Pew’s Internet Futures – quotable quotes from me and the experts

The Pew Internet & American Life Project has released the findings from its fourth experts survey on the future of the Internet. I was one of 895 respondents who took part in this edition. Between Christmas Day and January 15, I blogged my responses to the 10 questions (those posts are all tagged “surveys”). I’ve been doing a scorecard to see how I match up with the other 894 respondents and their predictions for the year 2020. (My thanks to Lee Rainie and his colleagues for a thrilling ride.)

Here’s the setup, from the report’s preface (p.3):

“Respondents to the Future of the Internet IV survey, fielded from Dec. 2, 2009 to Jan. 11, 2010, were asked to consider the future of the Internet‐connected world between now and 2020 and the likely innovation that will occur. They were asked to assess 10 different “tension pairs” – each pair offering two different 2020 scenarios with the same overall theme and opposite outcomes – and they were asked to select the one most likely choice of two statements. […]

“Please note that this survey is primarily focused on eliciting focused observations on the likely impact and influence of the Internet – not on the respondents’ choices from the pairs of predictive statements. Many times when respondents “voted” for one scenario over another, they responded in their elaboration that both outcomes are likely to a degree or that an outcome not offered would be their true choice. Survey participants were informed that “it is likely you will struggle with most or all of the choices and some may be impossible to decide; we hope that will inspire you to write responses that will explain your answer and illuminate important issues.”

The report concentrates on five of the 10 original “tension pairs”:

1 – whether Google will make us stupid (as alleged by Nicholas Carr);
2 – the impact of the Internet on reading, writing and the rendering of knowledge;
3 – takeoff technologies;
4 – the end-to-end principle; and
5 – anonymity.

1. On Google: it won’t make us stupid – about 80% went for the upbeat view. I agreed, with qualifiers, and was quoted (pp. 10-11) in a section that summarized a half-dozen responses favoring a non-deterministic viewpoint:

“Technology isn’t the problem here. It is people’s inherent character traits. The internet and search engines just enable people to be more of what they already are. If they are motivated to learn and shrewd, they will use new tools to explore in exciting new ways. If they are lazy or incapable of concentrating, they will find new ways to be distracted and goof off” (p.9).

2 – On literacy: the Internet will enhance literacy and knowledge rendering, with nearly 70% on side. I agreed with the majority.

3 – On takeoff technologies: they’ll mostly come out of the blue, unanticipated, said 80%. I got caught offside, claiming the big item to watch will be a huge jump in a familiar commodity, namely bandwidth – which earned me a quote anyway. At least I was in good company here, with the research director of the Institute for the Future and a former member of Obama’s National Economic Council. The unifying theme:

“One of the big reasons experts do not have a strong sense about the innovations of the future is that the environment of technology is still taking shape. Lots more bandwidth and computing power – for less cost than today – will spur changes that cannot be foreseen now” (p.25).

4 – On the end-to-end principle: it will prevail, but the vote was closer on this one, about 2-to-1 saying yes. I agreed.

5 – On anonymity: this was the closest tally of all five, with a little over half the respondents saying anonymity will prevail. I disagreed, and my contrarian position earned me a third and final quote (pp. 46-7).

So the final tally has me agreeing with the majority 3 times out of 5. Whatever that means, do yourself a favor and check out this report – and all the other great stuff that Pew Internet has to offer.

On a pessimistic end-note…

That close vote on anonymity tells us that a lot of smart people think our anonymity and privacy are going to be increasingly at risk. I’ve had a lot of discussions recently with friends, students, co-workers and others about the quality of life online. Much of what I hear – such as the powerful resistance to strong passwords – convinces me that we’re going to cyber-hell in a digital handbasket. Here was my reasoning in the survey (in fact #7 in the original list of 10 questions):

“The battle over online anonymity is much like the tug‐of‐war between large copyright holders and online ‘pirates.’ It’ll never end. Several kinds of people feel they have too much at stake to let other people hide online: besides movie studios and record labels, that would include law enforcement officials, national security agencies and marketers of all descriptions. At least some of the time, bad behavior (or suspected bad behavior) will trump any rationale for hiding identities. On the flip side, many of us actually want to be tracked down online so we can give up enough privacy to be sold things that are just right for us. Digital technologies keep the game in motion. As soon as one side builds a better mousetrap, the other side will hack it and the cycle starts again.

“Ironically, I think anonymity will remain just as endangered in free‐market democracies as in authoritarian regimes. That’s because in countries like Canada and the United States, we take it for granted that the State will not attempt to harm us or curtail our freedoms, online or offline ‐ to say nothing of knee‐jerk reactions to widely feared activities like terrorism. As for the marketers, they have a double advantage in using or circumventing ID systems. First, free‐market economies are very forgiving of intrusive behaviors, if they can be construed as promoting growth or innovation. Second, and most importantly, the right to anonymity is a privilege of sophisticated and attentive
46citizens. The evidence may show otherwise, but I suspect that millions of mainstream onliners are too baffled or careless to remain vigilant about their privacy. Simply keeping up with the ever‐changing rules on social networking platforms like Facebook is a task most people appear unwilling to take on.”

D.E.