Internet Visionaries: Hope, Fear (And Loathing?)
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Experts agree that Internet technology will continue expanding into the fabric of our lives like a drop of iodine into a glass of water.
A study published by the Pew Internet Project shows sharp disagreement, however, on whether the effects of this evolution will be curative or toxic.
The study surveyed 742 experts identified by the Pew Internet Project and Elon University, including the Internet Society, the World Wide Web Consortium, the Working Group on Internet Governance, ICANN, Internet2 and the Association of Internet Researchers.
The participants expressed hopes and concerns, in almost equal measures, about the growth of a global network, the looming prospects for the evolution of self-sustaining totalitarian systems and the potential for a loss of privacy.
For instance, 56 percent of respondents agreed that a low-cost global network will be thriving in 2020 and will be available to most people around the world at a low cost.
And they agreed that a tech-abetted "flattening" of the world will open up opportunities for success for many people who will compete globally.
Still, 43 percent of respondents said they are unsure that policy will foster such a positive outcome for Internet expansion.
They said that progress will be inhibited by businesses anxious to preserve their current advantages and by policy-makers for whom control over information and communication is a central value.
The study also showed that experts are split on whether technology will become autonomous by 2020 and escape human control.
Forty-two percent thought leaders agreed that dangers and dependencies will grow beyond humans' ability to stay in charge of technology.
"There's a very split verdict," noted Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project and publisher of the study.
Rainie admitted that he was surprised by the lack of consensus on many of these key issues.
"There is disagreement here that's real," he told internetnews.com.
The respondents also demonstrated concern about the balance between transparency and privacy.
Forty-six percent agreed that the benefits of greater transparency of organizations and individuals would outweigh the cost in terms of lost privacy; 49 percent disagreed.
Rainie noted that while the difference between the two camps is statistically insignificant, the study is less about numbers than identifying key issues.
"The purpose of publishing this study is to stimulate conversation, not end conversation," he said.
Rainie noted that the responses ran counter to the bias he expected to find.
"These were not people voting with their pocket books or having an ax to grind. These are serious people expressing some hope and some worry all at the same time," he said.
"Some of the most pessimistic people are some of the most accomplished technologists," he added.
For example, Anthony Rutkowski of VeriSign, over the past decade a leader with the Internet Society and International Telecommunication Union, disparaged worries about technology taking control from humans.
"Autonomous technology is widespread today and indispensable," he wrote. "Characterizing it as a 'problem' is fairly clueless."
But Paul Craven, director of enterprise communications at the U.S. Department of Labor, spoke for many when he wrote, "we do not control technology as much as we think we do."
The study can be downloaded here.