The Internet: Looking Back and Forward 50 Years

The Internet turned 50 years old this year. So where are we heading in the next 50 years? Here’s a look at the excellent report from Pew Research and Elon University surveying global experts.

by / November 16, 2019

The numbers are staggering. More than 4.4 billion people now use the Internet.

Collectively, we:

  • Upload 4 million hours of video to YouTube
  • Send over 682 million tweets
  • Post more than 67 million Instagram pictures
  • Collectively create 2.5 exabytes (2.5 million terabytes or 1 billion gigabytes) of data

Watch this BBC click video to learn more about our Internet history — and how it all got started.

There is no doubt that the Internet has revolutionized life in America over the past five decades. Forbes magazine and many others say the Internet is the greatest invention since the printing press, but quickly point out that we are really talking about the World Wide Web (WWW). When this all started in 1969, no one could possibly have imagined the technological changes that would occur by 2019.

The Internet — 2069  

So where is this technological journey heading in the long run? Where will our innovation take us in the next 50 years?

Next month, I will be taking a detailed look at the cyber outlook for the next decade, as seen by the top tech and security companies around the world. My annual blog on cybersecurity predictions, similar to this list of top security predictions for 2019, will cover a wider span and look beyond just the year 2020.

Nevertheless, I am writing this blog to highlight the incredible work by Pew Research and Elon University, which looks in detail at what will happen in another 50 years of digital life — as seen by many of the top global experts from various academic disciplines.       

Before I begin, I want to strongly urge readers to take the time to read the full Pew Research report. The excerpts and opinions, which I offer as a summary below, provide (at best) a glimpse at their comprehensive study. This intriguing and fascinating report truly deserves the full attention of everyone in the technology and security industries — if not everyone in society.

The questions asked to these global experts were:

“Where will the internet and digital life be a half century from now?

Please tell us how you think connected technology, platforms and applications will be integrated into people’s lives. You can tackle any dimension of this question that matters to you. You might consider focusing on questions like this: What changes do you expect to see in the digital world’s platform companies? What changes do you expect to see in the apps and features that will ride on the internet? How will digital tools be integrated into everyday life? What will be entirely new? What will evolve and be recognizable from today’s internet? What new rules, laws or innovations in its engineering over the intervening years will change the character of today’s internet?

Considering what you just wrote about your expectations for the next 50 years, how will individuals’ lives be affected by the changes you foresee?

The full list of anonymous responses can be found here at the Elon University website, since their team partnered on the study.

More than 500 experts responded to some aspect of the queries; many did not respond to all.

About 72 percent said they expect or hope that there will be significant change that is mostly for the better.

About 25 percent said they expect or fear that there will be significant change that is mostly for the worse.

About 3 percent selected to respond that there will be no significant change.

Additionally, respondents were asked the following follow-up questions. The full set of respondents’ remarks that begin directly below this section are in answer to the primary set of queries that are listed above; if you’d like to jump past the hundreds of those lengthy responses in order to read respondents’ remarks to the following particular questions, please click on the links:

And find here a full report on responses to the question: “What will historians’ verdict be 50 years from now about the impact of the internet on people’s social, economic and political lives today?”

To read the full report on the Next 50 Years of Digital Life, click here:
https://www.elon.edu/u/imagining/surveys/x-2-internet-50th-2019/

Here is a very small excerpt from a few responses:

"A professor of computer science expert in systems at a major U.S. technological university:

The ‘new smart’ will belong to those who can ask the right questions and combine the answers better than others. The ‘power of knowledge’ has been shifting to those who have high quality information, and the distribution of wealth may reflect (increasingly) both the distribution of political power and knowledge power.

A research scientist who works for Google said, “You want a 50-year prediction? I’m not sure what to say. GOOGLE is only 20 years old — would you have predicted that (and all of the side effects) back in 1968 (50 years ago)? A few things I can predict with confidence. …  2) There will be a backlash against the Internet of things. Just sayin’. 3) Eventually, we’ll figure out how to do sufficiently high frame rate and precision registration so that VR/AR actually works. Both will be interesting; both have the possibility of being world-changers. (But I don’t know how that will happen yet. …) 5) The social effects of connectivity (esp. third world) + bandwidth + radicalized pockets of folks will make the current internet battles seem tame. AI will be important, but it’s not going to be the big driver.”

An infrastructure engineer for a leading social network company

“… We are building highly complex systems for one purpose, and failing to realize that complex systems, and their social offshoots, have unintended consequences far larger than anything we can imagine. … The primary problem right now is the push toward escaping the bounds of reality, which we somehow think will add to human freedom and dignity. The ultimate reality will be far different, as we are escaping into a narrow room that has far tighter bounds in our quest for freedom. It is like escaping what we perceive to be a prison camp only to find ourselves in a desert where life cannot be sustained, but we have conditioned ourselves to self-hate our natural condition. … This will not be freedom.”

A professor of computing and digital media expert in in artificial intelligence and social computing said, “In 50 years we will have at least one large-scale internet-enabled attack against an entire country, lasting more than five days: power grids, banking, transportation, utilities. People will die. This will (at last) trigger a complete rethinking of the internet protocols, and they will be redesigned with security by design. …”

Other Organizations Offer Perspectives On This Report

Tata Communications offered this comment on the report.  

“We hope it’s a future in which far more of the world’s population can enjoy all the many advantages of connectivity. As more and more people get connected, technology itself will continue to develop in parallel unlocking ever more powerful benefits. This in turn will create a multiplier effect, where more lives can be improved, more successfully, by more effective technology.

It’s an optimistic view, but that’s our hope for the future. Bring on the next 50 years.”

In another take, Ryan McGeehan, who wrote this blog about the next 50 years on Medium, offers his analysis of our current industry problems and offers three recommendations that he believes could help change our cybersecurity situation for the better. I urge you to read Ryan’s solutions, which include a better measuring of data breach root causes.

Final Thoughts

I find the overall optimistic tone of the majority of this study to be encouraging. As I have said many times, I believe cyberpros must be optimists who strive to enable the good and disable the bad online. We need to be in the business of redeeming cyberspace.

At the same time, many of these predictions are scary to me  even when posed at positive developments. For example:

A distinguished professor of information technology and management at a major U.S. university and fellow at an MIT initiative responded, “I expect that there will be some form of implant-based brain augmentation by digital technology, and that those who choose to will be able to communicate with others just by thinking that they want to. I do believe there will be increased ability to monitor and control individuals, which will have mixed impacts on humans. …”

Again, I urge readers to take the time to read all the survey responses.

Regardless of your views of the future, you will be glad you did.  

 

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