Life in 2020: Mobility Reigns

The end of the year is a wonderful time for predictions.

But instead of looking ahead to 2009, the Pew Internet and American Life Project recently canvassed leading Internet experts for their thoughts on what the digital landscape will look like in 2020.

Their predictions: the mobile phone will be the primary device for connecting to the Internet; copyright cops will still be at war with pirates; and the social implications of a hyper-connected world are far from clear.

The Pew study, conducted jointly with researchers from Elon University, polled nearly 1,200 Internet activists and analysts from groups like the World Wide Web Consortium, ICANN and the Internet Society.

“A strong undercurrent of anxiety runs through these experts’ answers: They are quite sure the Internet and cell phones will continue to advance at an amazing clip, but they are not at all sure people will make the same kind of progress as they embrace better, faster, cheaper gadgets,” Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project, said in a statement. “The picture they paint of the future is that technology will give people the power to be stronger actors in the political and economic world, but that won’t necessarily make it a kinder, gentler world.”

Just 33 percent of the respondents agreed with the suggestion that the diversity of viewpoints shared on the Internet will lead to a more tolerant society, marked by declining rates of violence, bigotry, and hate crimes. Fifty-five percent disagreed, with the remainder declining to respond.

A commanding majority (81 percent) of the respondents said that despite the successes they foresee for initiatives like One Laptop Per Child, the mobile phone will be the way that most people get online in 2020. For a majority, the mobile device will be their only path to the Web.

The same respondents said that telephony will be relatively inexpensive, and available under a common set of protocols and standards that level the barriers to international service. Only 19 percent disagreed.

The survey also indicated that the cat-and-mouse game between copyright holders and infringers will continue. Asked whether laws and copy-protection technologies in 2020 would be sufficient to keep the pirates at bay, 61 percent of those surveyed said no, that copy-protection measures would still be vulnerable to hacking and unlawful distribution. People will still be able to find technical workarounds to efforts to automatically track online content such as watermarking and digital fingerprints, they said.

On the evolving concern for online privacy, the respondents were nearly equally split. Just under half (44 percent) said that most people will have warmed up to the idea that it is no longer possible to be anonymous, and that the culture will be generally more forgiving when embarrassing footage from a person’s past shows up on YouTube. Forty-five percent disagreed, saying that privacy will still matter, that not everyone in the digital future will embrace the idea of transparency. The remainder of the respondents declined to answer.

“These experts’ answers reflect continuing concern over the tension between security and privacy issues,” Elon communications professor Janna Anderson said in a statement.

Just over two-thirds of the respondents predicted that voice-recognition and touch technologies would become commonplace. They envision haptic (or touch-based) technologies such as a small Internet device that could project a full-sized keyboard onto a flat surface. The virtual keyboard would recognize users’ hand movements, enabling them to “air-type.”

That type of innovation would be a step beyond some of the technologies that are just beginning to move from the lab to market, such as Microsoft’s ambitious surface computing initiative.

Pew and Elon have posted detailed information including quotes and biographies of many of the respondents at Visitors are invited to post their own comments or predictions.

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