Hope, doom and gloom on eve of World Wide Web’s 25th anniversary

Tomorrow’s the World Wide Web’s 25th anniversary, so there’s plenty of talk about the past and future of the WWW, the Internet and technology in general. From a Pew Research Center report today, which among other things asked tech experts, academics and other observers to gaze into their crystal balls, there’s hope. And doom and gloom.

First, the doom and gloom: It’s no surprise, in these times after the Edward Snowden leaks about government mass surveillance, that privacy is a common concern of those who weighed in. Also, amid the rise of hacks and cyberattacks, security. And, due to a variety of factors, some are concerned about the decentralization of the Internet.

A particularly pessimistic quote comes from Llewellyn Kriel, CEO of TopEditor International Media Services:

Everything — every thing — will be available online with price tags attached. Cyber-terrorism will become commonplace. Privacy and confidentiality of any and all personal will become a thing of the past. Online ‘diseases’ — mental, physical, social, addictions (psycho-cyber drugs) — will affect families and communities and spread willy-nilly across borders. The digital divide will grow and worsen beyond the control of nations or global organizations such as the UN. This will increasingly polarize the planet between haves and have-nots. Global companies will exploit this polarization. Digital criminal networks will become realities of the new frontiers. Terrorism, both by organizations and individuals, will be daily realities. The world will become less and less safe, and only personal skills and insights will protect individuals.

Finished sobbing out of despair yet? Other concerns include a widening digital divide, plus a reminder that — gasp! — not everything we read on the Internet is true. From Oscar Gandy, an emeritus professor at the Annenberg School, University of Pennsylvania:

We have to think seriously about the kinds of conflicts that will arise in response to the growing inequality enabled and amplified by means of networked transactions that benefit smaller and smaller segments of the global population. Social media will facilitate and amplify the feelings of loss and abuse.

Also, many factors including the concentration of wealth and power pose a threat to the openness of the Internet. Said Paul Saffo, consulting associate professor at Stanford:

The pressures to balkanize the global Internet will continue and create new uncertainties. Governments will become more skilled at blocking access to unwelcome sites.

There’s plenty more pessimism, but we can only take so much in one post. Let’s turn to the more hopeful voices. They address the spread of the always-on, always-connected life, and say that’s a good thing. Hal Varian, chief economist for Google:

The biggest impact on the world will be universal access to all human knowledge. The smartest person in the world currently could well be stuck behind a plow in India or China. Enabling that person — and the millions like him or her — will have a profound impact on the development of the human race.

And David Hughes, an Internet pioneer, says connectivity actually will give power to the people instead of the government:

All 7-plus billion humans on this planet will sooner or later be ‘connected’ to each other and fixed destinations, via the Uber(not Inter)net. That can lead to the diminished power over people’s lives within nation-states. When every person on this planet can reach, and communicate two-way, with every other person on this planet, the power of nation-states to control every human inside its geographic boundaries may start to diminish.

More than 1,800 tech experts, researchers, observers and academics responded to Pew’s survey over the past couple of months.


Photo: Tim Berners-Lee, who’s credited with inventing the World Wide Web by submitting a proposal for an information-management system for the Internet in 1989, is shown in Cambridge, Mass., on June 1, 1998. (Associated Press archives)


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