Is our digital future a dystopian nightmare in which Skynet is running the show, or will technological innovation usher in an era of peace and prosperity? By 2025, according to predictions from 2,558 experts and technologists who responded to a survey from the Pew Research Center's Internet Project, the reality is likely to be somewhere in between.
The biggest prediction from the responses is that a decade from now the Internet will be as ubiquitous as electricity—we won't even notice it's there—and sharing information through wearable devices will become the norm. Fortunately, most experts surveyed believe the result of this connectivity will be positive.
Joe Touch, the director of the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute, is optimistic about 2025. For one thing, we'll stop seeing the Web as a place to dig up cat videos. "We won't think about 'going online' or 'looking on the Internet' for something," wrote Touch. "We'll just be online, and just look." For cat videos.
We can already video chat with friends around the world for free, but in the next 10 years we should expect the ever-present Internet to further facilitate a sense of global collaboration and unity.
That could give democracy a boost too.
Just as we watched social media catalyze Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, we can expect to see more social uprisings as people demand an end to the injustices they see around them. And, similar to the way television helped bring about the end of Jim Crow by showing the world horrific footage of civil rights protesters being hosed, beaten, and attacked by dogs, greater global connection will make it impossible for the rest of the world to ignore massive disparities and social problems.
Of course, not every expert's predictions about what our connected world will bring are rosy. The downside? The experts warn that "abuses and abusers" will have an even larger playground.
You think bullying and stalking is bad now? Target's massive holiday season data breach? That'll look like child's play compared with what could happen in 2025.
"Cyber-terrorism will become commonplace," predicted Llewellyn Kriel, the CEO and editor in chief of TopEditor International Media Services. "Privacy and confidentiality of any and all personal [information] 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," he added.
Indeed, John Markoff, senior writer for the Science section of the New York Times, posed an absolutely terrifying scenario in his survey response.
"What happens the first time you answer the phone and hear from your mother or a close friend, but it's actually not, and instead, it's a piece of malware that is designed to social engineer you?" wrote Markoff.
The effect of this will be harsher crackdowns on our civil liberties by governments and corporations—and it’ll all happen in the name of "security." The kind of political and social control governments will exert in 2025 could make the global surveillance operations that Edward Snowden blew the whistle on seem like blips on our freedom radar.
As chilling as that sounds, a number of respondents noted we'll end up with the technological future we lay the groundwork for today. Gaming researcher and educator Marc Prensky, who invented the term "digital native" in 2001, might have the wisest advice of all. "The biggest impact will come from something we don't currently foresee. Stay alert!" Prensky warned.