Pew and Elon University surveyed a bunch of blatherers, including me, about the impact of the internet on youth, asking us to respond to a number of contrary scenarios about the year 2020. Lots of interesting responses here. I saved mine. Snippets:
* Survey on rewired youth: In 2020 the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are “wired” differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields helpful results. They do not suffer notable cognitive shortcomings as they multitask and cycle quickly through personal- and work-related tasks. Rather, they are learning more and they are more adept at finding answers to deep questions, in part because they can search effectively and access collective intelligence via the Internet. In sum, the changes in learning behavior and cognition among the young generally produce positive outcomes.
In 2020, the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are “wired” differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields baleful results. They do not retain information; they spend most of their energy sharing short social messages, being entertained, and being distracted away from deep engagement with people and knowledge. They lack deep-thinking capabilities; they lack face-to-face social skills; they depend in unhealthy ways on the Internet and mobile devices to function. In sum, the changes in behavior and cognition among the young are generally negative outcomes.
* Me: I don’t buy the punchline but I do buy the joke. I do not believe technology will change our brains and how we are “wired.” But it can change how we cognate and navigate our world. We will adapt and find the benefits in this change.
Hark back to Gutenberg. Elizabeth Eisenstein, our leading Gutenberg scholar, says that after the press, people no longer needed to use rhyme as a tool to memorize recipes and other such information. Instead, we now relied on text printed on paper. I have no doubt that curmudgeons at the time lamented lost skills. Text became our new collective memory. Sound familiar? Google is simply an even more effective cultural memory machine. I think it has already made us a more fact-based; when in doubt about a fact, we no longer have to trudge to the library but can expect to find the answer in seconds.
Scholars at the University of Southern Denmark have coined the wonderful phrase “the Gutenberg Parenthesis” to examine the shift into and now out of a textually based society. Before the press, information was passed mouth-to-ear, scribe-to-scribe; it was changed in the process; there was little sense of ownership and authorship. In the five-century-long Gutenberg era, text did set how we see our world: serially with a neat beginning and a defined end; permanent; authored. Now, we are passing out of this textual era and that may well affect how we *look* at our world. That may appear to change how we think. But it won’t change our wires.
* Survey on education: In 2020, higher education will not be much different from the way it is today. While people will be accessing more resources in classrooms through the use of large screens, teleconferencing, and personal wireless smart devices, most universities will mostly require in-person, on-campus attendance of students most of the time at courses featuring a lot of traditional lectures. Most universities’ assessment of learning and their requirements for graduation will be about the same as they are now.
By 2020, higher education will be quite different from the way it is today. There will be mass adoption of teleconferencing and distance learning to leverage expert resources. Significant numbers of learning activities will move to individualized, just-in-time learning approaches. There will be a transition to “hybrid” classes that combine online learning components with less-frequent on-campus, in-person class meetings. Most universities’ assessment of learning will take into account more individually-oriented outcomes and capacities that are relevant to subject mastery. Requirements for graduation will be significantly shifted to customized outcomes.
Me: The disruption that has overtaken media will next take on education.
It simply does not make sense for thousands of educators around the world to write and deliver the same lecture on, say, capillary action — most of them bad. The best can be shared and found. Then, I believe, in-person education becomes more a matter of tutoring. Think of the Oxbridge lecturer/tutor structure distributed via the net. This quickly changes the economics of education: The marginal cost of another student learning from the finest lecturers in the world is zero. Teachers will need to see how they are needed and how they add value.
In my book, What Would Google Do?, I looked at separating the functions of a university: teaching, certification, research, socialization. These need not be accomplished all in the same space. Will there still be universities? Likely, but not certain. I also discussed the idea that our current educational system, start to end, is built for an industrial era, churning out students like widgets who are taught to churn our widgets themselves. This is a world where there is one right answer: we spew it from a lecturn; we exepct it to be spewed back in a test. That kind of education does not produce the innovators who would invent Google.
The real need for education in the economy will be re-education. As industries go through disruption and jobs are lost forever, people will need to be retrained for new roles. Our present educational structure is not built for that but in that I see great entrepreneurial opportunity.
* Survey on commerce: By 2020, most people will have embraced and fully adopted the use of smart-device swiping for purchases they make, nearly eliminating the need for cash or credit cards. People will come to trust and rely on personal hardware and software for handling monetary transactions over the Internet and in stores. Cash and credit cards will have mostly disappeared from many of the transactions that occur in advanced countries.
People will not trust the use of near-field communications devices and there will not be major conversion of money to an all-digital-all-the-time format. By 2020, payments through the use of mobile devices will not have gained a lot of traction as a method for transactions. The security implications raise too many concerns among consumers about the safety of their money. And people are resistant to letting technology companies learn even more about their personal purchasing habits. Cash and credit cards will still be the dominant method of carrying out transactions in advanced countries.
Me: Not only will our notion of currency change as it becomes electronic and (even more) virtual, but I see the possibility for new currencies measuring new value. We could, for example, award and trade in points for responsible environmental behavior. I also see the possibility to create new currencies that cut across national borders, independent of governments. We have already seen the first nascent attempts to do this. It won’t be easy but it is theoretically possible.
Survey on apps: In 2020, most people will prefer to use specific applications (apps) accessible by Internet connection to accomplish most online work, play, communication, and content creation. The ease of use and perceived security and quality-assurance characteristics of apps will be seen as superior when compared with the open Web. Most industry innovation and activity will be devoted to apps development and updates, and use of apps will occupy the majority of technology-users’ time. There will be a widespread belief that the World Wide Web is less important and useful than in the past and apps are the dominant factor in people’s lives.
In 2020, the World Wide Web is stronger than ever in users’ lives. The open Web continues to thrive and grow as a vibrant place where most people do most of their work, play, communication, and content creation. Apps accessed through iPads, Kindles, Nooks, smartphones, Droid devices, and their progeny – the online tools GigaOM referred to as “the anti-Internet” – will be useful as specialized options for a finite number of information and entertainment functions. There will be a widespread belief that, compared to apps, the Web is more important and useful and is the dominant factor in people’s lives.
Me: Oh, I have downloaded lots of apps. But I use only a small number of them and I have seen research showing that this is typical. This survey showed that people use apps for certain obvious activities — such as games — but use their browsers for content, mail, and other functions. Since that data was gathered, Ugly Birds was ported to HTML5 and the browser.
The browser — or its future equivalent — will continue to have key advantages over apps: they are connected to the entire net; they offer full interoperability; they give the user more power than the developer or publisher. Yes, publishers have dreamed that apps would return to them the control of content, experience, business model, and pricing that the net took from them, but they are merely deluding themselves. The value is not in their control of content but in the ability to become platforms for users to do what they want to do.
* Survey on big data: Thanks to many changes, including the building of “the Internet of Things,” human and machine analysis of large data sets will improve social, political, and economic intelligence by 2020. The rise of what is known as “Big Data” will facilitate things like “nowcasting” (real-time “forecasting” of events); the development of “inferential software” that assesses data patterns to project outcomes; and the creation of algorithms for advanced correlations that enable new understanding of the world. Overall, the rise of Big Data is a huge positive for society in nearly all respects.
Thanks to many changes, including the building of “the Internet of Things,” human and machine analysis of Big Data will cause more problems than it solves by 2020. The existence of huge data sets for analysis will engender false confidence in our predictive powers and will lead many to make significant and hurtful mistakes. Moreover, analysis of Big Data will be misused by powerful people and institutions with selfish agendas who manipulate findings to make the case for what they want. And the advent of Big Data has a harmful impact because it serves the majority (at times inaccurately) while diminishing the minority and ignoring important outliers. Overall, the rise of Big Data is a big negative for society in nearly all respects.
Me: Media and regulators are demonizing Big Data and its supposed threat to privacy. Such moral panics have occurred often thanks to changes in technology. I examine this in Public Parts. With the advent of the press, authors feared having their ideas attached to their names, stored permanently and distributed widely. The invention of the Kodak portable camera caused the first serious discussion of a legal right to privacy in 1890. Now the internet and its ability to gather, store, spread, and analyze data is causing similar fears — witness the Wall Street Journal’s effort to whip up a moral manic over cookies and “what *they* know.” That’s not to say that we should not guard against untoward outcomes; technology itself is neutral and can be used for good ends and bad. But the wise will look for and exploit the new opportunities technology provides.
Case in point: the researchers who found that by analyzing the mood of twitter — a set of six emotions and their opposites — they could, with stunning reliability, predict daily ups and downs in the Dow index. Not surprisingly, their formulae are now the basis of a hedge fund. Someone found value in the supposedly worthless blathering about our lives. I would not be surprised if others find the same value and neutralize the researchers’ advantage or even if clever spammers find ways to game the mood on Twitter. But the moral of the story remains: there is value to be found in this data, value in our newfound publicness.
Google’s founders have urged government regulators not to require them to quickly delete searches because, in their patterns and anomalies, they have found the ability to track the outbreak of the flu before health officials could and they believe that by similarly tracking a pandemic, millions of lives could be saved.
Demonizing data, big or small, is demonizing knowledge and that is never wise.
* Survey on games: By 2020, gamification (the use of game mechanics, feedback loops, and rewards to spur interaction and boost engagement, loyalty, fun and/or learning) will not be implemented in most everyday digital activities for most people. While game use and game-like structures will remain an important segment of the communications scene and will have been adopted in new ways, the gamification of other aspects of communications will not really have advanced much beyond being an interesting development implemented occasionally by some segments of the population in some circumstances.
By 2020, there will have been significant advances in the adoption and use of gamification. It will be making waves on the communications scene and will have been implemented in many new ways for education, health, work, and other aspects of human connection and it will play a role in the everyday activities of many of the people who are actively using communications networks in their daily lives.
Me: I think gamification is overblown, but that could simply be because I am not a gamer. Angry Birds was fun while it lasted, but it didn’t change my life.
* Survey on connected homes: By 2020, the connected household has become a model of efficiency, as people are able to manage consumption of resources (electricity, water, food, even bandwidth) in ways that place less of a burden on the environment while saving households money. Thanks to what is known as “Smart Systems,” the “Home of the Future” that has often been foretold is coming closer and closer to becoming a reality.
By 2020, most initiatives to embed IP-enabled devices in the home have failed due to difficulties in gaining consumer trust and because of the complexities in using new services. As a result, the home of 2020 looks about the same as the home of 2011 in terms of resource consumption and management.Once again, the “Home of the Future” does not come to resemble the future projected in the recent past.
Me: Complexity is a solvable problem in the right hands. We should wish for the iHome from Apple. Connectivity will lead to efficiency when economics dictate: when we save a lot of money with our air-conditioning or when we are penalized for not doing so or when we penalize cable companies for the power-hogging boxes.
Survey on freedom: In 2020, technology firms with their headquarters in democratic countries will be expected to abide by a set of norms – for instance, the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) citizens being attacked or challenged by their governments. In this world, for instance, a Western telecommunications firm would not be able to selectively monitor or block the Internet activity of protestors at the behest of an authoritarian government without significant penalties in other markets.
In 2020, technology firms headquartered in democratic countries will have taken steps to minimize their usefulness as tools for political organizing by dissidents. They will reason that too much association with sensitive activities will put them in disfavor with autocratic governments. Indeed, in this world, commercial firms derive significant income from filtering and editing their services on behalf of the world’s authoritarian regimes.
Me: Pardon me for the plug, but this is in the end the point of my next book, Public Parts: It is a call for us to protect our tools of publicness. At the e-G8, I urged President Sarkozy to join with the national leaders he was about to meet and take a Hippocratic oath for the internet: first do no harm. His reflex and that of governments is to control and regulate. We, the citizens of the net, must resist and I believe the way to do that is to discuss the principles of the network. In the book, I propose a set of principles. They are wrong. Indeed, in our distributed internet, we will never — we should never — end up with one set of principles from one governance. The fact that no one can control the net is what makes the net free. But we do need to discuss the principles that underly our net so we can point to them when governments and companies violate them and so we can give cover to good actors who try to resist control from bad governments.