Dystopian doom or global village? What the Internet will look like in 2025

Sorry, wearable tech is a given. But will expanded connectivity lead to learning or more inequality and violence?

Published March 12, 2014 5:00PM (EDT)

  (Maksym Dykha/Shutterstock)
(Maksym Dykha/Shutterstock)

To mark the 25th anniversary of the invention of the World Wide Web, by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the Pew Research Center's Internet Project in conjunction with Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center released a report on what the Internet could look like in the next decade. Some things were widely agreed on. According to the report, "They predict mobile, wearable, and embedded computing will be tied together in the Internet of Things, allowing people and their surroundings to tap into artificial intelligence-enhanced cloud-based information storage and sharing."

To conduct such a report they "canvassed" thousands of Internet experts, and enthusiasts to give their thoughts on how "privacy, cybersecurity, the 'Internet of things,' and net neutrality" will look like in the year 2025. The survey was conducted between Nov. 25, 2013, and Jan. 13, 2014. Part of the survey asked over 2,000 experts where they saw the future of the Internet. Their theses were later analyzed and arranged into categories. Excerpts from their responses are shown below:

Global connectivity: According to Paul Jones, a professor at the University of North Carolina and founder of ibiblio.org:

"Television let us see the Global Village, but the Internet let us be actual Villagers.'"

Augmented reality: In terms of what humans perceive as reality, professor Daren C. Brabham, at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, University of Southern California, believes:

"We will grow accustomed to seeing the world through multiple data layers. This will change a lot of social practices, such as dating, job interviewing and professional networking, and gaming, as well as policing and espionage.'"

Political awareness: Nicole Ellison hopes that the Internet will increase our awareness of  the vast chasm between the haves and have nots. The associate professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan responded to the survey saying:

"As more of the global population comes online, there will be increased awareness of the massive disparities in access to health care, clear water, education, food, and human rights.'"

The diminishing of nation-states? Will our borders blur as we connect? David Hughes, an Internet pioneer, thinks so. He responded:

"All 7-plus billion humans on this planet will sooner or later be ‘connected’ to each other and fixed destinations, via the Uber(not Inter)net.  That can lead to the diminished power over people’s lives within nation-states. When every person on this planet can reach, and communicate two-way, with every other person on this planet, the power of nation-states to control every human inside its geographic boundaries may start to diminish.'"

The Internet or "the Internets"? Ian Peter, a pioneer Internet rights activist thinks that the Internet will cease to be just one entity. He wrote:

'The Internet will fragment. Global connectivity will continue to exist, but through a series of separate channels controlled by a series of separate protocols. Our use of separate channels for separate applications will be necessitated by security problems, cyber policy of nations and corporations, and our continued attempts to find better ways to do things.'"

Potential violence between the 1 percent and the 99 percent: Oscar Gandy, an emeritus professor at the Annenberg School, University of Pennsylvania, explained:

“We have to think seriously about the kinds of conflicts that will arise in response to the growing inequality enabled and amplified by means of networked transactions that benefit smaller and smaller segments of the global population. Social media will facilitate and amplify the feelings of loss and abuse. They will also facilitate the sharing of examples and instructions about how to challenge, resist, and/or punish what will increasingly come to be seen as unjust.”

What about security? According to Llewellyn Kriel, who is CEO and editor in chief of TopEditor International Media Services, the future looks bleak. Kriel responded:

“Everything — every thing — will be available online with price tags attached. Cyber-terrorism will become commonplace. Privacy and confidentiality of any and all personal will become a thing of the past. Online ‘diseases’ — mental, physical, social, addictions (psycho-cyber drugs) — will affect families and communities and spread willy-nilly across borders. The digital divide will grow and worsen beyond the control of nations or global organizations such as the UN. This will increasingly polarize the planet between haves and have-nots. Global companies will exploit this polarization. Digital criminal networks will become realities of the new frontiers. Terrorism, both by organizations and individuals, will be daily realities. The world will become less and less safe, and only personal skills and insights will protect individuals.”

Convenience versus privacy: An anonymous respondent said:

“Yes, the information we want will increasingly find its way to us, as networks learn to accurately predict our interests and weaknesses.But that will also tempt us to stop seeking out knowledge, narrowing our horizons, even as we delve evermore deep. The privacy premium may also be a factor: only the relatively well-off (and well-educated) will know how to preserve their privacy in 2025.”

How do we plan for the future? Robert Cannon, who is an Internet law and policy expert, wrote about how we'll have to rethink our current economy and labor practices -- as humans might not be doing much physical work. He responded:

“The Internet, automation, and robotics will disrupt the economy as we know it. How will we provide for the humans who can no longer earn money through labor? The opportunities are simply tremendous. Information, the ability to understand that information, and the ability to act on that information will be available ubiquitously … Or we could become a ‘brave new world’ where the government (or corporate power) knows everything about everyone everywhere and every move can be foreseen, and society is taken over by the elite with control of the technology… The good news is that the technology that promises to turn our world on its head is also the technology with which we can build our new world. It offers an unbridled ability to collaborate, share, and interact. ‘The best way to predict the future is to invent it.’ It is a very good time to start inventing the future.”

Another part of the survey reached out to "12,000 experts and members of the interested public to share their opinions on the likely future of the Internet." The Pew Research Center is quick to point out that this survey was not conducted to a random sample, and so cannot be applied to a broader audience. Three main audiences were contacted: 1) Experts who study the Internet, 2) Internet analysts and 3) people who follow trends in technology.  Over 1.000 people responded. Here are a few of their predictions -- good and bad:

Bob Briscoe, a chief researcher in networking and infrastructure at British Telecom, was less hopeful:

“The greatest impacts of the Internet will continue to be the side-effects that tower so high that we do not notice they are continuing to grow far above us: 1) More people will lose their grounding in the realities of life and work, instead considering those aspects of the world amenable to expression as information as if they were the whole world. 2) The scale of the interactions possible over the Internet will tempt more and more people into more interactions than they are capable of sustaining, which on average will continue to lead each interaction to be more superficial. 3) Given there is strong evidence that people are much more willing to commit petty crimes against people and organizations when they have no face-to-face interaction, the increasing proportion of human interactions mediated by the Internet will continue the trend toward less respect and less integrity in our relations.”

More hopeful thoughts came from a senior fellow in liberal education at the National Institute of Technology. Bryan Alexander wrote:

“It will be a golden age of learning. It will be the best time in history for those who want to study. We will have more access to more material, more teachers, and more peers in more ways than ever before. It will bring a new age of work, as we face growing underemployment and unemployment due to automation. We will need to be rethinking what old models mean, like careers, meaningful work, and avocations. It will be a world more integrated than ever before. We will see more planetary friendships, rivalries, romances, work teams, study groups, and collaborations.”

Riel Miller summed up our future best. The head of foresight for UNESCO, wrote:

“Like laws, markets, libraries, behavioral norms — all attributes of living in a community — the Net will just be part of daily life.”

By Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on innovation. Follow @sarahhhgray or email sgray@salon.com.

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2025 Connectivity Future Innovations Internet Privacy