How the internet could evolve to 2026: responding to Pew

technology evolving_CaribbThe Pew Research team is conducting a survey to explore how the internet could evolve over the next decade.  And they were desperategenerous enough to include me in that study.  I’m honored, as Pew has long done tremendous work on how people actually use and think about digital technology.  My thanks to Jenna Anderson and Lee Rainie for the opportunity.

Questions covered the internet of things, algorithms, abuse and trust online.

Following Stephen Downes’ example, I’ll share questions and my responses here.

In the next decade, will public discourse online become more or less shaped by bad actors, harassment, trolls, and an overall tone of griping, distrust, and disgust?

  1. Online communication becomes LESS shaped by negative activities
  2. Online communication becomes MORE shaped by negative activities
  3. I expect no major change in the tone of online interactions

I expect we’ll see negative communications increase, and be balanced out by rising concerns for civility, hence #3.

The negative comments will occur wherever they can, and the number of venues will rise, with the expansion of the Internet of Things and when consumer production tools become available for virtual and mixed reality. Moreover, the continued growth of gaming (where trash talk remains), the persistence of sports culture (more trash talk and testosterone), and the popularity of tv news among the over-50 population will provide powerful cultural and psychological backing for abusive expression.

At the same time there’s rising interest in warding off prejudiced expression, especially among the young, the liberal, and those in the nonprofit world. We could well see a resurgence of politeness, or at least a spate of laws, lawsuits, and policies (both governmental and commercial) making it harder to abuse people digitally.  This isn’t necessarily a good thing.

These two developments seem to be in a kind of balance, at least for the medium term future.

In the next ten years, do you think we will see the emergence of new educational and training programs that can successfully train large numbers of workers in the skills they will need to perform the jobs of the future? Yes No

I picked “yes” because there are plenty of forces coming together to make this happen.  Businesses continue to demand more training of new employees, and charge the education system with making it happen. Governments are frantic to boost training in what they often see as a knowledge economy, often seeking to spark their own version of Silicon Valley (governmental pressure on this score is bipartisan in the US).  New alternatives to traditional education keep appearing, from coding academies to MOOCs (still happening, especially beyond the US) to automated tutors (think Duolingo).  Depressed salaries and wages combine with anxieties about students loans to drive students into focusing like lasers on economic payoffs from learning.

Countervailing forces are not strong enough to oppose these drivers.  Some educators argue for the vitality of education instead of training, but lack much power to keep training from rising, and also have a hard time making appealing arguments in the current economy.  Technical challenges are falling, especially as mobile devices continue to grow and the population is increasingly comfortable with distance learning as one part of online life.

We should watch for new forms of online learning at scale.  MOOCs were perhaps the first web-native form of teaching and learning (thanks to Jim Groom for the insight); expect more.

On to automation:

Algorithms will continue to have increasing influence over the next decade, shaping people’s work and personal lives and the ways they interact with information, institutions (banks, health care providers, retailers, governments, education, media and entertainment) and each other. The hope is that algorithms will help people quickly and fairly execute tasks and get the information, products, and services they want. The fear is that algorithms can purposely or inadvertently create discrimination, enable social engineering and have other harmful societal impacts. Will the net overall effect of algorithms be positive for individuals and society or negative for individuals and society?

  1. Positives outweigh negatives
  2. Negatives outweigh positives
  3. The overall impact will be about 50-50

#3, I think.  Much depends on what one means by positive and negative.  For instance, an expanded role of the market pleases libertarians and irks socialists.  Algorithm-enforced hate speech policies will divide most groups (see above).

Answering the question also depends on who owns and operates algorithms.  Here I’m biased in favor of individuals, and skeptical of automation run by large states and businesses.

SurSousVeillance By Stephanie Mann Age 6Overall, these opposing forces should struggle with each other.  Governments will continue to use code to monitor and influence populations, while civil libertarians oppose them (think surveillance versus sousveillance).  Marketers will refine their campaigns with algorithms, while consumers persist in doing their own thing.

One major question is to what extent will the increase use of algorithms encourage a behaviorist way of thinking of humans as creatures of stimulus and response, capable of being gamed and nudged, rather than as complex entities with imagination and thought?  It is possible that a wave of algorithm-ization will trigger new debates about what it means to be a person, and how to treat other people.  Philip K. Dick has never been more relevant.

As more people move online globally both opportunities and threats grow. Will people’s trust in their online interactions, their work, shopping, social connections, pursuit of knowledge and other activities, be strengthened or diminished over the next 10 years?

  1. Trust will be DIMINISHED
  2. Trust will be STRENGTHENED
  3. Trust will stay about the same

#2.  Let’s assume the cybercrime arms race between bad actors and our defenders will continue without either a mass migration to some new, locked-down web or the triumph of evil.  As more people spend more time performing more tasks online, their comfort should increase simply by becoming accustomed to the digital world.

Abusive behavior will continue, but I don’t see that driving down trust overall.  Some people are unaffected by this, for various reasons.  Instead, rising awareness of abuse and sympathy and support for those affected by it should help increase net trust.

As automobiles, medical devices, smart TVs, manufacturing equipment and other tools and infrastructure are networked, is it likely that attacks, hacks, or ransomware concerns in the next decade will cause significant numbers of people to decide to disconnect, or will the trend towards greater connectivity of objects and people continue unabated?

  1. Most people will move more deeply into connected life
  2. Significant numbers will disconnect

#1.  We are quite capable of compartmentalizing life, holding opposed thoughts in our minds with an easy satisfaction.  Think, for instance, of people who complain about technology, while driving cars, flying in planes, being mended by laser surgery, etc.  Or consider creationists who fail to eschew the products of modern science.

We should therefore expect to see people shunning one aspect of the internet of things, while continuing to use networked devices for others.  I’ll get mad at people spamming my fridge, but still use Twitter to complain about it.  Someone else will be disturbed by ads coming from their car’s tires, yet still drive the vehicle to meet the date they met online.  There’s just too much of modern life immersed in the digital world.

(photo by Caribb; cartoon by Stephanie Mann)


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