020 the internet would lead to significantly more efficient and responsive governments, businesses, non-profits and other mainstream institutions.
These days, customers and citizens have conflicted views about the responsiveness and accountability of organizations and one major analyst who saw this dynamic playing out in the future was Stephen Downes, senior research officer, National Research Council, Canada. Asked how he sees things now when it comes to organizational responsiveness and change, he says, “I was surprised how slowly it has all happened. For all the talk about future is quickly arriving and affecting organizational change, it actually moves quite slowly. I look at this as a 20- or 30-year process and we’re not there yet. It’s going to be another 10 years before we’re clearly, identifiably there…. [We are seeing] first signs now that we’re moving towards this self-serve, DIY culture, even though it’s still not mainstream for organizations…. It’ll be another 10 years before we’re in a distributed governance mode. The change will come first at the local organizations – communities, companies, co-ops. National organizations will be the last to change because they’re national organizations and inherently centralized.”
The future of virtual and augmented realities
In the 2005-06 and 2008 canvassings, experts were asked questions about the spread of virtual reality and augmented reality and the prospects for those technologies being attractive to many users and even addictive. Both technologies have reached bigger user bases since then, but they are not as mainstream as some experts thought.
A cutting-edge analyst then and now is Susan Mernit, executive director of The Crucible and formerly an executive with Yahoo and America Online. She notes in this report that processing capacity and platform tools drive user behavior more than user behavior drives those tools. “The major insight is that the big innovations come from the blend of technologies and the platforms that convey them … you need the technologies and the platforms in place first and then the innovations are built on them,” Mernit said.
The fate of culture and languages on a Balkanized internet
In the 2011 canvassing, 57% of experts disagreed with the statement that the English language would be so indispensable in communicating online by 2020 that it would have displaced some languages.
One of the key resisters to the idea that English would overtake other languages as the internet grew was David Clark, senior research scientist at MIT and internet pioneer. Reflecting now on what’s happened, he says, “We are struggling, and we are at a fork in the road on these issues. It’s clear that globalization is triggering a nationalistic backlash. It’s happening in lots of countries, including in the United States now. At its worst, this could lead to an even more intentional desire to localize the experience for users. On the other hand, over the next 10 or 20, you might see a washing out of cultural differences. Will the internet become an American cosmopolitan experience? The tension here is between nationalistic resistance, on the one hand, and global mixing on the other hand. Nationalistic tendencies point in one direction, but a natural homogenization of culture also could unfold. I hope we don’t lose cultural diversity and become too homogenized. My guess is that we probably won’t. But at the most positive edge of this, I also hope we become more cosmopolitan.”
The rise and meaning of mobile connectivity
In the 2005-06 canvassing, 56% of experts agreed that a worldwide, interoperable network would exist by 2020 and that mobile wireless communications will be available to anyone anywhere on the globe at an extremely low cost. The implications of this move towards mobile connectivity were well anticipated by Louis Nauges, the current chief strategy officer at Wizy.io and longtime internet strategist, who spoke then about the Internet of Things and about the connectivity changes being rolled out under 5G technology. Today, he says, “Universal, cheap access to very fast networks could help developing economies grow faster. Fast internet access will be a great equalizer of opportunities, worldwide. Where I live will no longer be a barrier to high value jobs. This is possible, but not certain: political resistance, corruption, denial of access to specific groups of people could block the potential benefits of technology and create huge disruptions in the world.”
Read the full report, including additional comments by experts on these themes, on the Imagining the Internet website.