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Last Updated: Sunday, 24 September 2006, 16:59 GMT 17:59 UK
Internet's future in 2020 debated
There are more than a billion people online worldwide
The internet will be a thriving, low-cost network of billions of devices by 2020, says a major survey of leading technology thinkers.

The Pew report on the future internet surveyed 742 experts in the fields of computing, politics and business.

More than half of respondents had a positive vision of the net's future but 46% had serious reservations.

Almost 60% said that a counter culture of Luddites would emerge, some resorting to violence.

The Pew Internet and American Life report canvassed opinions from the experts on seven broad scenarios about the future internet, based on developments in the technology in recent years.

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Written responses

The correspondents were also able to qualify their answers with written responses giving more detail.

"Key builders of the next generation of internet often agree on the direction technology will change, but there is much less agreement about the social and political impact those changes will have," said Janna Quitney Anderson, lead author of the report The Future of the Internet II.

She added: "One of their big concerns is: Who controls the internet architecture they have created?"

Bob Metcalfe, founder of 3Com and the inventor of ethernet, predicted the net would be a global connection of different devices.

"The internet will have gone beyond personal communications," by 2020 he wrote.

'Embedded micros'

Mobiles will play a big part in the net's future
"Many more of today's 10 billion new embedded micros per year will be on the internet."

Louis Nauges, president of Microcost, a French information technology firm, saw mobile devices at the forefront of the net.

"Mobile internet will be dominant," he explained. "By 2020, most mobile networks will provide one-gigabit-per-second-minimum speed, anywhere, anytime.

"Dominant access tools will be mobile, with powerful infrastructure characteristics. All applications will come from the net."

But not everyone felt a "networked nirvana" would be possible by 2020.

Concerns over interoperability (different formats working together), government regulation and commercial interests were seen as key barriers to a universal internet.

Ian Peter, Australian leader of the Internet Mark II Project, wrote: "The problem of the digital divide is too complex and the power of legacy telco regulatory regimes too powerful to achieve this utopian dream globally within 15 years."

'Real interoperability'

Author and social commentator Douglas Rushkoff agreed with Mr Peter.

The less one is powerful, the more transparent his or her life. The powerful will remain much less transparent
NetLab founder Barry Wellman on issues of privacy versus transparancy

He wrote: "Real interoperability will be contingent on replacing our bias for competition with one for collaboration.

"Until then, economics do not permit universal networking capability."

Many of the surveyed experts predicted isolated and small-scale violent attacks to try and thwart technology's march.

"Today's eco-terrorists are the harbingers of this likely trend," wrote Ed Lyell, an expert on the internet and education.

"Every age has a small percentage that cling to an overrated past of low technology, low energy, lifestyle."

"Of course there will be more Unabombers," wrote Cory Doctorow of blog BoingBoing.

Some commentators felt that the violence would either be tied to the effects of technology, rather than the technology itself, or possibly civil action around issues such as privacy.

"The interesting question is whether these acts will be considered terrorism or civil disobedience," wrote Marc Rotenberg or the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Of course there will be more Unabombers
Cory Doctorow, BoingBoing

More than half of respondents disagreed that English would become the lingua franca of the internet by 2020 and that there would be dangers associated with letting machines take over some net tasks such as surveillance and security.

Internet Society Board chairman Fred Baker wrote: "We will certainly have some interesting technologies.

He added: "Until someone finds a way for a computer to prevent anyone from pulling its power plug, however, it will never be completely out of control."

The repondents were split over the whether the impact of people's lives becoming increasingly online, resulting in both less privacy but more transparency, would be a positive outcome.

'Access information'

Tiffany Shlain, founder of the Webby awards, said such transparancy would be a benefit to society.

The dramatic growth of the internet shows no sign of abating

"Giving all people access to our information and a context to understand it will lead to an advancement in our civilisation."

But NetLab founder Barry Wellman disagreed: "The less one is powerful, the more transparent his or her life. The powerful will remain much less transparent."

Mr Doctorow wrote: "Transparency and privacy aren't antithetical.

"We're perfectly capable of formulating widely honored social contracts that prohibit pointing telescopes through your neighbours' windows.

"We can likewise have social contracts about sniffing your neighbours' network traffic."

By 2020 an increasing number of people will be living and working within "virtual worlds" being more productive online than offline, the majority of the respondents said.

Ben Detenber, an associate professor at Nanyang Technological University, responded: "Virtual reality (VR) will only increase productivity for some people. For most, it will make no difference in productivity (i.e., how much output); VR will only change what type of work people do and how it is done."

Glenn Ricart, a board member at the Internet Society, warned also of potential dangers.

He envisaged "an entire generation opting-out of the real world and a paradoxical decrease in productivity as the people who provide the motive economic power no longer are in touch with the realities of the real world".

Agree Disagree No response
A global, low-cost network thrives 56% 43% 1%
English displaces other languages 42% 57% 1%
Autonomous technology is a problem 42% 54% 4%
Transparency builds better world, even at the expense of privacy 46% 49% 5%
Virtual reality is a drain for some 56% 39% 5%
The internet opens worldwide access to success 52% 44% 5%
Some Luddites/Refuseniks will commit terror acts 58% 35% 7%
Source: Pew Center

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