Bill Gates gets away twice a year for his now-famous "think weeks," during which he ponders the future and toys with "wrecking the company" by revisiting even the most fundamental assumptions behind Microsoft's success. The closest the rest of us get to a think week are a few precious days in summer spent outdoors -- stargazing, fishing or even mowing the lawn.

Gates goes into think weeks with a stack of white papers. We could do worse than to mull over the findings of a provocative report immodestly called, The Future of the Internet. The report, from the Pew Internet & American Life Project and Elon University, gauges the thinking of 1,300 technology leaders, scholars and industry officials on the societal consequences of the Internet, now and 10 years out.

The prescreened experts are big fans of the network and "in awe" of the staggeringly smart search technologies and blogs that have helped tame and interpret the terabytes of data running over the backbone. Looking forward, 76 percent of respondents believe the Internet will significantly change news organizations in the next 10 years, while 60 percent think the same for workplaces.

The majority affirmed predictions about:

  • disappearing distinctions among work, education and family life (56 percent);

  • increased student choice through asynchronous learning (57 percent);

  • the replacement of TV with digital, networked infotainment devices in the home (53 percent);

  • the availability of large volumes of independently produced music, art and literature on the Internet (54 percent);

  • and the ability of users to copy those works easily, freely and anonymously (50 percent).

    Much of the survey explores elements of civic life and government's role in it, particularly where security, privacy and transparency are concerned. While "they bemoan institutions that have been slow to change," the experts see inevitable transformations in the decade ahead. Sixty-four percent anticipate significant Internet-driven change for education, 57 percent for health care and 52 percent for government. A razor thin majority (52 percent) thinks 90 percent of American households will have access to dramatically faster high-speed networks within a decade.

    Sizable majorities see the Internet occupying a perilous position. Two-thirds agree with the prediction that "at least one" attack will devastate critical network infrastructures in the next 10 years. Forty-eight percent expect groups of political and religious zealots and those advocating violence to flourish and solidify in the decade ahead. Given those assumptions, it follows that a firm majority (59 percent) anticipates growing surveillance by both government and business through embedded computing and ubiquitous networks.

    Not surprisingly, security concerns still sharply limit optimism about online voting -- only 33 percent think half of all votes will be cast that way in 10 years. That said, a hopeful minority (42 percent) agrees with predictions that the Internet will "substantially increase civic engagement in the next 10 years," and 39 percent thinks the Internet will expand people's social networks and build trust among those who had previously been strangers.

    With the help of experts, the Pew Internet & American Life Project and Elon University have confirmed what we already knew -- the Internet changes everything, just not always in ways we expected. Importantly the experts were deliberately provocative in their predictions about breaking government in the name of fixing it: "Government will be forced to become increasingly transparent, accessible over the Net and almost impenetrable if you're not on the Net."

    The experts also remind us that the public still wants back in -- this time on their terms. "Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy. The Net will wear away institutions that have forgotten how to sound human and how to engage in conversation."

    Paul W. Taylor  |  Contributing Writer