On October 29, 1969, a message was sent from a rather nondescript room at UCLA in Southern California to a Stanford Research Institute computer console in Menlo Park, California. It read simply “Lo,” though it was supposed to say “Login.” The system crashed before completing the task. This was the world’s first message sent via an interconnected computer network known as ARPANET. On this unassuming fall day, the modern internet as we now know it was conceived.
In the five decades since, the internet has transformed human existence. From how we wage war to how we make each other laugh, it’s unfathomable how much the internet has shaped life in that short amount of time.
But what will the future of the internet look like in 50 years? How will we solve the challenges that we are currently facing around privacy and data protection? Should we be hopeful—or fearful—for our changing digital world?
We asked these questions to a variety of experts, researchers, scientists, engineers, and futurists. The answers we got back were fascinating, clarifying, and somewhat scary.
An Increasingly Virtual World
In 2019, the Pew Research Center released its own data about the future of digital life after canvassing 530 experts. Lee Rainie, director of internet and tech research at Pew, was one of the co-authors of the study. He says that the answers were eye-opening in terms of how our digital presence will come to further define our existence. “[In their responses], they talked about what the definition of a human being, literally, will be once this technology is available for our bodies and brains.”
According to our experts, that will come sooner rather than later. Within only the next quarter century, the way we search or use the internet will be considered “archaically clunky,” writes Judith Donath, who is a researcher for the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University and author of the 2014 book The Social Machine. Rather, our digital presence will not be separate from the physical world, but ingrained in it.
“Gone will be keyboards, the mouse, and screens,” continues Donath.
Toby Negrin, Wikimedia Foundation’s Chief Product Officer, compared the internet to electricity as it becomes an “omnipresent utility, something we expect to always be available and around us… intertwined in our daily lives.”
The world in front of us will be a mix of reality and the virtual and, at times, it will be impossible to decipher which one is which. Mike Liebhold—a senior researcher at the Institute of the Future and at Apple’s Advanced Technology Lab in the 1980s—writes that, in the near future, everyone will wear augmented reality glasses and use them to interact with their environment. “Information will be displayed, floating in the air … the web will appear in the real world, not just on glass screens.”
Donath says that real-time information will forever be present for everything—and everyone—you cross paths with. “Strangers will be identified, with increasingly detailed information about them presented,” says Donath. “People will subscribe to different augmentations, much as we now subscribe to magazines.”
Rainie says that many of the experts he spoke to commented that separate internet-enabled devices will no longer exist. Instead, the internet will be pre-loaded into our consciousness.
“There’s this whole idea of a brain interface,” Rainie says. “If you only have to think and it will perform [the task] for you, how much easier is it to facilitate communication?”
New Forms of Communication
Our world has become smaller thanks to the digital age. No longer are one-word messages crashing in the middle of their transmission. But our experts agree that we are still evolving when it comes to internet communications. In the near-future, typing messages will go away in favor of verbal and auditory communications, much like what’s already been introduced with Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa.
“You won’t search anymore, you’ll just ask questions,” says Paul Jones, the founder of ibiblo, one of the internet’s largest collections of open source materials (like Project Gutenberg). “It will be more like having a conversation.”
Donath says that technological advancements will adapt to this new era of vocal communications. “Earbuds will [be] replaced by invisible implants that modulate all hearing—sometimes shutting out the surrounding soundscape in favor of the virtual one, sometimes amplifying a single nearby voice; effectively all of one’s hearing will be mediated through these audio implants,” she writes.
Both Jones and Donath separately noted that predictive technologies, essentially omnipresent autocorrect, will become more accurate which will make communication faster and require less brainpower. Also, due to our ability to mix speech with augmented reality, doors will open that will allow us to understand and communicate with everyone.
“Instead of learning new languages, we will just install a translation app that allows us to live-translate our own speech in real-time,” says Jillian York, Electronic Frontier Foundation’s director for international freedom of expression. Negrin agreed that communication will transform in the future. “Our entire knowledge ecosystem will exist online, enabling you to understand everyone’s point-of-view regardless of who they are and where they live, whenever you want it.”
To go along with vocalizations, Donath says that small gestures and gaze tracking will provide ways for us to communicate and interact with our environment more dynamically. This would also be the beginning of what Paul Jones calls “neuro-engagement.” As he describes it, this technology would be initially developed for those who cannot vocally communicate before being adopted by all. “It will be a mesh of connectivity between devices and [human] communication” where things are done via sight and thoughts.
The concept of communicating through brain waves and mind-reading has been a science-fiction favorite for years. David Brin, a Hugo-winning science-fiction writer himself, told Popular Mechanics how this could be technologically possible. “We’ll have ‘sub-vocal’ inputs that sense words you are about to say and heed them without you having to actually voice them aloud,” says Brin. “A new aspect of the dental profession will be installing controller devices that let you click or tongue inputs, silently and invisibly.”
Rainie says in Pew’s surveying, this mode of communication and interacting with the world came up as well. However, it was often qualified with a moral quandary. “When people’s intentions and actions can be anticipated, that’s a brand new human circumstance all together,” says Rainie. “But this makes things more menacing in some of these experts’ minds because if you can figure out what’s going on in people’s brains, you don’t even have to surveil them.”
The End of Privacy
Every time you ask Alexa to send more cat food, you are giving a billion-dollar company more information about who you are. Mainly, that you have a cat who likes to eat. But also credit card information, addresses, telephone numbers, and so on. The decision has been made to sacrifice some of this potentially private information for the sake of convenience.
This will only increase. Jones says that these new technologies will become increasingly good at knowing what we want. “If you have certain habits, [these devices are] going to help you with those habits,” says Jones. “They’ll be anticipating. It will be creepy, but familiar.”
Of course, for companies like Amazon, this is how they make money. “The trillion dollar digital economy is built on harvesting people’s personal data,” writes Liebhold.
Due to this, how companies market and advertise will change dramatically. It will become much more personalized and significantly smaller. So, the opposite of Blade Runner’s vision of giant, 3D holograms.
“Your wrist will briefly flicker with a beautiful bracelet you could buy, you’ll see glimpses of your living room with a nicer rug and newer furniture,” says Donath. So-called “push advertising” will be replaced by a “pull” in the form of a shopping assistant, says Brin. “When that happens, advertising will collapse.”
Rainie says this, of course, comes with a price. “There’s a trade-off. Experts believe that we will sacrifice more of our autonomy for the sake of convenience.”
A Health Data Revolution
The very beginning of the bio data revolution is already upon us with the emergence of wearable, constantly connected tech that collects information about our health. There’s an overall belief from the experts we spoke with that this could be a great thing for a society, the ability to actually have reams of data that can be applied to create better health care practices.
“We’ll have a lot more information about how people really eat, exercise, and conduct their daily lives, which will allow doctors and researchers to better tailor programs to serve our needs and help us become healthier,” writes York.
Pamela Rutledge, a media psychologist agrees. “Biodata has the potential to improve [the] delivery of needed medical care, educational support, and other needs.”
But, of course, it all comes down to who possesses this data and how they use it. “This type of data capture has a really high upside,” explains Rainie. “If you aggregated at the population scale, you can get a lot better insight into what’s going on not only in the public health arena, but also in the particular disease realm.” While the experts that the Pew Research Center canvassed had a positive outlook, it came with a warning. “But there’s a sense that at the individual level, this can do real harm.”
Meanwhile, predictions about how our health and genetics data could be used to divide us, as a species, have run rampant in other spaces.
“Your biodata will be as widely known as the color of the shirt you wear,” predicts Brin. “Whether or not that’s scary depends on whether it can be used to harm you.”
A Growing Pessimism
Everyone we talked to wanted to be optimistic that the future of the internet will mean harmony, togetherness, better communication, free-flowing information, more convenience, and a healthier world. But all of that hope came with a ton of caveats and qualifiers.
“There are big, complicated problems that we are still wrestling with,” says Rainie about the responses he received. “It feels like a transition or inflection point. We’ve got to fix problems now and make sure the worst doesn’t happen.”
Part of this, like with every new technology, is that it takes time to fully understand the implications of the internet. Toby Negrin from Wikimedia Foundation says that “we’re in the adolescence of the internet at best,” and still have a long way to go to really comprehend what it all means.
“As complexity increases, so do the number of vulnerabilities,” says Liebhold. He says it can take up to a decade to have complete insight into all of the complexities, both positive and negative, of a new technology.
The ability of government to deal with what’s next also came up often. No one expressed much optimism around that. “Governments [are] lacking the technical sophistication to appropriately offset, regulate, or even find solutions,” writes Rutledge.
This new state of being will require worldwide decisions and a unified response. “Experts say that localized responses to this will be insufficient,” says Rainie. “They talk about global treaties and international agreements. This [will] all need to occur on a global scale.” Besides perhaps the ISS and the Paris climate agreement (mostly), the world often has a hard time working together for the greater good.
There’s also substantial fear that governments, particularly more authoritative ones, will use these new technologies for their own purposes. “Governments have repeatedly demonstrated that they have the upper hand,” says York. “And I’m scared that we’ll see even more restrictions on what we can say and do online.” Brin warns that 1984 may be in our future and not in our past. “If the flow of information goes in one direction, then we will have Big Brother forever.”
Jones asks if this is the end of open sourced information, something he knows well as the founder of ibiblio. “Can information stay free?” Paul Jones asks.“I used to think so, but now I think less so.”
In the end, how we deal with new technology and what the future holds for us in this new digital age may come down to how we act as humans. “Technology has always been an amplifier of human intention,” comments Negrin.
Rainie says he heard a similar sentiment. “Human nature is what it is … these technologies can be used for bettering the human condition … but there’s a lot of evidence that humans will want to use these tools to do the things that humans have always done to each other when they don’t like each other.”
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