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Today, 90 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds sleep with their phones. Over a billion people are active Facebook users. Dating sites have more than tripled their number of users. The world we live in is becoming ever more consumed by technology, and there is no indication that the trend is about to slow down. But while experts tend to agree on how cyberspace will change in the future—becoming less obvious yet even more ingrained in our day-to-day lives—there is disagreement over how it will change us.
“It is striking how much consensus there is among these experts on what will change, and equally striking how varied their answers are when they are asked how those changes will impact and influence users in good and bad ways,” said Janna Anderson, co-author of the Imagining the Internet Project, a joint study conducted by the Pew Center and Elon University.
At the crest of the coming techno-tidal wave is the Internet of Things, which will bring objects, people, pets, and products online, giving way to a smart, automated planet that knows more about us than we do—and an augmented, virtual reality, which will lead society somewhere between Google Glass and The Matrix.
Some leading experts in technology have issued a dire warning about the future state of the Internet. In a widely circulated 2012 TED Talk, Sherry Turkle, an MIT psychologist who has spent years tracking human interaction online, gave a grim prognosis. By surrendering our lives to technology, Turkle argued, “we're letting it take us places that we don't want to go.” Where we used to be engaged, she argues, we are now distracted. Where there used to be conversation, there is now mere connection.
Turkle’s rallying call seems to be in direct contrast with the rosy enthusiasm about the future of tech projected by entrepreneurs such as Mark Zuckerberg, the 30-year-old founder of Facebook. Zuckerberg, who now promotes a vision of virtual reality as the future direction of computing, recently predicted that the next decade would see a shift from mobile technology to a “more natural” means of communicating and computing. Instead of shifting attention from our surroundings to the Internet with our phone as the portal, our surroundings become the Internet through a virtual reality headset.
The closest view yet of that virtual-reality future was at last month’s South by Southwest in Austin, where Zuckerberg’s much-heralded VR acquisition, Oculus, actually made headlines by saying it had nothing to announce—yet. Anticipation for a major breakthrough is that great. At the same SXSW there were some advances by others that suggested why. A 3D headset by Japan’s Fove uses eye-tracking software to let users interact with the environment just by looking at it, and another company showed off a four-axis, foot-operated joystick that simulates motion through space while keeping hands controller-free. Such innovations suggest how tempting it could be someday to imagine your life rather than living it.
Both Turkle and Zuckerberg would likely agree that, as we move toward an era dictated more by digital connections and less by real-life interactions, there is a need to overhaul the way we consider human behavior on- and-offline.
By eliminating boundaries and distances with the click of a mouse or tap of a finger, our chances of forming connections with strangers are now exponentially greater. And yet as many as 40 percent of adults report feeling lonely, up from 20 percent in the 1980s.
For Turkle, this is evidence for our increasing state of being “connected, but alone.” “Our fantasies of substitution have cost us,” she warns.
For Zuckerberg, however, the solution is clear, and it lies with improvements in the technology itself: “I think it's pretty easy to imagine that in the future we will have something that we can wear … And you'll just have context about what's going on in the world around you and being able to communicate with people and not have to disrupt your conversations by looking down or be interruptive.”
Last year, for the first time since the Imagining the Internet Project first began tracking user attitudes toward the future of the Internet, a majority of the people surveyed described as many potential negatives as they did positives.
And yet the study’s authors believe that it’s not too late: It’s up to us to mold the online world of tomorrow—and of ten years from now. “Foresight and accurate predictions can make a difference,” they conclude. “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
Next: How Fast is Technology Accelerating?