February 22, 2010

My full replies for Pew Research: The Future of the Internet IV (and Google vs Stupid)

Pew Research Center recently released their survey on The Future of the Internet IV:

Respondents to the fourth "Future of the Internet" survey, conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center, were asked to consider the future of the internet-connected world between now and 2020 and the likely innovation that will occur.

I was one of the survey participants. I ended up with one quote in the report, in the section about reading and writing. The marquee item was querying about Does Google Make Us Stupid?, and I suppose it's just as well that I didn't get quoted there. I remind myself that Google doesn't need me to defend it.

The full responses I wrote for all the Pew survey questions are below:

# Will Google make us stupid?

The article is one of a long line that presents technology as somehow destructive to the essence of humanity (i.e. "making us stupid"). Centuries ago, this was phrased as corruption of the soul. The modern way of expressing it is pseudo-neurology - "Thanks to our brain's plasticity, the adaptation occurs also at a biological level.". It is an exceptional specimen in that it itself references predecessors of this type, having similar objections to writing or the printing press. But the reason it's part of this survey is that it's tapping into the fears and anxieties of many people who find technological advancement frightening, for changing beliefs about what machines can and cannot do ("as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.").

I don't want to sound blindly optimistic, or be too hard on the piece. There are important points about social values being made. But the cost of getting attention for those points is allying them with a framework which appeals to a very reactionary mindset.

# Will we live in the cloud or the desktop?

This is The Return Of The "Thin Client". Every few years, some company gets the bright idea that simple access to high-powered back-end processing is the wave of the future - and of course, the company is going to get rich by providing those clients and matching back-end processing. It's great in theory, not so great in practice. Maybe This Time It's Different, and it's finally going to happen. But network delays and outages have always killed this idea in practice.

# Will social relations get better?

I voted positive, but I really don't like the phrasing of the question. Consider this: "In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal net worth, savings, home value, and other wealth, I see that the [modern banking system] has mostly been a [positive|negative] force on my financial world. And this will only grow more true in the future.". There's much material glossed over by such a question.

Note the population surveyed might not be the best sample. In my hypothetical query above, asking it to investment bankers will give a different distribution than foreclosed homeowners.

It's a big topic. Just think of it as new ways to meet - AND EXPLOIT - human needs.

# Will the state of reading and writing be improved?

For heaven's sake, It's clear NOW that the Internet has enhanced and improved reading, writing, and the rendering of knowledge. You have know how to read, it encourages writing, and people can exchange knowledge. Don't confuse this with the business models behind serious publishing, encyclopedias, and universities. The future of books is tied into whether there is a social/business model that supports writing for intellectual content rather than as marketing brochures or advertising-bait.

# Will those in GenY share as much information about themselves as they age?

It should be blatantly obvious that getting married and having kids reduces both the inclination and opportunities for "widespread information sharing".

"Not a soul down on the corner
That's a pretty certain sign
That wedding bells are breakin' up
That old gang of mine"

# Will our relationship to key institutions change?

"Popularity Data-Mining Businesses Are Not A Model For Civil Society"

There's a whole cottage industry now of hucksters trying to sell governments, businesses, non-profits, on supposed Internet magic pixie dust that makes citizens and consumers work for the organization for free, and inversely, peddling snake-oil to powerless people via a sales-pitch that it'll give them influence against powerful organizations. Fundamentally, these people are speaking nonsense, which should be evident to anyone who has ever heard volunteerism promoted as a solution to lack of funds.

# Will online anonymity still be prevalent?

At least in the Western world, there are very strong legal protections for the right to act anonymously, at least in terms of political speech. It would require an extreme social shift to remove them. It could happen, but that would mean a major upheaval with far-reaching implications.

# Will the Semantic Web have an impact?

The Semantic Web is like Artificial Intelligence. It's always just around the corner in theory, and disappointing in practice.

# Are the next takeoff technologies evident now?

It's very difficult to figure out what'll take off in the real world. Everything from technological details to market conditions to social trends has to come together, which means there are very few right paths among many wrong ones.

# Will the internet still be dominated by the end-to-end principle?

I can't explain this all in a comment box, but ... the Internet does not really work the way the writer of the question thinks it works. Trying to understand network management in the current political climate is worse than debating national health care systems (that is, there's extensive distorted, agenda-driven, misinformation).

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in infothought | on February 22, 2010 03:38 PM | (Infothought permalink)