Pew and me, “imagining the internet”

The Pew Internet & American Life Project invited me to participate in the next iteration of their serial “expert” reports on the future evolution of the Internet.

The questions themselves were interesting and telling, and I thought I might share them with you and let you know how I answered. (I look forward to finding out what all the other participants said when “Future of the Internet” is published by Cambria Press.)

The questions were “tension pairs” of alternative scenarios around the following themes:

  • Human intelligence
  • Reading and writing skills
  • Social and human relationships
  • The Internet’s “end-to-end principle”
  • Desktop versus cloud computing
  • The next takeoff technologies

Human intelligence

Here is one tension pair (their words):

By 2020, people’s use of the internet has enhanced human intelligence; as people are allowed unprecedented access to more information, they become smarter and make better choices. Nicholas Carr was wrong: Google does not make us stupid.


By 2020, people’s use of the internet has not enhanced human intelligence and it could even be lowering the IQs of most people who use it a lot. Nicholas Carr was right: Google makes us stupid.

I chose alternative 1 and elaborated (my words):

What the internet (here subsumed tongue-in-cheek under “Google”) does is to support some parts of human intelligence, such as analysis, by replacing other parts, such as memory. Thus, people will be more intelligent about, say, the logistics of moving around a geography because “Google” will remember the facts and relationships of various locations on their behalf. People will be better able to compare the revolutions of 1848 and 1789 because “Google” will remind them of all the details as needed. This is the continuation ad infinitum of the process launched by abacuses and calculators: we have become more “stupid” by losing our arithmetic skills but more intelligent at evaluating numbers.

Reading skills

Here is another tension pair (their words):

By 2020, it will be clear that the internet has enhanced and improved reading, writing, and the rendering of knowledge.


By 2020, it will be clear that the internet has diminished and endangered reading, writing, and the intelligent rendering of knowledge.

Here, too, I chose alternative 2 but elaborated (my words):

We are currently transitioning from reading mainly on paper to reading mainly on screens. As we do so, most of us read more, in terms of quantity (word count), but also more promiscuously and in shorter intervals and with less dedication. As these habits take root, they corrupt our willingness to commit to long texts, as found in books or essays. We will be less patient and less able to concentrate on long-form texts. This will result in a resurgence of short-form texts and story-telling, in “Haiku-culture” replacing “book-culture”.

Friendship and intimacy

Here is another tension pair:

In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal friendships, marriage and other relationships, I see that the internet has mostly been a negative force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future.


In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal friendships, marriage and other relationships, I see that the internet has mostly been a positive force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future.

And again I chose alternative 2, but said:

The question presents a false dichotomy: Technology has no impact whatsoever in the long term on human relationships. What it does is to facilitate some aspects of it for a time (thoughts with letters, speech with telephony, updates with social networks, nearness-awareness with geo-location, etc) at the expense of outrunning the etiquette and courtesy protocols of the previous generation (disturbance during dinner time with telephony, privacy and discretion with social networks and geo-location, et cetera). Over time, etiquette catches up (or evolves), but efficiency advances elsewhere. But throughout, people remain responsible for their human connections–ie, the commitments in time and trust they make to others and their expectations of reciprocity.

Privacy and “sharing”

One more tension pair:

By 2020, members of Generation Y (today’s “digital natives”) will continue to be ambient broadcasters who disclose a great deal of personal information in order to stay connected and take advantage of social, economic, and political opportunities. Even as they mature, have families, and take on more significant responsibilities, their enthusiasm for widespread information sharing will carry forward.


By 2020, members of Generation Y (today’s “digital natives”) will have “grown out” of much of their use of social networks, multiplayer online games and other time-consuming, transparency-engendering online tools. As they age and find new interests and commitments, their enthusiasm for widespread information sharing will abate.

And again, I chose alternative 2 and elaborated:

The human maturation process does not change because of a new technology. Starting before we left the savannahs, the young members of Homo “Sapiens” have over-shared in order to make themselves socially interesting to the group and to potential mates, only to discover the enormous risks involved when shared information reaches malicious individuals or a group at large, at which point they have re-learned the discretion of their parents. Thus sharing on the internet will continue on its present trajectory: more will be shared by the young than the old, and as people mature they will share more banal and less intimate information.

The other topics didn’t interest me quite as much, although I gave my opinions. Regarding the question of “cloud computing” versus PC-based computing, I made my thinking quite clear when Apple’s support team gave me ample (in terms of time) opportunity to ponder it.

Can’t wait to hear what you guys think.

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13 thoughts on “Pew and me, “imagining the internet”

  1. How about that the internet is changing the nature of friendships? Pre-internet, a friend was someone you’d want to talk about anything with, whether the quotidian (or banal) or intellectual, or anything you were particularly interested in. Now with the internet you can “talk” about things which really interest you, with like-minded others in cyberspace – sort of what happens on the Hannibal Blog.

    So the internet may lead to more compartmentalised friendships. You’ll have friends-in-the-flesh with whom you speak only about the everyday, the banal, the quotidian. And you’ll have internet “friends” who you’ll never meet, whose real names you’ll never know, with whom you’ll discuss matters dearest to you, whether cultural, intellectual, sporting, or anything else.

    • Yes, it does seem to stretch the continuum of “friending” as well as the term “friend”. It never used to be a very, eg. (as in: “I friended her”).

  2. For the most part I agree with what you say.

    One thing that is not talked about enough is the haves and have nots in terms not only of internet access but more importantly, ability to manage the personal internet experience. Individuals who have some training or ability in key word searching and more importantly, the ability to quickly vet the quality/integrity/credibility of information they encounter will have a natural advantage over people who have no or limited internet access or who are unable to qualify the overwhelming amount of information available to them.

    This raises the specter of a sort of self imposed mind control via the internet because the information provider/carrier who makes their information fun/stimulating/easy to assimilate (or worse, has corporate sponsorship) will have an advantage over information with less sensory appeal. So if the flat earth/moon landing hoax people have a clever and fun interactive web site with search engine optimization, isn’t there a risk that some people with no wider frame of reference (can we agree that they are out there already?) will take that as gospel, no pun intended, and new ideological stress points will emerge based on arguments among the ignorant about who is more ignorant?

    • Isn’t that the purpose of free speech? Isn’t that how new ideas are brought into society and expanded upon? We cannot filter the good from the bad pre-emptively (the spell checker doesn’t like that word) without risking the loss of some of the good. Protest marches in the 60’s were a Good Thing, were they not? Yet, they weren’t always greeted with open arms (more often with firehouses and police batons). Twitter brings protesters into the streets of Tehran (thank you, Andreas) and snowball fights to Washington, D.C.

    • Freedom of speech is not the issue at this level of the discussion. It is because I am totally opposed to internet censorship that I raise the concern.

      In an internet world in which Holocaust deniers, second gunmen, and Elvis sightings are treated equally with mainstream content and information, what ensures that people will have the ability to filter and evaluate what they read. And that doesn’t even begin to address technology issues around things like Photoshop.

      In my first comment I said “one thing that is not discussed enough” and it seems to me that we need some discourse on this issue–the two alternatives seem to be, at one end of the spectrum, censorship, to filter out ideas deemed out of bounds, and at the other end education. One is unacceptable and the other is unreliable.

      Of course this has always been true–parents and educators could only hope to adequately prepare children to cope with real world experiences and in a less globalized and connected world, existing education techniques worked fairly well. And the National Enquirer was always there at supermarket checkouts. But when you bring in the internet, it seems to be an example of technology moving us beyond the capabilities of existing social structures.

  3. In essence, what you’re saying is that no fundamental changes are in the offing, that overall equilibrium will be maintained, and that things will continue to shift hither and yon within a fixed framework of human experience. What we shall gain over here, we’ll lose over there, and vice versa. Internet or no Internet. Same difference.

    Socrates almost certainly would have had his own blog unless he almost certainly would have shunned the Web altogether.

    • Yes, actually. It’s funny: When you think long and deeply enough about ANYthing, you realize that some things change and some things never change. Then you feel really banal. “They didn’t tap me to come up with THAT.” But there it is.

  4. Children still check out books from the library and the middle school kids I teach lug Harry Potter books in their backpacks.

    The internet has demolished the take-home essay assignment. Students now have to submit their work online through to check for internet plagiarism.

    I am not sure the internet is any more to blame for the decline in book reading any more than all the other distractions of life.

    And now, after a long week of battling insurance adjusters over the New Year’s flood that soggied up my offices, I shall crawl into bed and read a long novel. I think maybe a James Joyce would suit my mood…


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