Fifty years after the first computer network was connected, most experts say digital life will mostly change humans' existence for the better over the next 50 years. However, they warn this will happen only if people embrace reforms allowing better cooperation, security, basic rights and economic fairness
The year 1969 was a pivot point in culture, science and technology. On Jan. 30, the Beatles played their last show. On July 20, the world watched in awe as Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin become the first humans to walk on the moon. Less than a month later, nearly half a million music fans overran a muddy field near Woodstock, New York, for what Rolling Stone calls the "greatest rock festival ever."
But the 1969 event that had the greatest global impact on future generations occurred with little fanfare on Oct. 29, when a team of UCLA graduate students led by professor Leonard Kleinrock connected computer-to-computer with a team at the Stanford Research Institute. It was the first host-to-host communication of ARPANET, the early packet-switching network that was the precursor to today's multibillion-host internet.
Heading into the network's 50th anniversary, Pew Research Center and Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center asked hundreds of technology experts, including Kleinrock and fellow internet pioneers, how individuals' lives might be affected by the evolution of the internet over the next 50 years. Overall, 530 technology pioneers, innovators, developers, business and policy leaders, researchers and activists in the nonscientific canvassing responded to this query:
The year 2019 will mark the 50th anniversary of the first host-to-host internet connection. Please think about the next 50 years. Where will the internet and digital life be a half century from now? Please tell us how you think connected technology, platforms and applications will be integrated into people's lives. You can tackle any dimension of this question that matters to you. You might consider focusing on questions like this: What changes do you expect to see in the digital world's platform companies? What changes do you expect to see in the apps and features that will ride on the internet? How will digital tools be integrated into everyday life? What will be entirely new? What will evolve and be recognizable from today's internet? What new rules, laws or innovations in its engineering over the intervening years will change the character of today's internet?
Considering what you just wrote about your expectations for the next 50 years, how will individuals' lives be affected by the changes you foresee?
Some 72% of these respondents say there would be change for the better, 25% say there would be change for the worse and 3% believe there would be no significant change.
This is a non-scientific canvassing based on a non-random sample. Thus, the results are not projectable to any population other than the individuals expressing their points of view in this sample. The respondents' remarks reflect their personal positions and are not the positions of their employers.
The optimists responding to the better-worse-no change question expressed hope that in the next 50 years digital advances will lead to longer lifespans, greater leisure, more equitable distributions of wealth and power and other possibilities to enhance human well-being. At the same time, nearly all of these experts' written predictions included warnings about the possibilities of greater surveillance and data-abuse practices by corporations and governments, porous security for digitally connected systems and the prospect of greater economic inequality and digital divides unless policy solutions push societies in different directions.
In short, these experts argue the future is up for grabs and some argue key decisions need to be made soon. The main themes in these hundreds of experts' comments are outlined in this table.
Among the experts making the case that choices made now could affect whether the future turns out well or not was Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy and author of "Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future." He wrote, "I don't think the right framing is 'will the outcome be good, or bad?' but rather it must be 'how will we shape the outcome, which is currently indeterminate?' I'm hopeful that we will make the right choices, but only if we realize that the good outcomes are not at all inevitable."
Others echoed this point. David Bray, executive director for the People-Centered Internet coalition, commented, "There will be a series of disruptions to our current way of living and whether we, as humans, navigate them successfully for the benefit of all or, unfortunately, just a few, remains to be seen…. What we are seeing is an increasing affordability and availability of technologies that only were available to large nation-states 20 years ago. The commercial sector now outpaces the technology development of nation-states, which means groups can have advanced disruptive technologies that can be used for good or bad [and] that can massively impact global events. This trend will continue and will challenge the absorptive capacity of societies to keep up with such technology developments. No longer do we have five to 10 years to assess the impact of a technology and then incorporate norms, laws, etc. Now we have to operate on a six-month or three-month time horizon which, when combined with the media's tendency to dramatically oversimplify news and reduce complications in narratives about what is occurring, risks oversimplifying for the public the issues at hand, polarizing different groups and creating an ever-increasing number of 'wedge issues' in societies."
Esther Dyson, entrepreneur, former journalist, founding chair at ICANN and founder of Wellville, wrote, "The impact of the internet is not entirely inherent in the technology; it depends on what we do with it. It's so powerful that it has given us the opportunity to satisfy many of our short-term desires instantly; we need to learn how to think longer-term. So far we have mostly done a bad job of that: Individuals are addicted to short-term pleasures such as likes and other acknowledgments (to say nothing of drugs and instantly available, online-ordered pleasures), to finding friends rather than building friendships (and marriages); businesses to boosting quarterly profits and to recruiting 'stars' rather than investing in their own people; nonprofits to running programs rather than building institutions; and politicians to votes and power. Do we have the collective wisdom to educate the next generation to do better despite our own poor example?"
Susan Etlinger, an industry analyst for Altimeter Group and expert in data, analytics and digital strategy, commented, "In 50 years, what we know as our internet will be largely obsolete. Rather than organizing information in the form of URLs, apps and websites, our digital interactions will be conversational, haptic and embedded in the world we live in (even, to some extent, in ourselves). As a result, the distinction between the physical and digital worlds will largely fall away. Prosthetics, imaging, disease and pathogen detection, and brain science (identifying, understanding and perhaps even modifying the workings of the brain) will all see advances far beyond what we can imagine today. Our ability to understand weather and the natural world at scale will be immensely powerful, driven by advances in machine intelligence and networking. Yet all of these innovations will mean little if the algorithms and technology used to develop them are not applied with the same attention to human consequences as they are to innovation. Even today, the 'Minority Report' notion of 'pre-crime' is crudely possible using predictive policing technology, yet it is just one example of how embedded bias can perpetuate and actually intensify injustice. This is also true in education, health care, our financial system, politics and really every system that uses data to generate predictions about the world and the future. This is not at all to say that we should retreat, but rather that we should embrace the opportunity intelligent technologies give us – to see and better understand our biases so we can optimize for the world we want, rather than a more efficient version of the world we already have. We've already seen this capability weaponized in the political sphere; the decisions we make now will set a precedent for whether we are able to use intelligent technologies justly and ethically, or whether in 50 years we have consigned ourselves to a permanent state of information (and literal) warfare."
Lindsey Andersen, an activist at the intersection of human rights and technology for Freedom House and Internews, now doing graduate research at Princeton University, commented, "The net benefits for people, in access to government services, information and quality of life, will outweigh the net losses. That said, as with any major advancement, there will be winners and losers. The losses will likely come in the form of jobs, autonomy and even freedom. But, perhaps for the first time, we are in a position to mitigate these losses because we can predict them. And if we begin solving the problems we have with technology today, it will help address the problems of the future."
Alex Halavais, an associate professor of social technologies at Arizona State University, wrote, "The development and diffusion of new technologies have had a net-positive effect on our society over time. Certainly, there have been several near-cataclysmic events over the last two 50-year cycles, and we are currently undergoing the slow-moving technologically motivated disaster of the anthropocene. But over time these technologies have helped to enable more freedom than oppression, more abundance than deprivation and more creation than destruction. I would bet on that future."
Fiona Kerr, industry professor of neural and systems complexity at the University of Adelaide, commented, "People love bright, shiny things. We adopt them quickly and then work out the disadvantages, slowly, often prioritizing on litigious risk. The internet has been a wonderful summary of the best and worst of human development and adoption – making us a strange mixture of connected and disconnected, informed and funneled, engaged and isolated, as we learn to design and use multipurpose platforms shaped for an attention economy."
Joly MacFie, president of the Internet Society's New York Chapter, said, "We are still in digital society's adolescence. Maturity will bring ubiquity, understanding, utility, security and robustness."
Randy Marchany, chief information security officer at Virginia Tech and director of Virginia Tech's IT Security Laboratory, said, "The human-machine interface will be where I think we'll see the biggest change. In the beginning, keyboard-based devices were the primary way of communicating with a computer. Today, natural-language devices (Watson, Alexa, Siri) are becoming the norm. The younger generations are using more and more conversational methods to communicate with their devices. Descendants of the Google Glass-style devices displaying info using augmented reality techniques will become the normal way of accessing and inputting information. I suspect that governments will find themselves at odds with the corporations that collect this data. For example, if Facebook can influence an election, does a government fear it, partner with it, or take it over completely? Technology will create societal disruptions a la previous 'industrial revolutions' as older technologies and their jobs disappear, and the workforce needs to be trained in the new technologies. This disruption will cause fundamental changes in governments, attitudes and way of life. There will be a polarization of views between the new tech and old tech worlds. How we deal with this polarization will determine whether the transition is peaceful or not."
Richard Forno, of the Center for Cybersecurity and Cybersecurity Graduate Program at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, wrote, "A few thoughts: 1) I see the future internet as more commercialized and locked-down in response to corporate/government interests over IP controls, cybersecurity and perhaps public discourse – to include enacting national borders in cyberspace. 2) Continued Balkanization of the future internet as people embrace various new tech – which Internet of Things platform will they use? Which 'smart'-whatever platform will become dominant? Will we have many separate ecosystems with as-yet undefined lifespans and/or vendor support cycles that lead to forced upgrades? What problems will that pose? 3) Current questions raised over how internet tech like social media, mobile devices, everything-on-demand impacts society may well set the stage for radical rethinking about what the future internet will look like – and I suspect it'll be far removed from the romantic 'informational equality' of the 1990s and early 2000s. The bottom line: The future internet will reflect future humankind. Humans are a chaotic and fallible species – so how we will develop/embrace future tech within our global society is not something easily predicted other than to say it will reflect contemporary views, mores and interests."
John McNutt, a professor in the school of public policy and administration at the University of Delaware, responded, "Not every technology is a good idea, and every advance should be carefully considered in terms of its consequence. On balance, technology has made much human progress possible. This is likely to continue. We will always have false starts and bad ideas. People will misuse technology, sometimes in horrific ways. In the end, human progress is based on creating a future underpinned by knowledge, not ignorance."