By Jim Shimabukuro
The conclusion of Pew’s Digital Life in 2025 (3/11/14) report1 is a simple one. In the next eleven years, the internet will become ubiquitous. A few tiny voices disagree, claiming governments will shut it down or balkanize it, turning it into a virtual reflection of the planet’s jigsaw geography. But the overwhelming prediction is the internet will be more of everything2 that we currently associate with it. The 61-page document is devoted to explaining the how and the implications, split between mostly optimism and some pessimism.
The ubiquity of the internet is already a reality so projecting more of the same is not surprising. Echoing words and phrases abound throughout the report: pervasive, connected, global connectivity, ubernet, and “world-spanning information fabric known as the Internet of Things.” The phrase “like electricity” is incorporated into the subtitle, and it serves as the starting point for the rest of the discussion: “Information sharing over the Internet will be so effortlessly interwoven into daily life that it will become invisible, flowing like electricity [through our lives].”
This simile lends itself to a vision of humans as altered or transformed3, as wired to participate in an “augmented reality,”4 a reality that is no longer defined by time and geographical boundaries. Perhaps the most profound implication is the irrelevance of national borders in the ubernet. This is how David Hughes puts it:
All 7-plus billion humans on this planet will sooner or later be ‘connected’ to each other and fixed destinations, via the Uber(not inter)Net. That can lead to the diminished power over people’s lives within nation-states. When every person on this planet can reach, and communicate two-way, with every other person on this planet, the power of nation-states to control every human inside its geographic boundaries may start to diminish. Being replaced — over another 50 or more years — by self-organizing, trans-border people-groups. Nations will still have military and police forces, but increasingly these will become less capable of controlling populations.
Again, this trend is already in motion. Today, the fact that websites are hit daily by people from around the world, attracted by mutual interest rather than shared nationality, is a given. No one gives it a second thought.
This disruption of geopolitical reality is accompanied by a “disruption of business models established in the 20th century.” This is already playing out in the global economy, and higher ed is beginnng to feel the impact with online learning, especially MOOCs.
My favorite quote in the report is from JP Rangaswami, who understands, like no other, the most important consequence of connectedness. We, as individuals, are empowered. We no longer have to sit on our hands and wait for “leaders” to meet in endless committees to decide what’s best for the rest of us. We can reach out to and form our own cohorts with peers from around the world who share our concerns and interests. Problem-solving, in other words, is no longer a right that’s reserved for a privileged few who are often far removed from the reality. In our augmented reality, we can fix the problems we face by ourselves, with the help of colleagues throughout the world. Rangaswami says:
Society as a whole, in government, in the public sector, in the private sector, in the voluntary sector, in academia, in NGOs, and as the common man and woman, will come to recognise that behind the Internet is a connected world of people. People who route round obstacles to solve problems in ways that people could not before. With that realisation, we will see people elect to solve problems that have hitherto been the domain of interminable conferences and committees who, for no fault of their own bar their very architecture, could not make any real impact.
This is person-to-person, not top-down, and we’re already familiar with the process in online discussion forums. Advertising hype and formal reviews of products and services are quickly giving way to personal testimonies by actual consumers and users. Other readers have the opportunity to rate these reviews for accuracy, and the best rise to the top. Questions on nearly any topic are posed and answered on websites, and answers are vetted by readers. Topics can range from the best way to remove price stickers from appliances to the best strategy for peer evaluations in MOOCs.
Bambi Francisco also underscores the internet’s disruption of business as usual regarding access to information. By virtue of its openness, it levels the playing field, and the consequences will impact the stalemate between the haves and have-nots of the world. She says:
The Internet has essentially allowed information to be distributed without restriction. The impact has been a greater level of social equity and the empowerment of individuals, including those marginalized and in the minority. If we look toward the next 10 years, we will likely see the same, but more pronounced in different parts of the world.
Information is power, and in this sense the internet is a medium for the greater good. Privilege is no longer the price. Need to know is.
According to Pamela Rutledge, “By 2025, Internet access will be considered a ‘right’ and will replace the ‘universal access’ currently reserved for phone lines.” With this right will come a different type of gap. “Increased access and greater capabilities,” says Rutledge, “will change the digital divide from access to quality of tools and the skills required for digital participation.” Thus, tools and technology alone won’t suffice. Users will need to have the basic skills to make the most of their new right.
The internet’s function as a medium for independent learning pervades the report. For example, Bill Woodcock says:
By far the largest impact of the Internet is the ability it gives people to inform themselves…. [W]hat wasn’t easy before was for people to educate themselves, take advantage of the accumulation of the world’s knowledge, to protect themselves against scams, duplicitous middlemen, bad actors, and faulty products. It’s also important that the Internet facilitates communities of interest, rather than communities of coincidental geographic proximity.
As a source of information, the internet is arguably the best protection against totalitarianism, injustice, and crime as well as an efficient medium for survival, personal growth, and advancement.
For education, Bryan Alexander describes the ubernet as “a golden age of learning. It will be the best time in history for those who want to study. We will have more access to more material, more teachers, and more peers in more ways than ever before.” The primary stumbling block right now is educators themselves, many of whom appear to be trapped in 20th century mode.
Doom & Gloom
Not all are optimistic. The following are some of their concerns:
David Clark, for example, believes that, “While the Internet is a force for globalization, it will become increasingly localized.” I don’t agree. The internet’s strength is openness, and reducing it to a system of closed networks goes against the grain. The internet is the ocean, and limiting fishing to a small pond doesn’t make sense.
Some, like Alan Clark, see the dark side of big data and predict reduced privacy. Others, such as Oscar Gandy, consider the internet a tool for “growing inequality enabled and amplified by means of networked transactions that benefit smaller and smaller segments of the global population.”
An anonymous participant, summing up a range of negatives, wrote: “There will be more loss of privacy, more regulation, less face-to-face social communication, loss of local or geographical identity, and an onslaught of ignorance from being misinformed or believing what is being flashed to us from who knows where.”
John Markoff warns of the “potential of a very dystopian world that is also profoundly inegalitarian.”
According to Mikey O’Connor, “The Internet will be used as the most effective force of mind control the planet has ever seen, leaving the Madison Avenue revolution as a piddling, small thing by comparison.”
As a report, Digital Life in 2025 doesn’t hold many surprises. It does, however, sum up major trends and arguments, and this in itself makes it worth reading. Where are we headed? Why? As an educator, I would have liked to see a breakdown of the results into different areas, e.g., education, medicine, government, business, etc. I also would have found useful a discussion in which the editors or invited writers sum up their personal impressions of some of the key findings.
1 The survey was conducted “by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center in an online canvassing conducted between November 25, 2013 and January 13, 2014.” They “invited more than 12,000 experts and members of the interested public to share their opinions on the likely future of the Internet and 2,551 responded to at least one of the questions in the survey. In all, 1,867 responded to this open-ended question.”
2 Andrew Nachison: “There will be more communication, more education, more media, more economic activity, more dissent, more entertainment, more convenience, more angst, more inequality and more conflict. Ideas will spread everywhere, but people will continue to clash over beliefs and values.”
3 Brian Behlendorf: “By 2025, it will become more apparent that personal digital devices have become the uncredited third lobe of our brain, and network connections more like an extension of our own nervous system, a new sense, like seeing and hearing. Questions about our rights over our own devices and connections will treat them more like parts of our bodies and beings than some third-party thing that is a privilege to own or something we merely rent. It will force us to redefine what being human means — and what personhood means, in terms of the law, representative government, and every other issue.”
4 The medical and health benefits of augmented reality were also mentioned by the survey participants.
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