A new survey of Internet experts—the third in a series by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and Elon University—has triggered a lot of debate among social media thought leaders since it was released less than a month ago. Most of the 1,200 respondents surveyed for this latest report, called The Future of the Internet III, said they expect major advances in information technology by 2020, as voice recognition improves and as the mobile phone becomes a primary device for online access and social problem-solving. But many of these same thought leaders—from the scientists and engineers who created the first Internet architecture to social commentators and advocates, corporate technology leaders, government policy strategists, and tech experts in higher education—also disagree sharply over whether the Net will, in fact, build a better world.
To get a better sense of the fault lines, Cause Global Publisher Marcia Stepanek caught up last week with survey co-author and Pew project director Lee Rainie, who also co-wrote Up for Grabs: The Future of the Internet, based on much of the center's research. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation:
Back in the late 90s, I came across a wonderful piece of scholarship by a guy named Ithiel de Sola Pool, who wrote a book called Forecasting the Telephone. Fifty years after the telephone became mass-introduced into the culture, Pool and a team of students at MIT looked at the things that were predicted about what was going to happen when the phone became widely diffused, and then at what actually happened. We’re in a position to look at the dawn of a new technology, the Internet, and to measure its social impact in real-time, as it is evolving.
What are the big themes that emerge from your latest findings?
Technologists are now very convinced that the technology, itself, will continue to improve. It’s going to get faster, better, smaller, more convenient, and more plugged into people’s everyday lives in very powerful ways. At the same time, though, they are not at all convinced that human beings will improve along with the technology. Some people think an improved Internet will encourage better human behaviors, better social interactions, and better political discourse, but there are a lot of people who now are pushing back against that, saying that even if the technology gets better, people will use it in ways that will reinforce some of the worst tendencies of human beings: they will use these new tools to act tribally and in nasty ways towards each other. There are very ambivalent feelings about whether the species is going to progress when it uses these new tools.
Many of those same experts that you interviewed also predict that the transparency the Net creates won't necessarily yield more personal integrity, social tolerance, or forgiveness. Some 56% said the potential for bigotry, hate, and other forms of intolerance may expand.
What’s very clear in the minds of a lot of these respondents is that people are good and kind to the fellow members of their tribes—but they are not good and not kind to those people who are not in the charmed circle. Respondents were making the point in their answers that human tendencies are embedded in us; they’re not going to change. Technologies, they said, can facilitate some of the darkest sides of human nature, whether it is about hate, harm and fraud, people exploiting each other, or simply just not paying a lot of attention to people who aren’t like them. In bygone days, of course, people who were not like me were people who were not of my race, or weren’t of my physical community or didn’t share my language. Now, though, the possible number of tribes to which one can belong extends well beyond classic demographics. What these experts worry about is that when we break ourselves into niches that are formed around our specific, varied interests, we have less time for other people, and less chance of discovering experiences but more opportunities for our views to be reinforced and affirmed, even if they may not be right.
Another survey finding—but one on which most respondents agreed—is that mobile devices will be the primary way people will connect to the Internet by 2020.
Wireless connectivity—mobility—is going to be much more important in the future to our online experiences than it currently is and the environment itself will become networked as objects become networked. We will be operating in a very different kind of information sphere than the one in which we now live and work. Certainly, the introduction of the iPhone and all the other companion phones now on the market have given people a taste of what the future might look like already. Bandwidth will improve, our capacity to boost stuff through the electromagnetic spectrum will get better and better. The devices that we carry around now which we now call cell phones are going to be cell phones and computers and life managers in ways that we don’t quite yet employ them—and that in less-developed parts of the world, mobile phones will offer most people a much less expensive, more efficient way to connect to the Internet. People won’t have to buy laptops or desktop computers in order to have access to all the other people and all the information that people who now have a computer now have access to. So the hope is that the rise of mobility will help a whole new cohort of people to have access to the things that people in the developed world have had for 10-15 years.
There’s been a lot of talk – particularly in the wake of Barack Obama’s effective use of social networking—that one's social capital will continue to become more critical to one's success in society and could one day become even more influential than wealth.
The experts are very interested in the subject of social capital and in the survey, they broke off into several strains on how the concept may evolve. Some experts absolutely think that the capacity of the Net to bring new people and experiences into our lives means that the volume of social capital is going to grow. There are others–guys like Barry Wellman, a sociologist at University of Toronto—who says the idea of social capital is sort of transformed by the Internet. It’s not necessarily taking place in traditional, tight-knit groups like the family or the neighborhood or even the workplace, he says. Rather, it’s more of a networked phenomenon. People can segment their lives based on their interests. I might, therefore, have one group of buddies online who share my passion for my favorite baseball team, and I might have another set of buddies online who share my passion for the dog that I own and another set of buddies who can help me with financial information, especially in hard economic times. So we’re acting like networkers now. [Wellman and I are writing a book that says just that.] Another group of respondents thinks people aren’t necessarily building extra social capital online and certainly are not reaching out to others who are not like them. In fact, many think that online, people will ever more tightly close into smaller information worlds, where the only people and information they will encounter will perfectly match up with what these people already think and believe.
And transparency will become even more uncomfortable for some?
There’s a very strong feeling of concern that this new world we’re entering is not necessarily going to be one in which people are going to have better experiences. One of the big dimensions of that dark side is that, of course, as we expose ourselves to more—and as more is known about us in this new online environment—traditional notions of reputation, power, and privacy are going to change; a lot of experts think we are not yet socially equipped to deal with that. We haven’t figured out the new norms and the new etiquette and the rules of the road for how to behave responsibly in a world where anybody who wants can ask you to be their friend and follow your profile and your comings and goings in ways they couldn’t before, when they didn’t have physical access to you. The experts we surveyed are very anxious about the ways that governments and big corporations may be able to exploit the new vulnerabilities that may be part of this new world.
(Illustration by frenta - Fotolia.com)