Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Pew Survey About the Future of the Internet

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Dec 13, 2009

Originally posted on Half an Hour, December 13, 2009.

I was actually asked to participate in a Pew Survey (of 'stakeholders'), which is surprising because Pew tends to focus on Americans. Here are my responses to the survey (why don't other people do this?). Survey Questions in italics. My selection with bold X

Will Google make us smart or stupid?

X    By 2020, people's use of the internet has enhanced human intelligence; as people are allowed unprecedented access to more information, they become smarter and make better choices. Nicholas Carr was wrong: Google does not make us stupid (

By 2020, people's use of the internet has not enhanced human intelligence and it could even be lowering the IQs of most people who use it a lot. Nicholas Carr was right: Google makes us stupid.
 It's a mistake to treat intelligence as an undifferentiated whole. No doubt we will become worse at doing some things ('more stupid') requiring rote memory of information that is now available though Google. But with this capacity freed, we may (and probably will) be capable of more advanced integration and evaluation of information ('more intelligent').

Will we live in the cloud or on the desktop?

By 2020, most people won't do their work with software running on a general-purpose PC. Instead, they will work in Internet-based applications, like Google Docs, and in applications run from smartphones. Aspiring application developers will sign up to develop for smart-phone vendors and companies that provide Internet-based applications, because most innovative work will be done in that domain, instead of designing applications that run on a PC operating system.

X By 2020, most people will still do their work with software running on a general-purpose PC. Internet-based applications like Google Docs and applications run from smartphones will have some functionality, but the most innovative and important applications will run on (and spring from) a PC operating system. Aspiring application designers will write mostly for PCs.

I have selected the non-cloud response not because I don't believe the cloud will be pervasive by 2020 - it will - but because some of the implications of the answer (and especially 'applications running on smartphones') will not be the primary instantiation. The idea of dividing the world of 2020 between smartphones and general-purpose PCs is absurd. We will be connecting to soud information and services with a variety of devices in our homes (from radios, televisions, appliances, etc) and on our persons (audio (Skype-like) chat, videophone, camera, etc). Moreoever, I think it is very unlikely that we will trust all, or even the builk, of our data to the cloud. By 2020 we will have been disappointed enough times by online information services losing data, claiming ownership of data, sharing data without permission, etc., that we will keep our own data in our on in-home data store - a personal web server - and IT will be available (via the cloud) to our personal devices. In other words, we will all have the ultimate general-purpose PC in our homes, and much (if not more) of our data processing will take place on THAT, via the cloud.

Will social relations get better?

In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal friendships, marriage and other relationships, I see that the internet has mostly been a negative force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future.

X In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal friendships, marriage and other relationships, I see that the internet has mostly been a positive force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future.
Because of economic and other factors, my family is spread out across North America. My network of friends spans the world. The internet and associated technologies makes it possible for me to connect with them and maintain longer-lasting relationships even though I have moved a lot and changed jobs a lot (as have they) over the years. How could this be anything but better?

Will the state of reading and writing be improved?
X By 2020, it will be clear that the internet has enhanced and improved reading, writing, and the rendering of knowledge.

By 2020, it will be clear that the internet has diminished and endangered reading, writing, and the intelligent rendering of knowledge.
The internet generation is being exposed to text and media in unprecedented quantities, and more, is not just consuming this media, but producing it as well. Practice tells. The improvement will be especially dramatic and apparent because new readers will be compared primarily with the previous generation, the television generation, which for the most part did not read at all. Unfortunately, this improvement will be apparent only to the newly literate generation; the older generation will continue to complain that young people cannot read, despite evidence to the contrary. Moreover, it will be apparent by 2020 that a multi-literate society has developed, one that can communicate with ease through a variety of media, including art and photography, animation, video, games and simulations, as well as text and code.

Will the willingness of Generation Y / Millennials to share information change as they age?

X By 2020, members of Generation Y (today's "digital natives") will continue to be ambient broadcasters who disclose a great deal of personal information in order to stay connected and take advantage of social, economic, and political opportunities. Even as they mature, have families, and take on more significant responsibilities, their enthusiasm for widespread information sharing will carry forward.

By 2020, members of Generation Y (today's "digital natives") will have "grown out" of much of their use of social networks, multiplayer online games and other time-consuming, transparency-engendering online tools. As they age and find new interests and commitments, their enthusiasm for widespread information sharing will abate.
By 2020 it will become increasingly clear that while privacy is the refuge of criminals and politicians, protection of personal data does not increase safety, but merely propagates a false sense of security. Sharing will be widely seen as a defense against the sort of world that existed in the past, where only the rich and multinationals had access to personal data on a widespread scale, and used it exclusively to serve their own interests through marketing media campaigns, cherry-picking of insurance (especially driving and health insurance) clients, employment and wage offers, and more. As access to personal data becomes more widespread (mostly, at first, through the actions of hackers, but also though sharing on personal sites and social networks) it will become clear that security cannot depend on secrecy, but rather, that laws will need to be in force to prevent the misuse of data. Campaigns will propose that the denial (or overcharging) of insurance on the basis of pre-existing illnesses or genetic predisposition, for example, will be outlawed, or that hiring or firing practices based on a person's personal lifestyle will be prohibited. It will be clear by 2020 that everybody has, if you will, skeletons (or nude pics or infidelities) in the closet, and it will be seen as absurd to make morality judgments based on these. In an ideal world, denying a person life or livelihood on the basis of these will be seen as a form of extortion, and condemned by society at large.

Will our relationship to institutions change?

X By 2020, innovative forms of online cooperation will result in significantly more efficient and responsive governments, businesses, non-profits, and other mainstream institutions.

By 2020, governments, businesses, non-profits and other mainstream institutions will primarily retain familiar 20th century models for conduct of relationships with citizens and consumers online and offline.
This question presupposes that "governments, businesses, non-profits, and other mainstream institutions" will continue to exist, and will either be more responsive not. In fact, by 2020, the changing nature of these institutions will have become clear, and we will be well into the process of replacing industrial-age institutions with information-age ones. It won't even make sense to talk of these institutions as "efficient" or "responsive" - these are economists' terms presuppose a client-server model of governance. But by 2020, it will be clear that people are governing, managing, educating and supporting themselves, not waiting for some institution to be "effective" or "responsivbe" to these needs.

Will online anonymity still be prevalent?

By 2020, the identification ID systems used online are tighter and more formal - fingerprints or DNA-scans or retina scans. The use of these systems is the gateway to most of the internet-enabled activity that users are able to perform such as shopping, communicating, creating content, and browsing. Anonymous online activity is sharply curtailed.

X By 2020, internet users can do a lot of normal online activities anonymously even though the identification systems used on the internet have been applied to a wider range of activities. It is still relatively easy for internet users to create content, communicate, and browse without publicly disclosing who they are.

By 2020 online anonymity will be largely a thing of the past, but not because people have been forced into disclosing their identity by pervasive authentication technologies. Indeed, there will be a strong and substantial reaction against being required to prove who we are in order to read a book, watch a movie or buy a cup of coffee (much less should criticisms at the government). pportunities, technologies, and legal license will continue to protect anonymity. However, many people will in most circumstances elect to assert their identity in order to protect their own interests. Online banking, personal websites and social networks, etc., require that a person protect his or her identity. Where authentication is voluntary, and clearly in the client's interests, and non-pervasive, people will gladly accept the constraints. Just as they accept the constraint of using keys to lock the car and house door but have the prerogative to, if they wish, leave either unlocked.

Will the Semantic Web have an impact?

By 2020, the Semantic Web envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee and his allies will have been achieved to a significant degree and have clearly made a difference to the average internet users.

X By 2020, the Semantic Web envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee will not be as fully effective as its creators hoped and average users will not have noticed much of a difference.
The semantic web depends on cooperation by commercial vendors, and what we have seen most often is not cooperation but rather selfish and non-sharing behaviour. Look at Apple, for example, which has its own proprietary stack for the iPhone. Or Facebook, which consumes data, but only in very rare cases shares it. Where the semantic web will be most effective will be in informal, non-commercial and underground activities - but in this environment the rigid formality that characterizes the semantic web cannot be enforced. Instead, we will get a roughly interoperative polyglot, as characterized, for example, by RSS. From time to time these will surface and become widespread, breaking the commercial companies' proprietary monopoly. But it will be an ongoing struggle, and semantic web applications will struggle to become mainstream.

Are the next takeoff technologies evident now?

The hot gadgets and applications that will capture the imagination of users in 2020 are pretty evident today and will not take many of today's savviest innovators by surprise.

X The hot gadgets and applications that will capture the imagination of users in 2020 will often come "out of the blue" and not have been anticipated by many of today's savviest innovators.
The answer to this question, of course, depends on the definition of (a) what you think these new technologies might be (no points if you have no idea) and (b) who you think the "savviest innovaters" are (no points if you think it's just you). I choose to see personal web-server technology (Opera Unite, Firefox POW, etc) as a breakthrough technology, so people can put their own data into the cloud without paying Flickr or whomever. It is this sort of 'persoanl technology' I believe will characterize (what we now call) web 3.0 (and not 3D, or semantic web, etc.). So my dilemma is that, while these technologies are pretty evident today, it is not clear that the people I suspect Pew counts as "the savviest innovaters" are looking at them. So I pick "out of the blue" even though (I think) I can see them coming from a mile away.

Will the internet still be dominated by the end-to-end principle?

In the years between now and 2020, the internet will mostly remain a technology based on the end-to-end principle that was envisioned by the internet's founders. Most disagreements over the way information flows online will be resolved in favor of a minimum number of restrictions over the information available online and the methods by which people access it.

X In the years between now and 2020, the internet will mostly become a technology where intermediary institutions that control the architecture and significant amounts of content will be successful in gaining the right to manage information and the method by which people access and share it.
This is not the happy prediction, and I really hope I'm wrong, but there has been so much hype and media and outright pushing of things like (proprietary) eBook readers and (proprietary) iPhone applications, and the like, that people may come to accept that it is normal for vendors to dictate what applications are allowed to run on your machine and what content you are allowed to produce or consume. The future of the internet, as some pundits have commented, is very much in jeopardy from these closed and proprietary networks, especially those offered by the Telcos. This prediction runs directly counter to some of my other predictions (nobody said consistency was required). And I really really hope it's wrong, and that alternative networks (power-line networks? mesh personal networks? P2P wireless?) offer viable alternatives to closed proprietary networks.

In which region of the world do you live and work?
(See for a list of nations by region if you are not certain of your specific region.)

Asia and South Asia
Latin America
X Northern America

During what year did you first start using the internet?

What is your primary area of internet interest?

Advocate/Voice of the People/Activist User
Entrepreneur/Business Leader
X Research Scientist
Technology Developer/Administrator
Other (please specify)

What is the name of the organization where you work? 

National Research Council Canada

What type of organization is your primary workplace?
Select all that apply.

A company whose main focus is on information technology
A company whose focus is not mainly on information technology but extensively uses it
A college or university
A publication or media company
X A government agency
X A research organization
A consulting business
A non-profit organization
Other (please specify)

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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