A Glimpse at ‘Digital Life in 2025’

Jim ShimabukuroBy 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.

Click image to view the full report in PDF.

Click image to view the full 61-page report.

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.

JP Rangaswami

JP Rangaswami

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.

11 Responses

  1. […] By Jim Shimabukuro Editor 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, …  […]

  2. Hi Jim,

    A start of a reply to your final questions can be found in the various resources linked in http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/03/11/statement-from-sir-tim-berners-lee-on-the-25th-anniversary-of-the-web/ , part of the same Pew’s “Future of the Internet” dossier you got the report from.

    As to the “skills required for digital participation”, this statement also gives useful indications:

    “The Web community – and the world at large – are wrestling with tough issues around security, surveillance, privacy, open infrastructure, net neutrality, content protection, and more. (…) We have built an amazing resource over a short 25 years. I believe it is vital enough that we must all take greater action to enhance and defend it.”

    Users are already doing promisingly well in that: think how government-cum-industry schemes to limit internet access and users’ rights have been defeated at legislative level due to users’ pressure: SOPA in the US, HADOPI in France, ACTA internationally.

    Nevertheless, Erdogan blacked out twitter, then YouTube in Turkey recently. Turkish civic rights activists most probably know all about proxies, but what of the rest of the population?

    So, the “skills required for digital participation” that educators should help students develop are in part technical (how to use proxies to bypass censorship, cryptography to protect themselves from snooping like the NSA’s, etc.). But they are mainly skills of analysis and reflection on civic rights, and on what impacts these rights: in the digital wold, but in a digital understood as only an instrumental part of real life.

    • Hi, Claude. Thanks for the link to Tim Berners-Lee’s comment. He mentions the 25-year history of the web, which he pioneered.

      So much has happened in that quarter century — and the web has to be the catalyst. Given the rate of change, I think it’s safe to say that the next 11 years will bring change that may be even more mindboggling.

      This Pew report is, for the most part, a look at the road ahead through a rear-view mirror. Our vision is limited by our present reality. As Harry points out in his comment, early imaginings of today’s smartphones couldn’t foresee the tie-in with web-based social media and tech features such as video that enhance it.

      In predictions, we need to factor in the unknown variables, and that requires levels of fuzzy logic that must include not only imagination and creativity but openness. Openness is the ability to resist or postpone closure and judgment in considering ideas that are alien to or in opposition to our own.

      Many of the brightest people in the world are, unfortunately, less than open, blinded by the glare of their own views and prejudices. They weren’t born that way. They were just too successful in school, learning the correct answers.

      How do we teach openness? The simple fact is, we can’t. To put it another way, we can’t teach openness without modeling it, and teaching as an open practice is a mostly foreign concept in schooling, which is strapped to standardization in processes and outcomes.

      In this Pew report, we have a wide range of openness, and the most open writers probe past the predictable to explore the impact of unknown variables. These are the types of teachers we need to model thinking for the 21st century.

  3. I have come to distrust utopian and dystopian visions as well as predictions of the future. The more certain the prediction, the less likely it is to take place. “All 7-plus billion humans … will be ‘connected’.” Of course, this is nonsense. Many individuals and groups will opt out, and others are likely to be left out.

    Utopian visions help us to set goals. Dystopian visions help us to avoid pitfalls. So it is that these are not useless exercises. We must, however, take know these ideas for what they are.

    Around 50 years ago, the cell phone was “predicted” by Star Trek in the form of a nifty pocket-sized “communicator” that would be used by our descendants some centuries in the future. As with so many predictions, it got some parts right and many wrong. Clearly, it way underestimated the time frame. It got the pocket size right but a bit large. It missed entirely the incredible social implications that have so many people talking as they walk, drive, and shop. It also missed the ancillary capabilities such as taking videos of events and sending them out almost instantaneously. It certainly missed the ability to connect people all over the world by voice, image, and video.

    It seems as though mobile communications and the Internet are beginning to merge, at least for the most empowered people. What are the implications of this development? We are seeing an explosion of mobile device capabilities. Between texting and voice messaging, typing as we know it may be doomed — yes, that thing that I am doing right now.

    You can be certain of little in this future vision. Greater connectedness could be countered by greater government control and spying. Being organized through this medium for action can result in countermeasures by governments and even by other groups in time to thwart the ambitions of the organizers. If you’re for them, that’s bad. If you’re against them, that’s good.

    What this entire report points out to me is the incredible intersection of education and technology. The expansion, even explosion, of communication technologies means that we must have much better education. The imperative is now stronger than ever to teach our young people excellent thinking skills so that they can use these new technologies instead of being abused by them.

    Yet, most of them are being left to founder by their schools. In my area, science, they continue to be taught words, formulas, and procedures by rote memory. History continues to be names and dates. Math is mostly drill. I don’t know what’s happening in ELA but don’t expect any miracles from that quarter.

    Interestingly, the technologies that threaten us can also be the ones that liberate us. As John Adsit has so frequently pointed out here, we can teach our children to think. We simply have lacked the will to overcome the obstructions in the form of administrators and teachers who prefer the so-called “tried and true” approaches to teaching. These are really “tried and failed” approaches.

    Yet, change requires work. Without assistance from new technological innovations, the “energy barrier” (to borrow a phrase from chemistry) is just too high. For chemical reactions, a catalyst lowers that barrier. We must conclude that adding catalysts to our society-technology-education mix is crucial. Many touted educational technologies are false catalysts. The formulation looks good, but the reactions do not proceed as predicted. In other instances, the catalyst may be good but is not added to the reaction mixture.

    We can improve the catalysts (the educational technologies) to make them more attractive to administrators and teachers. We can change the rules by which our K-12 classrooms operate so that the good catalysts are used and are not blocked by intransigent teachers. We can provide better evaluation methods for innovative educational technologies so that it’s possible to sort out the good from the bad. The latter often dominate the information spectrum with massive advertising campaigns in order to drown out their better competitors.

    I could, at this point, share a number of personal experiences. However useful those may be, they would be self-serving in that they presume that my company produces the “good” technologies. I merely remark that I have personally experienced the situations that I describe above. These are not simply my intellectual musings.

    What good will the future Internet be if it just turns into a new “vast wasteland” for untrained minds?

    • Harry, you consistently return to the importance of teaching thinking in the curriculum, and few would disagree. The problem is that the word is too inclusive. It can pretty much mean anything we want it to mean.

      We could add the word “critical” to it, but that barely makes a difference.

      We could attach conditions, e.g., “scientific” thinking, and define set procedures. But how do we factor in self-correction — openness that’s capable of criticizing, abandoning, or momentarily suspending those procedures?

      Thinking is relative. What this means is that there are hundreds (if not thousands) of different forms of thinking, each defined by a different set of circumstances. As human beings, we’re all born with different thinking talents. Talent in one doesn’t necessarily mean talent in another. We all know this, but knowing doesn’t necessarily translate to acceptance.

      You say that the notion of universal connectedness via the internet is “nonsense,” and you’re right in terms of strict logic. “All” the people on the planet aren’t connected. There are exceptions. In fact, there are always exceptions. The problem is that 100% is an unattainable standard for truth — in science as well as in other fields.

      David Hughes’ comment re connectedness is a generalization based on high probability (statistics). This is understood. In fact, he also qualifies it with “sooner or later.”

      Prediction is an exercise in fuzzy logic, and the purpose isn’t necessarily to state a truth but to open up a discourse on alternative possibilities. Are there other views on this subject? What are they? The ultimate goal is to be able to entertain a spectrum of truths that are often contradictory but viable in varying degrees.

      • Yes, certainly “thinking” is a fuzzy word. I should clarify.

        I consider that example of Carl Sagan in “The Demon-Haunted World” when he wrote an entire chapter on the “baloney detection kit.” That’s the sort of thinking I mean. There are sufficient words there to clarify where I’m coming from. Unfortunately, I am not aware of a simple word or phrase that encompasses this skill. So, I fall back on the rather ambiguous word, think.

        Thinking includes induction and deduction. It means not swallowing everything that’s thrown at you at face value. It means digging into things for their deeper meaning.

        In education, mostly it means not making your success dependent solely on your ability to memorize and repeat rote procedures.

  4. The Internet has two significant parts today that use URLs: web pages and communications (email). While the latter is very important, alternate communication means, i.e. mobile phones, may be overtaking email in many instances. Web pages, on the other hand, are the heart of the Internet and provide an enormous resource for all of us.

    Our access to web pages is primarily through search engines and mostly through Google. So far, Google has not exercised its tremendous power to stifle us, but it has had a few instances that give one pause.

    To me, so much power in one private institution is frightening. Currently, they are playing a game with SEO, but they could make their placement decisions any way they’d like, and we’d be the losers.

    I was able to make it to the top of the rankings at one point and was very happy to be there after years of being on the second page. Suppose my web pages had been political and that Google did not like my politics. Suppose a competitor was able to pay them to lower my SEO ranking. I don’t have a good solution for this problem.

    Google is expanding. It has GCP to provide web services to corporations. It has purchased YouTube. It has entered into the domain of Internet service providers (ISPs).

    The GCP product means that companies don’t have to buy hardware to host their applications anymore. While other services are available, Google brings huge clout with its wide span of IP addresses and server locations.

    I really hate the YouTube purchase by Google. Google touts it is as making your life better. Now, everything is in one account. Sorry, I just don’t see it that way. If you don’t like government intrusion into your private life, why should you like private intrusion?

    The ISP market is huge with Verizon and Comcast among others in it. With Google dominating many aspects of the Internet, having it control the hardwired part is scary. You have to wonder what’s next.

    When discussing the wonderful utopian aspects of the future of the Internet, you must not forget the power inherent in control of any aspect of that behemoth and what power does to people.

    • I agree with you, Harry, and monopoly via Google or Microsoft or any other entity in terms of search engines, operating systems, or what have you is always scary. But that’s only a third of the story.

      Another third is the R&D they provide that keeps innovation flowing.

      Perhaps the most important third is the users — the people. We’re not stupid. Your comments are proof of that. And the major players know that. Step out of line, and Google will hear about it. Overreach, and Microsoft will hear about it.

      They have to walk a fine line between self-interest and user-interest. And this is, arguably, healthy.

      • While large corporations do some R&D, most innovation comes from smaller ones. Much of what they call R&D is snooping about to see what others are doing. Some companies can keep the small company culture going for a while after they grow large, but none has kept it up indefinitely.

        Users are readily gulled. I like much of what Google does and so tend to support them even though I don’t trust big corporations. Right now, I’m looking for who will provide the counterbalance.

        I recall well IBM and the seven dwarfs. There was AT&T before the breakup. I watched Microsoft either swallow or destroy one company after another. Consider where the Rockefeller and Sloan fortunes came from. These companies seek to seem to be benevolent despots, but that never works for long.

        I am concerned that any loss of Internet freedom will remove the only bulwark we have any longer after the great consolidation of media in the hands of billionaires.

        • We hear you, Harry, and that’s exactly why we (journalists, the public) are here — to guard the freedoms that drive the internet. Major corporations may be greedy, but they’re not stupid. They know that a free internet is vital to their health. In their zeal, they may forget from time to time and need to be reminded. And there are many astute and fearless watchers, e.g., journalists like Claude Almansi, who are on constant vigil.

          Good point re the source of innovation, especially at the start-up stage, but you can’t discount the tremendous contributions of the major players.

          • Absolutely! With many of the major media opting out of this sort of policing of our freedoms, Internet journalists are playing a crucial role today.

            Some large companies like Apple managed to remain innovative in the sense of moving new ideas forward and into real products, most just make incremental changes rather than bold leaps into new areas.

            The managers in larger companies get to be managers by being careful with their choices and not taking large risks. I’ve worked for and with large companies as well as in a few startups. Serious innovation means serious risk-taking. Unless you do something very different, such as what IBM did to create the IBM PC, you just aren’t allowed to make big innovations in a big company.

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