Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The future of the internet

The Future. Photo: Kristian Bjornard via Creative Commons.

The Future. Photo: Kristian Bjornard via Creative Commons.

How important a role will the internet play in the future and in what ways do you see this impacting upon society?


Patricia Wallace, the author of The Psychology of The Internet

John Suler, the author of The Psychology of the Digital Age

Kent Norman, the author of Cyberpsychology

Raphael Cohen-Almagor, the author of Confronting the Internet’s Dark Side

Kent Norman:

As business and industry, governments, and educational institutions have embraced the Internet, they have forced all of society to be connected. Financial institutions require us to go online to do business. Governments require us to fill out forms and requests online. Colleges require students to have an email address, register for classes online, access course materials online, submit assignments online.  They actually make it impossible to get an education without being online. So there is no opting out.

“Surprisingly, the Internet is connected to more things than people, and these things are increasing at an exponential rate.” – Kent Norman

What does this mean for society?

Simple.  Society itself is being sucked into the cloud.  Societies are characterized by persistent social interaction, patterns of relationship, and cultural expectations embedded in an economic, political, and industrial infrastructure.  Societies in the cloud are the coded representations of our interactions.  What this means for the future is that societies will be programmed by programmers as David Rushkoff puts it. The question is, “Who will do the programming?”

But there is more to society than the just the people.  Societies dwell within environments. This is where the Internet will have a great impact. Surprisingly, the Internet is connected to more things than people, and these things are increasing at an exponential rate.  Today we talk about the Internet-of-Things (IoT) being composed of sensors, monitors, surveillance devices as well as home control devices for switches and thermostats.  All of these observe and regulate our activities from speed cameras to traffic lights and heart monitors to workout schedules.

But having said all this, we cannot escape the fact that we are embodied creatures; and while there may be a digital representation of society in the cloud, we dwell in a physical world with physical and psychological needs. That will not change until the end.

Raphael Cohen-Almagor:

We have a universally interconnected electronic communication systems based on a variety of linkable electronic carriers, using radio, cable, microwave, optical fiber, and satellites, and delivering to every home and office a vast variety of different kinds of mail, print, sound, and video, through an electronic network of networks. The communications systems and networks are likely to continue their growth and to develop new applications that will affect our lives in different ways.

With time, we can assume that more people will be able to connect to computers and to the Internet wherever they are, in all continents, and in the air. These capabilities already exist, and they will be enhanced considerably. Cell phone will become more sophisticated media centers, enabling traditional (phone, radio, TV) and new media (Internet, Kindle books, recorded books, games, music, camera, video, and new forms of entertainment). Advanced voiced recognition capabilities will make both the keyboard and the mouse obsolete. Solutions will be sought to overcome the growing challenges of maintaining privacy, reducing noise levels and isolating the cacophonies of sound in public places.

Technology will develop to enhance connectivity between media and our senses, engaging our senses more fully with tinier and more powerful speakers deep inside human ears; chips might be installed into our bodies to receive and transmit data and various communications; 3-D innovations will enable our bodies to feel sensations and to taste edible products we see on our portable screens. Obviously, social responsibility codes as to how to behave in public will require some readjustment. These wonderful innovations should be accompanied with fine awareness to the consequences of these developments on individuals and society at large.

“Technology will develop to enhance connectivity between media and our senses, engaging our senses more fully with tinier and more powerful speakers deep inside human ears..” – Raphael Cohen-Almagor

With continued development of technical solutions and innovation and with increased awareness of and adherence to basic Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), a better structure is required. CSR should be part of the web company’s strategy, in the frame of mind of the day-to-day operations. Indeed, CSR is a continuous living process. Thus social responsibility should influence the conduct of ISPs and web-hosting companies.

Patricia Wallace:

When I was writing my first book about the psychology of the Internet, which was published in 1999, Internet users needed considerable stamina and perseverance just to get online.  We had to figure out how to make the phone line do double duty, so our computers could “talk” through a landline that expected voice signals.  Those early modems were cranky and finicky, and Internet connections dropped all the time when another family member picked up an extension. All those obstacles stiffened our spines.   Cognitive dissonance ensures that the harder we work to get something, the more we treasure it.

While we still experience some frustrations when we access the Internet, those early trials are long gone, and our devices automatically try to connect on their own to any nearby access point, helpfully remembering our login credentials for familiar ones.  This seamlessness will continue to spread.  Combined with the exploding Internet of Things, it may feel like an immense network of connectedness, one that is so pervasive and familiar that we habituate to it, barely noticing it. Just as we began to take phones, TV, radio, electricity, running water, and cars for granted, we will expect the “net” to be ready to serve at any time.

The caveat, of course, is that this Internet – from a technological point of view – is first generation, and it wasn’t built for the kinds of demands in terms of security and robustness that the world needs.  A major event, such as a widespread hack that brings down the electrical grid, could be the trigger that puts some brakes on the Internet’s momentum.

For society, that could be a good thing that leads to reflection about the pros and cons of so much integration, dependence, and connectedness.

John Suler:

The Internet is here to stay, but I wonder if in the future we will continue to use that term, or other terms such as web, cyberspace, or even social media.

Some critics of the “digital dualism” concept say that digital experiences have become so integrated into our lives that it does not make sense to talk about them as if they belong to some realm separate from the “real” world.  Others claim that a distinct digital realm does in fact exist because its psychological and social experiences often operate by different rules than in the real world.

This is more than just an academic or semantic debate. It reflects our attempts to grapple with the meaning, manipulation, and purpose of “reality” itself. In the future, when and how will we step out of the environment around us in order to immerse ourselves into the very distinct experiences of imaginary virtual realities? When and how will we seamlessly infuse digital data into our physical world in order to “augment” reality, including an Internet of things that serve as extensions of computerized cognition? When and how will we power down all our devices so we can experience reality without any digitized influence?

These are the questions for our future with the machine. As we go, we must remember this: relying on technology to solve psychological and social problems caused by technology makes little sense.

Read the rest of this 6-part Roundtable Discussion:

Part One: Cyberpsychology
Part Two: Misusing the Internet
Part Three: When Kids Go Online
Part Four: The Future of Online Relationships
Part Five: The single most important issue in cyber psychology today
Part Six: The Future of the Internet

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