We’d Like Your Opinion Updated: Hey, Ask Your Friends, Too!

This week I just had to write about the new report from the PEW Internet & American Life Project titled "The Future of the Internet." Hopefully, you'll take my advice and pull up the report itself, because it's worth a lot of hours of reading and thinking.

Four hundred "experts" whose early predictions about the Internet and its impact were identified from writings and postings authored during the period 1990-1994. Those experts were located and asked to participate in a 24-question survey about the future of the Internet. They were told that they could also invite friends and colleagues with interesting perspectives to complete the survey as well. In the end, 1,286 people responded; about half of whom are described as "Internet pioneers," that is, online prior to 1993.

Before I go any further, let me be very clear as to the purpose of this week's column: I recommend that you go to The Future of the Internet and download your own copy. I'll be happy if you read the rest of this article, but you need to read the whole thing, too! The experts were asked whether or not they agreed with a list of 24 "statements" about the future of the Internet:

"At least one devastating attack will occur in the next 10 years on the networked information infrastructure or the country's power grid."

Of all 24 statements, the highest number of experts agreed with this one. Sixty-six percent of respondents thought it would be a true prediction. Some pointed out the number nasty things already done to the Internet when they can be. Others pointed out that as the Internet itself becomes more and more important, its value as a target grows.

I found this statement to be too complex to believe that I really understand what the respondents meant. For one extreme example, I find it "devastating" when my own personal connectivity is down for even moments at a time. So, what exactly "devastate" means to respondents may be an issue in interpreting this response. Further, the question combines a statement about the Internet with one about the power grid. Certainly the two are interconnected, but with memories of the big Northeast power outage of a couple of years ago still in people's minds, it would be pretty easy to agree about an attack on the power grid. But I don't think that the two are necessarily connected.

"Enabled by information technologies, the pace of learning in the next decade will increasingly be set by student choices. In ten years, most students will spend at least part of their 'school days' in virtual classes, grouped online with others who share their interests, mastery, and skills."

This was the statement that the next-highest number of respondents agreed with, and it's one of great interest to us. It applies, of course to K-12 as well as postsecondary education. I don't think any of us disagree with this statement when applied to higher education. However, I've watched the evolution of the Ann Arbor Public School system fairly closely over the past 10 years and I am fairly pessimistic about this prediction when applied to K-12. Many years ago I created a "no bounds" e-mail discussion list which was populated by parents, a few teachers, and some administrators. The teachers and administrators were revealed over time as stupendously opposed to change and the use of information technologies. Mostly, they just "lurked," totally afraid of revealing their thoughts to "the public."

If you've ever tried to get changes made in process or curriculum at an elementary or middle school, then you know what I am referring to. Those folks are as highly resistant to change as any North American population I can think of except possible the Amish. The teachers and the administrators both have unions, which assist them in resisting bothersome changes in their professional lives. Any change in most public schools that is meaningful has to come from schools of education and will take a lot longer than the next 10 years.

"By 2014, as telework and home schooling expand, the boundaries between work and leisure will diminish significantly. This will sharply alter everyday family dynamics."

Other than qualifying that statement by preceding it with "For those who have decent jobs," this would be the statement that I most whole-heartedly agree with. There have been some ways in which my own personal work and family life has been a bit leading-edge and a good predictor of the lives of others, and this one is a good one.

For example, as I send this article off today I am sitting at my dining room table watching 30-50 birds of about 8 species flock around my bird feeder which is surrounded by close to a foot of snow. I am writing on my Inspiron 8500 while connected to the Internet through my Treo 600. I am home because I sprained my neck cross-country skiing last weekend, but I am closely connected with my wife (who is at work, at a company that d'esn't like instant messaging on its employees' computers, but, hey, this is 2005, right?) and my work colleagues--who are sending me e-mails and instant messages at the pace of a couple dozen an hour. I am also simultaneously overseeing a carpenter and an electrician (who used to be a techie-geek but lost his job in the dotcom bubble). Both of them are working on kitchen renovations--and probably wishing I was at work instead! Plus, I am simultaneously involved in intense moderation of a very busy threaded discussion board that's having a problem with major flaming right now. Whew!

Welcome to the future. Retirement? What's that?

"On a scale of 1-10 with 1 representing no change and 10 representing radical change, please indicate how much change you think the Internet will bring to the following institutions or activities in the next decade."

Here's a ranked listing of my own "levels of change" expectations, alongside those of the experts who responded to the survey. The order is from those things expected (by me) to change most, to those expected to change least.

Item Terry Experts
News organizations and publishing 1 1
Workplaces 2 3
Education 3 2
Families 4 9
Music, literature, drama, film and the arts 5 6
Neighborhoods and communities 6 10
Medicine and health care 7 4
Politics and government 8 5
International relations 9 7
Military 10 8
Religion 11 11

Well, at least the experts and I agreed on news organizations, publishing, and religion.

Probably the biggest difference I made on the chart was moving families up from 9th to 5th and neighborhoods up to 6th from 10th.

That's based partly on how much change the Internet has made already to my own extended family, which is actively involved in scanning old photos, e-mailing each other, sharing digital photos, and the like.

It's also based on my reading of the word "communities" as meaning more, a lot more, than physically close communities of people. For nearly a decade now there are (mostly) virtual communities of people who are just as important to me as those I see on a regular basis. And those communities are widely varied as to how the individuals are connected and why. In fact, you, my readers, are a community that I care a lot more about than I do any "physical" neighbor who lives within a half a mile of my home.

There are some who would say that is sad. I think it's a harbinger of the future and it's a good thing. (Can I borrow that phrase while Martha's still in jail?) Happy New Year, friends!

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