Pew: The Internet Will Eat You

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With bated breath, we waited two full months for Pew Internet’s latest insight into the online community. Finally, Pew slapped the Web with a 115-page glimpse into the future confirming what Hollywood’s been telling us for the past 20 years: we’re all screwed.

If you don’t have time to read through the largely pessimistic (unless you’re a robot) technorati predictions, then rent or download the Terminator series, iRobot, The Matrix, and Minority Report. Follow that up with a rereading of Orwell’s 1984.

Pew’s survey of internet leaders, activists, and analysts paints pretty much the same picture of the world in the year 2020: Robots are in charge of the world government once humans are implanted with RFID chips and are bereft of true privacy or independence; There will be “cyberpsychiatrists” helping humans cope with their new connected environment; But there will also be small rebel factions that become the new Amish by rejecting these advances, partly by returning to rotary dial telephones and partly by blowing up everything they can get to, disrupting the new “flattened” global economy.

But television will be a whole lot better. Thanks Senator Stevens!

The survey of 742 experts mostly agreed on a short list of possibilities within the next 15 years. A global, low-cost network will be “thriving” by then, available to most people around the world. This results in a “flattening” of the world, opening up opportunities otherwise unavailable.

But a still small voice in the crowd thinks that’s way too Pollyanna. The realists say that corporate governance will limit opportunities eventually as a digital divide is much more profitable and businesses will be unwilling to relinquish their inherent advantages.

“Corporation-based cultural groupings may actually be one of the most destructive forces if not enough cultural, relational and bottom-up social forces are built up,” said Alejandro Pisanty, vice chairman of the board for ICANN and CIO for the National University of Mexico. “This does not detract from the prediction that a lot more people than today will have a good life through extensive networked collaboration.”

But it’s not the corporation you need to worry about – it’s the machines. Though most respondents agreed that humans will remain in control of technology until 2020, beyond that it’s a toss up. As machines become more advanced, more self-aware, more independent, they could move beyond human control.

“Fear of enslavement by our creations is an old fear, and a literary tritism,” said Paul Saffo, forecaster and director of The Institute for the Future. “But I fear something worse and much more likely – that sometime after 2020 our machines will become intelligent, evolve rapidly, and end up treating us as pets. We can at least take comfort that there is one worse fate – becoming food – that mercifully is highly unlikely.”

Excited yet?

If that’s not dark enough, these technologies could likely end up in the wrong human hands, bending the will of the masses to their own. This super villain will know what everybody’s doing at all times. Well, the technological prognosticators actually had “a widespread expectation” that people will, voluntarily or not, disclose more about themselves, gaining some benefits, though they lose privacy. The respondents were split as to whether that was a good thing.

There will be a few “refuseniks” resisting and trying to muck it up for everyone. Most respondents agreed some will remain unconnected to the network because of economic circumstances or because of fear of technology. The ones who fear it will be the ones trying to blow it up.

“Random acts of senseless violence and destruction will continue and expand due to a feeling of 21st century anomie, and an increasing sense of lack of individual control,” said Martin Kwapinski of FirstGov, the U.S. Government’s official Web portal.

Continuing the we-are-all-screwed theme, the survey respondents addressed the notion that cyber-addictions would increase as the Web becomes more pervasive and synthetic worlds are created.

“There is a strong likelihood that virtual reality will become less virtual and more reality for many,” said Barry Chudakov, principal of The Chudakov Company. “However, I see this as an addiction phenomenon that will likely inspire us to understand unexplored dimensions of being human.”

Worse, say some, there will be severe personality disorders emerging from living multiple lives – one in the physical world, and one (or several) in the virtual world.

“While area codes might still define geographic locations in 2020, reality codes may define virtual locations. Multiple personalities will become commonplace, and cyberpsychiatry will proliferate,” said Daniel Wang of Roadmap Associates.

Maybe it will be called dissociative user-identity disorder (DUI)?

All these robot-oppressed cyber-Sibyls will most likely be talking to themselves in English, as the language is expected to dominate the global economic landscape. But Mandarin is poised to make a come back as the Chinese Internet proliferates.

To get us there, the forecasters say that future investment priorities lay in networking. About 78 percent of the respondents identified two goals for policy makers and technology companies: building network capacity and educating the global populace about technology. You know, so they know how to fight the robots.

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