The Internet in 2020: the Pew-Elon experts survey, edition V

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The folks at Pew Internet (aka the Pew Internet & American Life Project) produce terrific research on what Americans do online. They have a visitor-friendly website teeming with information about Teens, Broadband, Health, Social Networking, Mobile, Technology User Types and the Digital Divide – and those are just the popular topics. Their work is a boon to my students, who have no source anything like Pew for Canadian data (with the partial exception of Statistics Canada and its Canadian Internet Users Survey, which is still very limited in its scope).

Since 2004, Pew Internet (headed up by Lee Rainie, pictured opposite) has partnered with Elon University’s School of Communications on a Pew's Lee Rainieproject that looks not at how we use the Internet and digital media today, but how we are likely to use them years from now. Dubbed the Future of the Internet, the project is currently in its fifth edition, after being fielded in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010. The research is conducted in an unusual way and has produced a treasure trove of fascinating predictions from thought leaders, technologists, entrepreneurs, futurists, academics, axe-grinders and experts of many stripes.

You’ll find the treasure at a series of websites which offer both pdf’s and links to other pages online: 2004 is here; 2006 is here (with links leading, as they put it, to “thousands of prescient statements”); and 2008 is here. In 2010, the findings were written up in six reports and made available on this page along with a host of related resources.

Yes or no: pick one

For each edition of the project, the researchers contacted several hundred stakeholders, asking them to respond with their views to a short online survey. As I discovered when asked to participate in the 2010 survey, the setup is very crafty.

Instead of either the usual rankings or open-ended picks, each topic starts with a pair of one-sentence predictions – “tension pairs” – each of which captures the polar opposite of the other. The content of the tension pairs is built from “common attitudes today about the likely evolution of the Internet.” Participants are asked to choose one. Naturally, anyone who has given much thought to issues like the future of money, Big Data or apps vs the Web is likely to have all sorts of qualifiers and shades of grey to add. Which is exactly what Pew asks for. In compiling results, the researchers certainly keep score as to whether e.g. apps will have largely displaced the Web by 2020. Here’s what the current survey actually tells us to do:

“Considering the likely evolution of humans and technology in Internet communications networks, please select the ONE paragraph from each pair you think is most likely to happen and explain why you made the choice. You may struggle with most or all of the choices offered, and some may seem impossible to decide. Your choices and the explanations for them will illuminate important issues.”

And so we read further that “respondents’ written elaborations – the qualitative results – are the most valuable data gathered by the study.” Prescient, entertaining, brilliant, mad, obscure – a great read. Meanwhile, let us not forget the important qualifier about methodology. “Since the data are based on a non-random sample, a margin of error cannot be computed, and the results are not projectable to any population other than the experts in this sample.”

The 2011 survey: an example from multitasking teens

This year’s survey covered eight topics, compared to 10 the last time. Here’s the list, by title only (and not an incumbent ISP in sight for a change):

  1. Teens, technology, and human potential in 2020
  2. Higher education’s destination by 2020
  3. The future of money: What IS your “wallet”?
  4. Apps vs. Web: Winner?
  5. Influence of Big Data, Internet of Things in 2020
  6. Getting into the gamification?
  7. The fate of “Smart Systems”
  8. Corporate responsibility: Which road will be taken?

Image by Todd Roberts

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Teens, technology, and human potential in 2020

I’m going to move right along to the Q&A now. For today, I’ll blog out the exchange on that first topic: Teens, technology, and human potential in 2020. If you happened to see my mid-September post called Dumb things you can do with smartphones, you won’t be surprised to hear I had a lot to say about this. Here’s the setup:

[option #1] In 2020 the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are “wired” differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields helpful results. They do not suffer notable cognitive shortcomings as they multitask and cycle quickly through personal- and work-related tasks. Rather, they are learning more and they are more adept at finding answers to deep questions, in part because they can search effectively and access collective intelligence via the Internet. In sum, the changes in learning behavior and cognition among the young generally produce positive outcomes.

[option #2] In 2020, the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are “wired” differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields baleful results. They do not retain information; they spend most of their energy sharing short social messages, being entertained, and being distracted away from deep engagement with people and knowledge. They lack deep-thinking capabilities; they lack face-to-face social skills; they depend in unhealthy ways on the Internet and mobile devices to function. In sum, the changes in behavior and cognition among the young are generally negative outcomes.

PLEASE ELABORATE: Explain your choice about the impact of technology on children and youth and share your view of any implications for the future. What are the positives, negatives, and shades of grey in the likely future you anticipate? What intellectual and personal skills will be most highly valued in 2020?

And yes, I picked option #2. My elaboration:

“The idea that Millennials have a cognitive advantage over their elders is based on myths about multitasking, the skill-sets of digital natives and 24/7 connectedness. Far from having an edge in learning, I see Millennials as increasingly trapped by the imperatives of online socializing, and the opportunities offered by their smartphones to communicate from any place, any time. I can see this in the living experiment that takes place every week in the computer lab where I teach Internet technologies to 4th-year Communication Studies majors. Students everywhere have become relentless in their use of mobile devices for personal messaging in the midst of classes. Even good students delude themselves into thinking they can text friends continuously, while listening to a lecture and taking notes – and, in the process, retain information and participate in discussions. But good research has shown that even especially bright kids are less* productive when multitasking, a finding resisted by plenty of grown-ups as well.

“Our fondness for thinking positively about multitasking, especially among the young, gets a lot of reinforcement from two other assumptions: that Millennials have a special aptitude for digital media, because they’ve “grown up” digital; and that ubiquitous, seamless connectivity is a positive social force. The first assumption is baloney; the second is fraught with contextual problems. Of the hundreds of liberal arts students I’ve taught, not one in 10 has come into my class with the slightest clue about how their digital devices work, how they differ from analog devices, how big their hard drive is, what a Mbps measures. In other words, they’re just like people who haven’t “grown up” digital. And of course the immersive nature of 24/7 connectedness creates the illusion that Millennials can somehow tap into a form of collective intelligence just by being online, while looking impatiently for messages every three minutes.

“Last August, the British regulator Ofcom published its annual Communications Market report with the cover slogan “A nation addicted to smartphones” – a conclusion based on what respondents told Ofcom in a large consumer survey. I don’t think there’s anything inherently bad or anti-social about smartphones, laptops or any other technology. I do, however, believe we are entering an era in which young adults are placing an inordinately high priority on being unfailingly responsive and dedicated participants in the web of personal messaging that surrounds them in their daily lives. For now, it seems, addictive responses to peer pressure, boredom and social anxiety are playing a much bigger role in wiring Millennial brains than problem-solving or deep thinking.”

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Please check back over the next week or 2 for more from the survey. Btw, results will be released in early 2012.

D.E.