The Internet tsunami: 8 big insights on what it disrupts next

Image: iStockphoto/Aero17

The world wide web remains one of the greatest disruptive forces in human history. On an average day it can give you access to a vast wealth of human knowledge from a simple search box, show you snapshots from the lives of friends and family spread across the planet, provide a world-class education for free, crowdfund solar power in ways that governments can’t afford, redistribute food that would have been wasted, and sweep corrupt rulers into the dustbin of history.

Not bad for a 25 year-old.

Last week we celebrated the 25th anniversary of when Tim Berners-Lee first proposed the world wide web. While the web technically rides on top of the Internet—which had its origins a couple decades earlier—it was the web that turned the Internet into a world-shaping phenomenon. And today, the two terms are virtually synonymous among the masses.

Throughout 2014, as part of the web’s 25th birthday celebration, the Pew Research Internet Project is releasing a series of reports on the impact of the web—as well it’s future. This past week, in honor of the anniversary of Berners-Lee’s 1989 proposal to create the web, Pew released the report, Digital Life in 2025. It surveyed a group of 2,558 technology experts on their expectations about the future trajectory of the Internet. It then mined that data for patterns and the most poignant comments.

The remarks that Pew highlighted from these experts include a little navel-gazing, fear-mongering, and overly-optimistic blather. But, the interesting insights far outweigh the drivel. While I recommend reading the full report, I’ve pulled out the most useful insights and listed them below.

1. The end of being online

“The Internet will shift from the place we find cat videos to a background capability that will be a seamless part of how we live our everyday lives,” said Joe Touch, director of the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute, “We won’t think about ‘going online’ or ‘looking on the Internet’ for something—we’ll just be online, and just look.”

2. A dashboard of your life

“When the cost of collecting information on virtually every interaction falls to zero, the insights that we gain from our activity, in the context of the activity of others, will fundamentally change the way we relate to one another, to institutions, and with the future itself,” said Patrick Tucker, author of The Naked Future. “We will become far more knowledgeable about the consequences of our actions; we will edit our behavior more quickly and intelligently.”

3. The data-layered world

“We will grow accustomed to seeing the world through multiple data layers,” said Daren C. Brabham, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California. “This will change a lot of social practices, such as dating, job interviewing and professional networking, and gaming, as well as policing and espionage.”

4. Dealing with bad actors

“Of course, there will be bad acting by some, taking advantage of organizational vulnerabilities and gaming systems in other ways,” said Doc Searls, director of ProjectVRM at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “Organizations in the meantime will continue rationalizing negative externalities, such as we see today with pollution of the Internet’s pathways by boundless wasted advertising messages, and bots working to game the same business. But … civilization deals with bad acting through development of manners, norms, laws and regulations. Expect all of those to emerge and evolve over the coming years.”

5. Disruption of the state

“The most neglected aspect of the impact is in the geopolitics of the Internet,” said Randy Kluver, professor of communication at Texas A&M University. “There are very few experts focused on this, and yet the rise of digital media promises significant disruption to relations between and among states. Some of the really important dimensions include the development of transnational political actors/movements, the rise of the virtual state, the impact of digital diplomacy efforts, the role of information in undermining state privilege (think Wikileaks), and … the development of cyber-conflict (in both symmetric and asymmetric forms).”

6. Reinventing jobs

“The Internet, automation, and robotics will disrupt the economy as we know it. How will we provide for the humans who can no longer earn money through labor?” said Robert Cannon, Internet law and policy expert. “The good news is that the technology that promises to turn our world on its head is also the technology with which we can build our new world. It offers an unbridled ability to collaborate, share, and interact. ‘The best way to predict the future is to invent it.’ It is a very good time to start inventing the future.”

7. The power to tackle bigger problems

“The problems that humanity now faces are problems that can’t be contained by political borders or economic systems,” said JP Rangaswami, chief scientist for Salesforce. “Traditional structures of government and governance are therefore ill-equipped to create the sensors, the flows, the ability to recognize patterns, the ability to identify root causes, the ability to act on the insights gained, the ability to do any or all of this at speed, while working collaboratively across borders and time zones and sociopolitical systems and cultures. From climate change to disease control, from water conservation to nutrition, from the resolution of immune-system-weakness conditions to solving the growing obesity problem, the answer lies in what the Internet will be in decades to come. By 2025, we will have a good idea of its foundations.”

8. Sweeping away existing structures

“It is going to systemically change our understandings of being human, being social, and being political,” said Nishant Shah, professor at the Centre for Digital Cultures at Leuphana University, Germany. “It is not merely a tool of enforcing existing systems; it is a structural change in the systems that we are used to. And this means that we are truly going through a paradigm shift—which is celebratory for what it brings, but it also produces great precariousness because existing structures lose meaning and valence, and hence, a new world order needs to be produced in order to accommodate for these new modes of being and operation.”