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Many Web experts believe that as the Internet spreads globally, its impact on people's lives will spawn a new group of terrorists who commit violent acts against technology, a new survey shows.
While some people turn to violence, others will quietly stay off the grid to seek peace and solace from information overload, experts agreed in a study released this week by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
The Pew report, called "The Future of the Internet II," was based on a survey of 742 Internet leaders, activists, builders and commentators. The experts were asked whether the agreed or disagreed with seven possible scenarios for 2020 stemming from the evolution of the Internet.
Fully 58 percent of the respondents agreed that a new cultural group of technology "refuseniks" would form in protest. Some would peacefully segregate themselves from modern society, while others would "commit acts of terror or violence in protest against technology."
"Random acts of senseless violence and destruction will continue and expand due to a feeling of 21st century anomie, and an increasing sense of lack of individual control," Martin Kwapinski of FirstGov, the U.S. government's official Web portal, said in his response to the survey.
Beyond the terrorism question, Pew, which conducted the survey in partnership with Elon University, found an underlying concern among the respondents that governments and corporations building closed networks on the Web for political and commercial purposes, respectively, were among the biggest threats to the global network building a world of collaboration and understanding.
"People expressed a deep concern with the political and corporate struggle over the architecture of the Internet," Janna Quitney Anderson, director of Internet projects at Elon, said Wednesday. "People were worried that the power struggle would take away the free spirit envisioned by the Internet's founders."
The survey found the majority of respondents, 56 percent, agreeing that by 2020, worldwide network interoperability would be perfected, bringing smooth data flow, authentication and billing; and mobile wireless communications to anyone anywhere on the globe at a very low cost.
The same percentage of respondents agreed that virtual reality would enable more productivity among people in technologically savvy communities than the real world. Society, however, would also have to deal with the serious addiction problems some people would develop to the alternate reality in cyberspace.
Fully 52 percent of the respondents agreed that by 2020 the free flow of information would blur current national boundaries. In their place would form city-states, corporation-based cultural groupings, and/or geographically diverse and reconfigured human organizations tied together by global networks.
Among the scenarios the majority of respondents, 57 percent, disagreed with was that English would become so indispensable in Web communications that it would displace other languages. Instead, the experts believed that languages such as Chinese Mandarin would expand their influence online, and the Internet would help preserve languages and associated cultures.
Fully 54 percent of the respondents disagreed with the scenario that some key activities, such as surveillance, security and tracking systems, would become so automated that they would no longer be under human control, generating dangers and dependencies that won't be recognized until its too late to reverse them. Instead, most respondents believed people would remain in charge of technology between now and 2020.
"Automation, including through autonomous agents, will help boost standards of living, freeing us from drudgery," Rob Atkinson of the Progressive Policy Institute said in his response.
Experts were about evenly split on the scenario that people's public and private lives would become more transparent as the Internet evolves, but the benefits of this decrease in privacy would outweigh the costs. A near equal percentage of respondents believed the costs would be greater than the benefits.
In writing the scenarios, Pew and Elon researchers read projections for Internet from a variety of think tanks, such as the Rand Corp., and public policy insitutions. Elon has posted on its site many of the opinions of the survey's respondents, as well as other information.