How the Internet will change the world — even more

Recently, 895 Web experts and users were asked by the Pew Research Center and the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University in North Carolina to assess predictions about technology and its effects on society in the year 2020. Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project in Washington, D.C., discussed the survey’s findings with Science News contributing correspondent Susan Gaidos.

LEE RAINIE “There’s a sense that people are marching, not necessarily blindly, but certainly without full knowledge, into a future that they don’t fully know.” Courtesy of L. Rainie

This is your fourth “Future of the Internet” survey. Are there any themes that have come through all of the surveys?

There’s a broad feeling among technologists that technology itself is going to improve, come what may. That computing power, bandwidth, storage capacity, even our ability to pack pixels into screens, is going to keep improving.

At the same time, there is worry that humans and their institutions will not adapt as well as they might under these circumstances. We’re slow to adjust, and the technologies themselves are introducing so many new elements to life that people will potentially have a hard time adjusting to that. There’s a sense that people are marching not necessarily blindly, but certainly without full knowledge, into a future that they don’t fully know. They’re thrilled with their gadgets but they don’t know what their gadgets are doing to them.

In this era of social media, how will privacy and anonymity be maintained?

Anonymity will be harder to maintain. There are too many threats that are posed by people being allowed to do anything they want without any level of accountability or authentication. There will still be chances for anonymous encounters, but they will be in special environments in special ways.

We’re in an environment now where lots of personal sharing is going on. The experts anticipate that a new sensibility would emerge called “reputation management.” There will be tools that allow people to erase all the goofy things that they did in college, if
they want to. People will be able to essentially crowd out bad information about themselves by getting better information out there and making it more prominent, more linked to or more easily findable.

The majority of experts agreed that by 2020, people’s use of the Internet will enhance human intelligence. How so?

The Web is shifting the needs that we have in our lives and the functions that we can perform, so there will be some cognitive shifting that goes on. We don’t have to remember as much stuff, for example, so there might be a shift in cognitive abilities over time from less memorization and storage. New literacies will be required such as screen literacy. Reading, writing, arithmetic and retrieval will become key, as people who can find [information] fastest and make sense of it will be at a marked advantage over those who struggle to find information and have less capacity to synthesize and organize this wealth of data that we have.

In what other realms of life did people anticipate improvements?

There’s almost a uniform feeling that health care will get better. Mobile technology and wearable devices will be able to give real-time feedback about people’s health status.  That will potentially be a life-changing event for the chronically ill or for people who have to manage their care in a deliberate way. That the capacity to interact with a doctor — either through devices or through communications that don’t involve office visits — will improve interactions and empower people in important new ways to be managers of their own health care.

The education story is a different one. There’s hope that education will change, but some despair that it’s not changing fast enough. Kids are still being taught largely in the same format and environment that their great-grandparents were — with students of the same age sitting in a classroom riveted on the all-knowing teacher.

Technologists think that that model will break down at some point and a very different set of activities will define formal education. It won’t necessarily be people of the same age, they won’t necessarily be in the same place. What will organize them is their proficiency in a subject and their interest in a subject.

There’s also hope invested in e-government and civic activity. People have new ways to engage with each other and their leaders about social activity, and to engage with the governmental agencies that are entrusted to act in those areas. The technology community has high hopes that these tools will be deployed in more interesting and exciting new ways so that we’ll see more government data and will be able to make smarter policies because of that.