mobile broadbandEnvisioning the future of the Internet and its impacts on society and the world we live in, nearly 1,500 experts agree that the Internet will become less visible even as it becomes more central and important in daily life. And although they believe the ramifications of the Internet’s evolution on society and the larger world will be positive on balance, they also see signs of trouble.

Trends towards ubiquitous Internet access across wireless and wired networks, skyrocketing growth in sensors and machine-to-machine (M2M) network connections, and ever-greater information processing power and capacity foreshadow much of what the consensus of experts surveyed imagine the Internet will look like and the ramifications it will have across societies worldwide in coming years.

The PewResearch Internet Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center compiled the results of their survey of experts into the “Digital Life in 2025” report.

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In the coming years out to 2025, the research partners summarize, experts believe that the Internet “will become more ‘like electricity’ and produce vastly greater human and machine connectivity that will change everything from personal interactions to the decisions made by governments around the world.”

According to most of the respondents, by 2025 there will be:

  • A global, immersive, invisible, ambient networked computing environment
  • A continued proliferation of smart sensors, cameras, software, databases and massive data centers in a world-spanning information fabric known as the Internet of Things
  • Portable/wearable/implantable technologies that will allow people to “augment reality”
  • Disruption of business models established in the 20th century, most notably impacting finance, entertainment, publishers of all sorts and education
  • Tagging, databasing and intelligent analytical mapping of the physical and social realms

Continuation of technology trends evident today will have both positive and negative effects spanning societies worldwide, including on health, education, work, politics, economics and entertainment, the report authors highlight. While most respondents believe ubiquitous, or extreme, network connectivity will be primarily positive, “many experts also clearly identified areas of concern, some of them extremely threatening,” they add.

“It is striking how much consensus there is among these experts on what will change, and equally striking how varied their answers are when they are asked how those changes will impact and influence users in good and bad ways,” Elon University Professor Janna Anderson, a primary author of the report, was quoted as saying.

“This is the sixth ‘Future of the Internet’ survey we have conducted since 2004, and for the first time most people are seeing and vividly describing as many potential negatives as they are identifying positives. They worry about interpersonal ethics, surveillance, terror and crime and the inevitable backlash as governments and industry try to adjust.”

The research partners grouped experts’ predictions about the digital future in 15 themes. Eight they consider hopeful, six worrisome, and one “a neutral source of advice about choices that must be made.” From the research partners’ news release, here they are:

Mostly-hopeful 2025 scenarios identified by the experts

  • Information sharing over the Internet will be so effortlessly interwoven into daily life that it will become invisible, flowing like electricity, often through machine intermediaries.
  • The spread of the Internet will enhance global connectivity, fostering more positive relationships among societies.
  • The Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and big data will make people more aware of their world and their own behavior.
  • Augmented reality and wearable devices will be implemented to monitor and give quick feedback on daily life, especially in regard to personal health.
  • Political awareness and action will be facilitated and more peaceful change, and more public uprisings like the Arab Spring will emerge.
  • The spread of the “Ubernet” will diminish the meaning of borders, and new “nations” of those with shared interests may emerge online and exist beyond the capacity of current nation-states to control.
  • The Internet will become “the Internets” as access, systems and principles are renegotiated.
  • An Internet-enabled revolution in education will spread more opportunities, with less money spent on buildings and teachers.

The 2025 scenarios that raise concerns

  • Dangerous divides between haves and have-nots may expand, resulting in resentment and possible violence.
  • Abuses and abusers will ‘evolve and scale.’ Human nature isn’t changing; there’s laziness, bullying, stalking, stupidity, pornography, dirty tricks, crime, and the offenders will have new capacity to make life miserable for others.
  • Pressured by these changes, governments and corporations will try to assert power – and at times succeed – as they invoke security and cultural norms.
  • People will continue – sometimes grudgingly – to make tradeoffs favoring convenience and perceived immediate gains over privacy; and privacy will be something only the upscale will enjoy.
  • Humans and their current organizations may not respond quickly enough to challenges presented by complex networks.
  • Most people are not yet noticing the profound changes today’s communications networks are already bringing about; these networks will be even more disruptive in the future.

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