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Survey Finds Benefits, Hurdles in the Internet’s Future

September 26, 2006 at 6:45 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: Who agrees that the Internet, already a vital resource and tool for many of us, will become ever more integrated into most of our lives. But just how will it evolve? Will its impact on society be for the good? What new challenges will emerge as the Internet expands?

A new poll asks such questions of leading technology thinkers, business people, and activists. It was conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project working with Elon University. The director of the Pew project, Lee Rainie, joins us now.

Welcome to you.

LEE RAINIE, Director, Pew Internet and American Life Project: Thanks.

JEFFREY BROWN: First, let’s understand the poll. You were looking at what the world might look like in 2020?

LEE RAINIE: We asked Internet experts, technology officials, about their predictions for the future. We gave them seven scenarios to judge and asked them to agree or disagree with the evolution of those scenarios. And we found these people by doing extensive background research on who are the smart people who had done commenting on the Internet many years ago.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, so let’s look at some of the major findings. Now, first, you posit that a global low-cost network thrives, and a clear majority of your respondents agreed. Now, why does that mean?

LEE RAINIE: The Internet will be evolving over time, and the cluster of technologies around it will be evolving. It will get better; it will get attached to more people; it will attach to more things.

And the operative thought in this community was that mobile technology would bring the Internet to lots of places in the world now where it doesn’t exist. Now, some of the respondents disputed the notion that this was inevitable. They worried about business policies and government policies that might get in the way of this rapid spread of the technology.

JEFFREY BROWN: But basically the thought is that it will be more accessible to more people?

LEE RAINIE: Yes. And people were excited about the idea that this would help flatten the world even more, allow more people to escape the boundaries of distance in their own geography, and meet others like themselves and innovate in new ways, so that the world would become, basically, a smaller place.

"The Terminator effect"

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, that one fairly clear.

Next, "Autonomous technology is a problem." Now, this, to simplify, I think, posits that the machines take over. One of our producers called it "The Terminator" effect.

LEE RAINIE: That's exactly what we were asking about. And there's a pretty serious line of thought in the technology community that, over time, even by 2020, that advances will take place that allow machines to escape control of humans.

Most of our respondents said that that wouldn't happen, but a significant minority really pushed back on us against that: 42 percent said they were worried that technology would advance to the time where dangers and dependencies would grow that we didn't notice as they were occurring, but all of a sudden we'd wake up one day and the machines would be in charge.

JEFFREY BROWN: We wouldn't notice as it was happening, but by 2020 it would have happened?

LEE RAINIE: Some people say so. Now, my favorite answer in the whole poll came from Paul Saffo of the Institute of the Future who thought that this might be a pretty benign outcome for humans. He said, "Maybe we'll just end up being pets to the machines, and that's a lot better than ending up as their food."

Opposition to technology

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, one way of looking at it.

All right, number three, a rather provocative supposition. "Some Luddites/Refuseniks" -- in a category -- "will commit terror acts." Now, here you're talking about people who will choose to separate themselves from the grid, as it's called. Most people seem to think that that would be a peaceable action, but some were worried.

LEE RAINIE: There was a pretty measured response among our respondents to this. They do agree that people, like the Unabomber, will emerge in some places and be in opposition to the technology itself.

But the much more likely outcome, according to our respondents, is that there will be a class of people who just get tired of being plugged into so much information and being interrupted in so many ways by other people and that remove themselves from the grid just to have some peace and quiet in their lives, almost as a lifestyle choice.

JEFFREY BROWN: Was there any thinking on how large that group would be?

LEE RAINIE: It might be as much as a fifth of the population. One of the things that was clearly going on with this elite group of technologists is that they're experiencing some of that themselves in their lives now.

They shut off their BlackBerries every once in a while so that they can contemplate things. We don't take their laptops home at night to read their e-mail because they like the quiet time with their families. And I think they're hoping that at least some portion of humanity joins them.

Virtual lives

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Next is, "Virtual reality is a drain for some." Now, this goes to whether people and how many people would fall into anti-social behavior and even addiction.

LEE RAINIE: I worried when we asked this question whether it was not a 20-20 question but a here-and-now question. If you look at the number of people who are playing "World of Warcraft" or who are living on "Second Life," very popular...

JEFFREY BROWN: These are online...

LEE RAINIE: Virtual communities online.

JEFFREY BROWN: Virtual games.

LEE RAINIE: I thought we might be experiencing some of that now. And what most people in our survey said is they're worried that these virtual worlds will get even more compelling and that, in some respects, they might be more compelling than life.

But again, we got some opposition from a significant portion of respondents who said addiction is not quite the right word to apply to this. Howard Rheingold, one of the wonderful Internet sociologists in our sample, said, "I love to read. Does that make me a reading addict?"

So they were challenging the notion that there was really a clinical condition that could be applied to the idea of Internet addiction.

Transparency through internet

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the one that goes to the big question of whether life will be better or worse, society will be better or worse because of technology, you posit it as, "Transparency builds a better world, even at the expense of privacy." Now, first, tell us, what do you mean by transparency?

LEE RAINIE: We meant that more organizations and more individuals would be visible to others. Their information, their declarations, the kinds of things that they did in life would just be more available because so much of it is now built into databases and so much of it is now what they like to do. They like to have MySpace accounts, and they love to post online.

So we thought that transparency partly results just from the disclosures people make but also the unwitting ways that they're part of databases. At the same time, we said that, as you disclose more, as more is known about you, you lose a little bit of privacy.

So we asked our respondents to weigh, is transparency going to produce a better life or is this loss of privacy going to produce a worse life? And we got an absolutely split verdict. There was not agreement about whether the world would net-net be a better place in 2020 because of all of this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, this is pretty striking from a group of tech people.

LEE RAINIE: Yes. In some respects, they love the technology. They've built their lives around it, but they're also worried in the abstract about what it will do to us as a society, and they're not quite sure. They're sort of in their little nests working on improving tools, but none of them -- it seems to be thinking that they will rise above their nests, and look at the whole picture, and come out with a good outcome.

JEFFREY BROWN: Were there some real surprises for you in doing this poll?

LEE RAINIE: Well, the split verdict on the transparency-privacy question was one, and also that serious push back from some very serious people about whether humans will be able to retain control of their machines.

We talked about a notion called a J-curve, will change occurs so rapidly that you can't slow it down, it doesn't slow itself down. And if you look at trends in how computing power is getting better, communication power is getting better, and our capacity to store things is getting better, there's some reason for worry.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you sum up this whole thing, and it looks like a kind of general agreement on how things might evolve, but not much agreement on whether it will evolve in good or bad ways?

LEE RAINIE: Yes. There's a very serious level of dispute about the impacts of all this technology change, even as there is substantial agreement about the direction of the change itself.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, 2020 we'll come back and talk again, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: Lee Rainie is the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Thanks a lot.

LEE RAINIE: Thanks, Jeff.