SURVEY Experts anticipate attack on Internet
Predictions include computers' continued expansion into education, family and work.
RALEIGH NEWS & amp; OBSERVER
Zoom ahead to 2014, and here's what you might expect: computer devices embedded in your clothes, refrigerator, car and phone that transmit details about your life to vast databases available to government and corporate snoops.
Technological advances will be stunning, yet we could experience a devastating cyber-attack and may not feel comfortable enough to vote online.
Those are some of the predictions made by nearly 1,300 technology experts surveyed recently by Elon University and the Pew Internet & amp; American Life Project.
Participants were asked to describe the Internet in 10 years. Their forecast paints a picture of a networked, digital future that will both simplify and complicate our lives.
Among the prognostications:
UTwo-thirds say there will be a devastating attack on the nation's power grid or information networks, an attack that could bring society to a standstill.
U57 percent expect more virtual classrooms, with students grouped by skill and interest rather than age and location.
U56 percent predict changes in family dynamics and blurred lines between work and leisure time.
U54 percent foresee a burst in creativity, with people collaborating online in music, art and literature.
Elon researcher Janna Anderson said the predictions illustrate people's conflicting desires about technology in their lives.
"We want all the information, but we don't want to be stressed and inundated," said Anderson, assistant professor of communications. "We want total security and complete privacy."
The challenge for the next 10 years will be to seek a balance between those largely incompatible values, she said.
The experts predict the greatest amount of change for news and publishing organizations and the least amount of change to religious institutions. They also envision large-scale shifts in the realms of education and health care, which they say have been slow to adopt technology thus far.
The project is a follow-up to Anderson's database of 4,000 early-1990s predictions made by techies, who accurately foretold the coming information explosion.
The recent survey went to leaders in the computer industry, universities and government agencies. Respondents included people from IBM, Microsoft, Intel, Google, Internet2, the FBI, the U.S. Census Bureau, the Federal Communications Commission, Harvard and Yale universities, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In some ways, participants said, the Internet has already redefined family and work relationships. Employees are tied to their offices by e-mail around the clock. People gnash their teeth when their spouse spends too much weekend time on the Blackberry. Parents can't get their adult children to respond to phone messages, but e-mail is answered almost instantaneously.
People are addicted to the Internet's conveniences, yet they complain about its nuisances -- the constant flow of spam. Experts continue to worry about problems such as identity theft and the digital divide between haves and have-nots.
The Internet is just like the real world, says Esther Dyson, a survey respondent and editor of Release 1.0, an information technology newsletter.
"There are good people out there, and there are bad people out there," she said. "You can use [the Internet] to give money to tsunami victims. You can use it to get rich quick. You can stay in better touch with your family, or you can use it to avoid people by going into your room and e-mailing. It can help pedophiles find each other. It can help women suffering from breast cancer to form support groups."
The biggest challenge 10 years ago was how to find information on the Internet, Dyson said. Now the challenge is how to better filter the avalanche of data.
The survey shows disagreement about whether the Internet will lead to better civic engagement; to streamlined, cheaper health care; or to the development of more zealot groups.
Perhaps the survey's most disturbing conclusion is the expectation of a major attack on the network. As our dependence on the Internet has grown, so has our vulnerability, experts say. Hackers and viruses have already caused big trouble for Internet users.
An ex-CIA chief recently warned that the Internet is a prime target for terrorists who want to disrupt commerce. Some respondents suggested such an attack would be costly and devastating, but others concluded it would more likely be a temporary inconvenience.