Pew's Future of the Internet IV: Google Will Not Make Us Stupid

6 minute read
Barb Mosher Zinck avatar

The fourth "Future of the Internet" survey is now available from the PEW Internet and American Life Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center. In this latest survey we find that Google will not make us stupid. In fact, our reading, writing and knowledge sharing capabilities will be improved. But that's only the beginning.

Quick Notes -- The Process

The Future of the Internet survey and resulting paper is part of a Pew Research Center series. It takes a look at current attitudes regarding the future of the Internet. The survey is conducted online -- 895 respondents this time around -- with technology stakeholders and critics alike. The survey was conducted from December 2, 2009 to January 11, 2010

The intent of the survey is to find overall expectations "of social, political and economic change by 2020". This was done by providing 10 tension pairs. Each pair was made up of two different scenarios of how things would be in 2020, both with a common theme, but different outcome. The respondent had to select one scenario

Survey participants were informed that “it is likely you will struggle with most or all of the choices and some may be impossible to decide; but we hope that will inspire you to write responses that will explain your answer and illuminate important issues.”

To understand more about how the questionnaire was developed, who was chosen to participate and how the results were analyzed, you should read the report.

Interesting Points

Google Will Not Make Us Stupid

The first scenario in the survey focused on a question Nicholas Carr wrote about in the Atlantic: does Google make us stupid by 2020? The majority responded with no, but then you are talking to Internet focused people. Why would they answer any other way?

A comment from respondent Hal Varian, a chief economist at Google,

"Google will make us more informed. The smartest person in the world could well be behind a plow in China or India. Providing universal access to information will allow such people to realize their full potential, providing benefits to the entire world.”

What most are saying in the supplied comments is that Google, and the Internet in general, takes over our need to memorize information because it's so readily accessible. In turn, we have more time to analyze and evaluate, create or innovate. Seems a good trade-off, don't you think?

Of course, it's not quite as simple as that, which many point out in the survey. Information is not all the same.

“The challenge is in separating that wheat from the chaff, as it always has been with any other source of mass information, which has been the case all the way back to ancient institutions like libraries. Those users (of Google, cable TV, or libraries) who can do so efficiently will beat the odds, becoming ‘smarter’ and making better choices. However, the unfortunately majority will continue to remain, as Carr says, stupid.” – Christopher Saunders, managing editor internetnews.com

The Internet Will Enhance our Reading, Writing and Rendering of Knowledge

Of the 895 responses, 65% believe that by 2020, the Internet will have enhanced and improved our ability to read, write and share knowledge.

“We will redefine what we mean by reading, writing, and the rendering of knowledge. Writing may be making videos. Reading may be parsing data or constructing better queries. How we teach the skills of acquiring, analyzing, and sharing information will have to change.” – Jeff Jarvis, prominent blogger, professor, City University of NewYork Graduate School of Journalism.

Will We Anticipate the "hot" Gadget and Apps for 2020

The answer here is no, that most will come "out of the blue".  The rapid changes in technology are part of the reason we can't see what's coming. There are some trends, like mobile connectivity and location-based services, and a whole list of other "hot" items, but there's no real way to be sure. There are however, some interesting suggestions by respondents.

Learning Opportunities

“Trends and patterns that we will continue to see – swings between centralization and decentralization, openness and walled gardens, increasing growth of mobile and local information, search and aggregation – but we have no idea what the major gadgets and applications of 2020 will be. Most of the top websites of 10 years ago are no longer in the top 10 ‐ and we never would have imagined many of the hot gadgets available today in 1999.” – David Sifry, CEO of Offbeat Guides, co‐founder of Technorati.

Will the Internet Still be Dominated by the End-to-End Principle

61% agreed that the Internet will still be open by 2020:

There is too much good history and good experience with the end‐to‐end internet to see it largely overturned. Openness has its own virtues and those who resist it will fall behind those who enable it. Users will rise up if there are too many restrictions that get in the way of the information they want and the content they want to create.

Some do point to more control -- whether they like it or not -- as many governments and businesses are having a greater stake in what is happening online than ever before. Others point to a hybrid environment, suggesting that information will continue to freely flow, but the infrastructure may need more support.

The Future of Anonymity Online

The responses to this scenario set  are much closer. 41% believe that anonymous online activity will be "sharply curtailed", while 55% believe we will still be able to"create, communicate and browse" without having to reveal our identity.

“The question confounds “authentication” with “identification”. There are few market forces that would increase formal authentication of user identity. But even though Internet users may retain the perception that they are anonymous (and other users may not know who they are) advertising‐funded service providers have enormous motivation to identify users, and are rapidly instituting monitoring capabilities everywhere.” – Larry Masinter, Principal Scientist and standards advocate, Adobe Systems.

Chris Marriott, VP interactive marketing services, Acxiom Corporation thinks Semantic Web technologies will help improve privacy, saying "a more intelligent Semantic Web will understand the sensitive nature of that information [your personal information] and work to protect it."

Find Out More

There are a couple of ways to find out more about this survey:

Note the report did not go into detail on all 10 tension pairs, explore the survey questions online if you want to see them all.

As I spend more and more of my day online, searching Google and writing about interesting news and trends, I am happy in the knowledge that it all makes me smarter. How about you?