By the year 2025, the Internet will have almost completely disappeared, according to the latest edition of one of the longest-running, most broad-based surveys of Internet experts and heavy users of the Web.
The Internet won’t go away, of course. By 2025 the Internet will be considered simply the utilitarian mechanism that allows almost everything else to happen, according to according to Digital Life in 2025, the 2014 edition of the semi-annual Imagining the Internet survey conducted by the Pew Internet Project and Elon University. However vast and difficult to build and maintain, complex to understand, or awesome to contemplate from the point of view of technologists who build and maintain it, the Internet will become as invisible to most people as the massive civil works projects that run water and electricity into the homes of consumers who never have to give them a second thought, according to the survey, which was released March 11.
No one, however, will ignore the things that can be built on top of a reliable, ubiquitous communication and data-transport network, however. The Internet of Things will continue to scatter smartish sensors in places humans want to monitor but not go. Wearable, portable or implantable devices will focus on only a few specific functions each, but will combine their input with streams of contextual and explanatory data from vast online databases to augment the reality of humans in ways useful to them rather than only to marketers or government surveillance projects.
Finance, entertainment, education and information-dissemination businesses of all sorts will be turned on their heads by consumers able to choose data, information or functions useful to them rather than accepting those that are profitable to providers. Every location, object, person, pet, geographical region, wilderness view and window on the universe will be tagged, stored and mapped in ways that will make their activities, existence or appearance as easy to mash up into a digital reality as pictures of strangers on a Facebook timeline or personalized digital music station. The increasing ubiquity of Internet connections will expand global commerce, social connections, improve positive relationships among geographically separated societies, and give them far greater ability to interact with both people and institutions inaccessible to earlier generations.
The ‘net-connected set of social dynamics Pew and Elon researchers describe as the “Ubernet” will diminish the meaning of territorial borders, ideological or political barriers and access to both education and economic resources.
It will also give exploiters (criminal, governmental or otherwise) easier access to victims who could find not only their financial identities, but whole sections of their digital worlds stolen or corrupted by trolls, hackers, spies and overzealous enforcers of regulations that may take years to adapt effectively to a new digital reality. People will continue to behave badly, make grudging tradeoffs between convenience and security, protect or invade one another’s privacy, and wither wield or suffer the consequences of economic and political power misused by both governments and corporations, according to predictions in the Pew study.
Barriers between “haves” and “have-nots” will collapse, but new ones will be created, “resulting in resentment and possible violence,” according to the report. “By making so much activity visible, [the Internet] exposes the gap between the way we think people behave, the way we think they ought to behave… and the way they really behave,” according to survey responder Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher in the Natural Interaction group at Microsoft Research. “This is happening in families, in organizations, in communities, and in society more broadly. Adjusting to this will be an unending, difficult task.”
The threat that governments will restrict free access and individual behavior online, as many do in the real world, could restrict or derail many of the most global benefits of the global ‘net, according to Barbara Simons, former president of the Association for Computing Machinery, IBM researcher, member of the boards of EPIC and the Oxford Internet Institute, and digital-rights and digital-voting activist who heads the organization Verified Voting. Adjusting to the more-connected world will be “cataclysmic, violent and destructive” in some societies, especially those that put a high priority on centralized governmental control and suppression of conflicting beliefs or values, according to Andrew Nachison, media analyst, co-founder of WeMedia and former director of The Media Center at the American Press Institute.
The question in those societies will be whether leaders will emerge who can navigate social and political minefields to create enormous change without tremendous violence, as happened during the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of Apartheid in South Africa, Nachison said in his survey response.
Humans will also lose or cede control over many decisions that will be made by meshes of cooperating devices that automate building temperature controls, travel in driver-augmented or autonomously driven cars and other activities that make up the dynamic of group or social living, according to David Clark, senior research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, whose work during the ’70s and ’80s helped define the evolution of the Internet from positions including Chief Protocol Architect of the Internet Architecture Board, which spawned the IETF.
Oddly, the ability of the Internet to break down geographic and physical barriers may shrink the physical world, but add new barriers based on ideology, religion or even create regional pockets of isolation around groups who simply don’t like the diversity of the Internet experience or its impact on their way of life in the real world. “While the Internet is a force for globalization, it will become increasingly localized,” Clark wrote.
The Ubernet “is going to systematically change our understanding of being human, being social, being political,” wrote Nishant Shaw, visiting professor at the Centre for Digital Cultures at Leuphana University, Germany. The Ubernet represents a change in the basic structures and systems that allow or limit the way humans behave and interact, which “is celebratory for what it brings,” Shaw wrote “but it also produces great precariousness because existing structures lose meaning and…a new order needs to be produced to accommodate these new models of being.”
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