Pew releases a new Internet futures report: smart systems

I’ve talked plenty about the Pew/Elon survey collaboration that’s now in its 5th edition. Back in October I described the goals and methodology, along with the eight questions fielded for the current version: The Internet in 2020: the Pew-Elon experts survey, edition V. My posts on the first few questions, which each get a dedicated report of results, can be found as follows: higher ed, the future of money, apps vs Web.

The other day Pew and Elon University released their report on question #7 from last fall’s survey: the future of smart systems. The pdf – which I’ve uploaded here – asks, as usual: Where will we be in 2020?

It continues:

Will the connected household be more efficient at resource management? Or will the ideal Home of the Future remain elusive? A highly engaged, diverse set of respondents were asked by Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center and the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project to answer this question in an online, opt-in survey. It included 1,021 technology stakeholders and critics.

The opinions seemed fairly evenly split…

Survey participants’ opinions about the potential of smart systems were nearly evenly divided. Some 51% agreed with the statement:

By 2020, the connected household has become a model of efficiency, as people are able to manage consumption of resources (electricity, water, food, even bandwidth) in ways that place less of a burden on the environment while saving households money. Thanks to what is known as “smart systems,” the Home of the Future that has often been foretold is coming closer and closer to becoming a reality.

Some 46% agreed with the opposite statement, which posited:

By 2020, most initiatives to embed IP-enabled devices in the home have failed due to difficulties in gaining consumer trust and because of the complexities in using new services. As a result, the home of 2020 looks about the same as the home of 2011 in terms of resource consumption and management. Once again, the Home of the Future does not come to resemble the future projected in the recent past.

But the numbers conceal a lot of pessimism that cropped up in the written comments. The survey asks you to make an initial black-and-white choice, but the real revelations come in the written comments that follow. That made a big difference on this question – a topic I think it’s easy to be optimistic about, until you begin to tease out the details. Hence:

Most of the comments shared by survey participants were assertions that the Home of the Future will continue to be mostly a marketing mirage. The written responses were mostly negative and did not mirror the evenly split verdict when respondents made their scenario selection. Because the written elaborations are the meat of this research report and the vast majority of them poked holes in the ideal of smart systems being well-implemented by individuals in most connected homes by 2020, this report reflects the naysayers’ sense that there are difficult obstacles that are not likely to be overcome over the next few years (my emphasis).

I was cited late in the report as follows:

 Saving money on utility bills is not a sure-fire winner unless consumers can readily connect their changed behavior to the savings—and the savings show up clearly and regularly. Utilities like electric power companies have to make major investments in research, marketing, outreach programs, and monitoring technologies to persuade their customers to conserve power.

Even if some stakeholders are successful, there is no guarantee the systems being deployed will be interoperable and use common standards. Indeed, some suppliers, like incumbent ISPs, may have a vested interest in keeping their existing services proprietary and separate from other initiatives. This reluctance to participate in a joint effort would not be surprising in locales where there is intense intermodal competition between cable multiple system operators and incumbent telephone carriers.”

I think it’s important to add – as many participants did – that a major obstacle is the reluctance of many mainstream end-users to adopt new digital technologies that require a learning curve – especially when the value proposition, like saving the environment, doesn’t offer immediate or obvious benefits to the individual.

Think of one “smart” device that’s been in millions of homes for many years: the automated thermostat, which adjusts HVAC functions according to time of day and other settings. I know otherwise very smart people who just can’t abide figuring out the inter-related adjustements required to make these things work. Like so many digital devices, they have a great payoff – once you’ve sweated through the non-linear logic to get there.

I was reminded the other day of just how basic and yet annoying this non-linearity can be. I was helping my daughter figure out some of the gazillion settings on her new Canon PowerShot G12, which is complicated enough to qualify as an advanced point-and-shoot. We couldn’t seem to find the menu option to add RAW to JPEG output (yes, it’s that advanced) – until I remembered that on devices like this you don’t get just one path through the menus. You have to shift the damn Mode Dial from Auto to P – and then you get the other menu-like screen. Of course.

(Btw, if you’re a fairly serious photographer, don’t be put off by a tricky menu. The Canon G12 is a miracle for its size and price. And its 214-page, very non-linear pdf manual.)