Internet Elite Look Ahead

New Pew study draws upon predictions of Cerf, Dyson and others over what lies ahead for the networked world.

By Roy Mark | Posted Jan 10, 2005
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The Pew Internet & American Life Project, in conjunction with Elon University, surveyed an array of tech leaders, scholars, industry officials and analysts about the future of the Internet.

Although the report covered many topics, some 66 percent of them agree on one prediction: "At least one devastating attack will occur in the next 10 years on the U.S. networked information infrastructure or the country's power grid."

The respondents also weighed in on the digital divide, as well as Big Brother, predicting increased government and business surveillance will occur over the next decade as computing devices proliferate and become embedded in appliances, cars, phones and other devices.

"We were struck by the prescience of many experts at the dawning of the Web era about the way the Internet would affect people and organizations," Janna Quitney Anderson, an Elon assistant professor and co-author of the report, said in a statement. "It just made sense to us to go back to many of them and ask what they foresee in the next decade. And they see dramatic change in many realms -- some of it good, some of it not-so-good."

The survey draws upon an Elon database that contains many of the Internet experts who contributed predictions about the impact of the Internet between 1990 and 1995, including Vincent Cerf, Esther Dyson, Bob Metcalf and Howard Rheingold.

"Nobody knows for sure what lies ahead -- and the history of the Internet has taught us to expect the unexpected -- but this group of experts provides the perspective of long experience," Susannah Fox, associate director of the Pew Internet Project and lead author of the report, said in the same statement.

"Half were online before the advent of the Web. Institutions that resist change, like education and health care, come in for the sharpest criticism among these information revolutionaries."

Fox told internetnews.com what surprised her most about the survey was that she thought the group would coalesce around a more positive theme than a massive attack on the Internet or the power grid.

"We allowed [the respondents] to challenge our questions or wording, and while they agreed on an Internet attack, some didn't like the word 'devastating,'" Fox said. "Most focused on the Internet and not the power grid."

Fox added there was a general consensus that the "good guys will win out over the bad guys" when it comes to network attacks.

The survey also asked the experts to describe what dimensions of online life in the past decade have caught them by surprise. In addition, they were asked about the changes they thought would occur in the last decade, but have not really materialized.

According to the Pew results, the experts were in "awe" over the explosive development of the Internet over the last 10 years and. In particular, they were surprised by the growth of information sources on top of the basic transport background, including online search capabilities, peer-to-peer networks and blogs.

Among the disappointments cited by the respondents were the growing digital divide and the failure of the educational system to fully embrace the possibilities of the Internet.

Other "stark disagreements" occurred over whether Internet use would foster a rise in religious and political extremist groups and whether it would usher in an era of more participatory democracy.

Just 32 percent of the experts agreed that people would use the Internet to support their political biases and filter out information that disagrees with their views. Half the respondents disagreed with or disputed that prediction. Only 32 percent agreed with a prediction that online voting would be secure and widespread by 2014. Half of the respondents disagreed or disputed that idea.

The survey was conducted online between Sept. 20, 2004 and Nov. 1, 2004. Almost 1,300 Internet experts participated in the survey.

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