“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” — Roy Amara (d.2007)
In January, I participated in the latest edition of the experts survey on the future of the Internet, brainchild of the Pew Internet Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center. Some takeaways from grappling with the latest survey:
- It’s been increasingly difficult from year to year to think through the tangle of issues associated with online life (I answered only 5 of the 8 questions on this survey);
- Trying to look ahead a decade made me think a lot more about the present-day than the future.
- My mood was pessimistic, and the theme that kept coming up was the inevitable fragmentation of the global public Internet.
The Pew-Elon Survey on the Future of the Internet, now in its sixth edition, collects responses from 900-odd participants around the globe on eight questions (originally 10), focused on the leading controversies of the day. The participants comprise a motley collection of thought leaders, technologists, entrepreneurs, futurists, academics, axe-grinders and experts of many stripes. The first edition of the survey was launched in 2004.
As this was my fourth outing, I’ve written a number of times about previous reports, as well as more generally about the survey research carried on by the Pew Internet Project. The PIP is led by the very accomplished Lee Rainee, whose staff has created a treasure trove of survey data about broadband adoption and use, social networking, mobile technology, the behavior of teens online, the effects of new devices on the lives of minorities and lots else. (The name in full is actually the Pew American Life and Internet Project; Canada is sadly not included in its scope).
The methodology developed for the futures survey is unusual. In a post written in October 2011 (The Internet in 2020: the Pew-Elon experts survey, edition V), I described the first step as follows:
Instead of either the usual rankings or open-ended picks, each topic starts with a pair of one-sentence predictions – “tension pairs” – each of which captures the polar opposite of the other. The content of the tension pairs is built from “common attitudes today about the likely evolution of the Internet.” Participants are asked to choose one. […]
Most though not all of the 2013-14 questions are structured like this. In any case, it’s at the next step that things get interesting. Participants are invited to expand on their “yes” or “no” answer – and, naturally, there’s very little about the Internet that’s easily reduced to a black or white perspective. The outcome is a series of yes/no answers that can be quantified and compared, along with a huge amount of prose that provides the qualitative material.
Short-run vs long-run predictions
The expert I cited at the top of this post, Roy Amara, had a long career as head of the Institute for the Future (one of whose founders was Paul Baran, co-developer of packet switching). What resonates for me in the Amara adage is that we do overestimate the influence of technology in the short run, because short-run thinking about new technologies is dominated by boosterism. Who has the big megaphone? The marketers of digital devices and services who are looking for big mainstream uptake.
Retail technology marketers portray their goods as both crucial to our happiness and easy as pie. Their role is to put these drivers front and center, and bury the limiters, like technical complexity or invasion of privacy, because they don’t want party-poopers spoiling their market penetration. I think the smart home is one of many examples of emerging technologies whose influence over the next three or four years will prove to have been considerably over-estimated (and the hype from Google’s recent acquisition of Nest is just starting). On the other hand, mature technologies have a way of becoming part of the woodwork around us – quite literally so in the case of embedded devices. Once they do, we tend to wonder how we lived without them.
My own experience with new technologies bears out this contrast. Sometime in 1992, I moved from dialup and MS-DOS to ISDN-DSL and a Mac IIci. The IDSL service was hideously expensive and complicated. The IIci, one of the first Macs without a built-in display, wasn’t exactly a rocketship either (it had a 40-megabyte hard disk). But by comparison with the platforms I’d been on, these new technologies really changed things – e.g. listening to music. I could finally pull in streaming music, like the Bay Area trance that was big at the time (until new copyright measures for the Web closed down hundreds of great music sites).
It wasn’t hard to see how this phenomenon was likely to play out in the coming months. As the tunes now turned up over twisted copper pair, a lot more music, of all different kinds, was waiting to be discovered (legally I might add). The furniture was undergoing shifts: the new speakers were tiny and sat on my desk, unlike the big slabs standing in adjacent corners of the living room. And I listened a lot more while doing other things, like working. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had started to experiment with a little thing called multitasking.
But all that was relatively small potatoes – mere incremental changes to home entertainment. I wish I could say I saw the big changes coming. And even if someone had come along with a vision of the Internet in 2014, would I have understood? Would I have taken them seriously? In less then 20 years, said the sage, you’ll be enjoying public Wi-Fi for connectivity, Wikipedia for your research and a MacBook Pro Core i7 CPU running at a clock rate of 2.2 GHz – a jump of well over 800-fold from the clock rate of the Motorola CPU in that old Mac IIci (25 MHz).
It’s not for nothing the Pew/Elon survey asks for comment about two kinds of phenomena: changes in technology and changes in social behavior associated with them. The tech stuff is tough enough, although there are some guidelines, like Moore’s Law. Nevertheless, even if I could have imagined the great leaps in processing power that lay ahead, there’s no way in my wildest dreams I could have envisaged sitting in my local Starbucks for the afternoon, from where I would research, write and publish a post just like this, complete with pictures edited to suit. In 1992, I couldn’t even imagine ordering a dry, skinny cappuccino from a Starbucks in Portland ORE – though that leap of faith would only have to wait another year.
This year’s topics
I suggested at the beginning that I was surprised at the extent to which I focused on the present-day in responding to the survey. I suppose the bad news is that kind of emphasis makes less room for future projections. On the other hand, there are no facts about the future, as the man said, so we have to rely pretty heavily on the present in order to say anything plausible about life in 2025. Indeed, one of the things I enjoy about this exercise is that it has a way of concentrating the mind on present-day trends that I’m usually too scattered to see in a coherent fashion.
This emphasis on the present-day is even less surprising when you consider the questions posed by the Pew-Elon team. Of course they are not of the light-hearted, science-fictional kind:“Will we have jetpacks for personal travel in 2025?” Instead, the survey is oriented around issues that have emerged in the US and developed countries as controversial and often contentious – room for “yes” and “no” debates, definitely room for many of us to worry about how the public interest will be affected. Here’s the topic list. I have five posts coming up, on the topics marked below in bold:
- Security, liberty, privacy online
- The economic impact of robotic advances and AI
- New killer apps in the gigabit age
- Major cyber attacks
- The evolution of embedded and wearable devices and the Internet/Cloud of Things
- Technology industry success (a company scorecard of sorts)
- Accessing and sharing content online
- Most significant impacts of the Internet (billed as the real “open-ended” question)
Opening question for the next post, from the survey
Security, liberty, privacy online – Will policy makers and technology innovators create a secure, popularly accepted, and trusted privacy-rights infrastructure by 2025 that allows for business innovation and monetization while also offering individuals choices for protecting their personal information in easy-to-use formats?
My (pessimistic) one-word answer: NO.