Peering through PC screens for a look at the Web's future

The Baltimore Sun

The Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair. The Tomorrowland pavilion at Disneyland. The Jetsons' push-button home.

When people once imagined the future of technology, the promise was all bright and sparkly, mostly comfort and convenience. Smarter machines would make a better mankind.

But when the Pew Internet and American Life Project, a Washington think tank, surveyed hundreds of developers and futurists about their expectations for the Internet in the year 2020, their visions were both fascinating and foreboding.

The Internet could be a divider more than a uniter, fracturing people into their own digital worlds, some feared. Privacy may increasingly become passe, with so much about us online. Technology is expanding the potential for hate, bigotry and terrorism. Divisions between personal time and work time and between physical and virtual reality will be further eroded. Corporations and governments now in control of most resources might impede or halt development of the medium.

And this was from the people who are the Internet's biggest proponents.

"A strong undercurrent of anxiety runs through these experts' answers," Lee Rainie, director of the project, said of the report released this week. "The picture they paint of the future is that technology will give people the power to be stronger actors in the political and economic world, but that won't necessarily make it a kinder, gentler world."

Janna Quitney Anderson, an associate professor of communications at Elon University in North Carolina, and Rainie distilled the responses from more than 570 Internet activists, builders and commentators who responded to an invitation to take part in an online survey. Another 600 people on the Pew group's e-mail list who follow technology trends joined them.

The conclusions were not all apprehensive. Some of the most enticing visions imagine an Internet experience that's more intuitive and more "user- friendly."

Among predictions for 2020: Voice recognition, touch user-interfaces with the Internet and "air typing" to devices will be more common. And the mobile device will be the primary connection tool to the Internet for most people in the world.

The events of just the past few months could also play a major role in how the Internet evolves. President-elect Barack Obama's election is seen as a positive sign because he and his campaign were so adept at using technology and because he has proposed a new New Deal-type recovery that would include investment in new technology jobs. Economic concerns, however, threaten to slow innovation.

Those working to enforce intellectual property law and copyright protection will be in a continuing "arms race," with the "crackers" who will find ways to copy and share content without payment.

"These experts' answers reflect continuing concern over the tension between security and privacy issues," said Anderson, the report's principal author, who also directs the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon's School of Communications.

The Internet and cellular telecommunications have changed the way we live to a degree most couldn't have imagined just 15 years ago. We're also more grounded in the reality that technology frequently delivers convenience with a big side order of social change.

"In the early days of technology, utopian hopes were higher than dystopian fears," Rainie said. "We're more sophisticated in our understanding of intended consequences."


"Telephones ... will be archaic relics of a bygone era. ... Telephony, which will be entirely [Internet Protocol]-based by then, will be a standard communications chip on many devices." - Josh Quittner, executive editor of Fortune Magazine

"I could see a whole physical way of communicating with our technology tools that could be part of our health and exercise. ... Answering e-mails could be a full-on physical workout - Tiffany Shlain, Webby Awards founder

"I believe that young people will not lose touch with their friends as my generation did and that realization of permanence in relationships could - or should - lead to more care in those relationships." - Jeff Jarvis,'s top blogger and professor at City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism

Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project

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