Pew Research Center

8. Closing thoughts – Pew Research Center

See our research on: Supreme Court | Social Media | COVID-19
See our research on: Supreme Court | Social Media | COVID-19
The following respondents wrote contributions that consider the range of issues societies confront.
David Bray, inaugural director of the Atlantic Council Geo Tech Center, wrote, “Across communities and nations we need to internally acknowledge the troubling events of history and of human nature and strive externally to be benevolent, bold and brave in finding ways wherever we can at the local level across organizations, sectors or communities to build bridges. The reason why is simple: we and future generations deserve such a world.
David Porush, writer, longtime professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and author of “The Soft Machine: Cybernetic Fiction,” said, “Instead of trying to regulate speech and truth beyond what’s already enshrined in the Constitution of the United States, including all its case law rulings, we should leverage the unique attributes and advantages of the digital commons both to unleash it for the common good and to help it evolve to a place that foments and inspires less evil (hatred, incitement to violence, mob formation and mobthink). What are those advantages? Its almost infinite and evolving power and flexibility for enabling ‘telepathy’; and its generation of human and material wealth. (Caveat: I live in Silicon Valley, which is a distorting bubble.) So, go another way instead of struggling with regulations and legislation that try to define fake news from true (think of the misguided premises at the bottom of that) or put corporations on the hook to regulate speech (I can’t imagine a corporation developing that interest or expertise in a manner that benefits the common good – it’s an oxymoron).
Srinivasan Ramani, Internet Hall of Fame member and pioneer of the internet in India, does not see much progress by 2035, writing, “The internet does not have mechanisms to prevent mischief. It is a dangerous place for the naive user. It keeps millions from taking advantage of its benefits because they hear about frauds and worse crimes and choose not to go online. Every civilized society has evolved mechanisms to control crimes on the road, like banditry. However, we continue to allow viruses, malware, ransomware, etc., on the internet.
“We treat phishing as a white-collar crime, but it ought to be treated as if it is as dangerous as armed robbery. Consider an analogy. No one allows you to fly a plane without stringent rules and regulations. Why should we not follow similar practices in allowing people to use the internet to avoid causing harm to others?
“I also think the internet is not robust enough to keep working through natural calamities to help us. We need it all the more during a calamity, but that is when it fails. Cellphone towers run out of fuel, or a tornado can take them out, and there is not enough redundancy to provide continued working after the loss of a tower in a locality. Internet cables in some global locations are sometimes swinging dangerously between buildings. A hurricane can bring them down. The predecessor to the internet was sold to the government on the promise that it would work even after a nuclear attack, but the internet today needs much less than a nuclear attack to let you down. The internet is not safe for young students; it has bullies, criminals, corruptors and drug peddlers on it. We have not made available mechanisms to give vulnerable users a safe haven on the web. But, after all of this, I think we can make progress toward solving these problems. I am enough of an optimist to believe we will.”
I imagine an internet that functions more as a public utility, with true democratic multi-stakeholder participation in its governance.
Wendell Wallach, senior fellow with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, commented, “I imagine an internet that functions more as a public utility, with true democratic multi-stakeholder participation in its governance. It would be best if there was a leading not-for-profit platform, but this raises the challenge of how such a platform would be funded, be innovative, and therefore a worthy competitor to the for-profit platforms. Unfortunately, we will probably witness the problems posed by digital life handled very different from country to country, with more authoritarian governments building robust forms of surveillance. The EU is trying to take the lead toward enacting ethical constraints. The picture in the U.S. is worse as it defaults to corporate self-governance, which has been totally ineffective. At the moment I am less than hopeful that present proposals in the U.S. to enact meaningful constraints on the digital oligopoly will succeed.”
Garth Graham, longtime communications policy activist with Telecommunities Canada, said, “The environmental movement is experiencing a shift in attitudes away from governance as closed systems of top-down external control and toward ecologies or open systems of distributed control. We are learning that we are not separate from the systems we inhabit, and that our attitude that we can manage them as external agents is largely useless. What can this mean in terms of digital space? It can mean a shift to understanding that distributed systems are local and that the social structure of distributed systems is community.
“Community can emerge whenever groups of autonomous individuals ask themselves, ‘At this moment, what can we do to work and learn together?’ What the individuals in those groups have in common is a need to learn their way forward. That need can occur in social circumstances whether the primary motivation driving integration is private profit or public good. A ‘society’ based on the autonomous right of the individual to act in the context of community (that is to say – to commit to action or ‘to connect’) is not one that is necessarily structured around the existing concepts of commercial, governance and civil sectors.
“Community is about integrative social relationships, as well as locality. Any social network that is characterized by high degrees of self-organizing interdependence is behaving as a community. As social networks, communities are primarily concerned with reciprocity or mutuality in addressing common objectives and needs. The rules that pattern the behaviors of a community relate directly to the immediate circumstances of its relationships to the ecology of mind that it inhabits.
“Community is nothing more than an agreed set of rules for behaving consistently in resolving problems of daily life that are located in a common set of circumstances. If those circumstances are related to the performance of a set of tasks, then the rules that cause self-organizing action to address those tasks are commonly referred to as practices. There is an energy to be found in community that is attractive.”
Fernando Barrio, a senior lecturer in law and business at Queen Mary University of London, wrote, “An improved digital realm would be one:
Ebenezer Baldwin Bowles, an advocate and activist, wrote, “2035. New and improved? Fourteen years from now I can see 3D printed houses and furnishings for the homeless. Compassionate avatars to guide the confused or hapless through the maze of digital applications for healing goods and services. Holograms on-demand to soothe loneliness and listlessness. The union of silicon and carbon to repair damaged physique and psyche. I offer this scenario: In 2035 digital life devolves into fragmented subcultures. From the top, reaching outward and downward in all directions, public arms enclose and squeeze the populous. The embrace is cold, indifferent. The Everyman is nudged into a perpetual maze of circular requirement. And confusion. And punishment. Citizens become more and more entangled in a digital web of misdirection. Malicious overreach by the Collective A-nom-o-nym pitches citizenry into a benumbed state of resigned passivity. A fear. A calculated mess. Tech leaders, unable to contain rampant digital consciousness – their Web is now beyond any one or any group’s understanding – shuffle Bitcoins back-and-forth in a cynical dance of accumulation. Besotted by grandiose delusion, they retreat into cocoons of material wealth and fragile isolation. On the outskirts, gathered in Alt Collectives, creative AI-Luddites withdraw from the norm to craft insulated digital cells, weaving together hope and rebellion into a far-flung but determined community. Without a recognizable center, strung out on the margins, they contrive to discover ways to overcome fragmentation. ‘Be mindful,’ they chant.”
Alan S. Inouye, director of the Office for Information Technology Policy at the American Library Association, responded, “We need a broad reconceptualization of public interest and service organizations, not just focusing on digital space per se, but on their full missions and the means to address these missions, both in the physical and digital worlds. Of course, there is no practical way to do this, and so we will continue an evolution in the years to come. Just as with newspapers beginning a decade ago, and now underway with liberal arts colleges, this evolution will be challenging for many sectors – and likely quite messy, with blood on the floor. Perhaps the best we can do is to try, as much as possible, to keep our eye on achieving the missions of these institutions, not how to optimize digital space by itself. Most public-interest and service organizations were designed for the analog (physical) world, not digital space. Institutions such as schools, universities, libraries, churches and many others were designed and established many decades ago, if not centuries ago. Then with the advent of digital space in the last several decades, that space was overlaid on top of these long-time physical institutions. And many of these physical institutions are quintessentially local (think public libraries), not initially designed to connect horizontally very much (in contrast to the internet/web). Given how institutions evolve, this state of affairs is not surprising. Nevertheless, it means that these institutions are not well situated or architected for an increasingly digital world.”
A former executive at a national funding initiative commented, “The thermodynamics of the present trends are truly awful, even if one considers both ‘bad guys’ and ‘countervailing agents.’ It adds up to a Nash equilibrium (there is no incentive to deviate from the initial strategy), similar to what led to so many species’ extinctions in the past when niches changed this much. (See Robert May’s ‘Stability and Complexity in Model Ecosystems.’) Having funded the key guy who led to Facebook’s new AI, and having seen their recent plans, I am evermore worried. The only way out would be a higher level of consciousness, focus and design intelligence, which is possible but is an uphill struggle at best. These issues are so much easier for people with normal backgrounds to understand than climate change is, and our failure to network enough to save our lives on that one. … Well, it is irrational to give up, but even less rational to feel secure right now.”
Gus Hosein, executive director of Privacy International, commented, “In 2035 we will still try to create a sense of shared space perhaps through constantly-on connections with others, e.g., families and friends having ephemeral and constant sharing of spaces. I do think the creation of communities of mind will continue to develop at the rate they have been within the current-platform internet. There will be political groups, extreme and not; communities promoting change, progressive and conservative; religious groups, new and old; all the diversity of the world. They will be harder to escape and avoid and they will get deeper into our identities. Physical-world fragmentation could very well continue as a result. Not all of this is bad. People have found new ways to learn and practice over digital exchanges (e.g., language, exercise, meditation, new skills). But isolation will be harder to navigate; it will be exacerbated and undermining. We will become lonely and uncertain how to connect or whether we can.”
This complex problem has political as well as technological aspects, thus any satisfactory solution could only be achieved in a combination of political and technological problem-solving methods.
Wolfgang Bibel, artificial intelligence pioneer and professor emeritus at Darmstadt University of Technology, commented, “The issues you are raising [about the future of digital spaces and their role in democracy] are of extreme importance for the future of our states. This complex problem has political as well as technological aspects, thus any satisfactory solution could only be achieved in a combination of political and technological problem-solving methods (the latter ones having demonstrated their extremely successful solution-generating power in the past decades). Current practice and habits prevent such a combination. Political scientists – and politicians at that – know little or even nothing about technological methods in any detail while IT scientists know little or nothing about political goals, constraints and virtues to be taken into account for such a solution. It is this gulf separating two different worlds in our societies which has led to the deplorable aspects experienced with digital spaces. Community forums may be seen as a very beginning, but certainly not more than that. Bridges over such wide gulfs need a much deeper methodological basis. Its establishment is hard work. Let us start working on building solid bridges between these different worlds in order eventually to arrive at satisfactory solutions to the observed problems. As people dislike any changes in fundamental structures such as those entrenching the separation of those different worlds, it is an open question whether those bridges will eventually be established by 2035 or not. Of course, I am not claiming that just building bridges is all that is needed to improve the current situation in digital spaces. The frustration indicated in the described scenario is one of the phenomena in our societies which need also to be addressed, independently and in quite a different manner.”
Charles Ess, emeritus professor in the department of media and communication at the University of Oslo, said, “My 2035 ideal would begin with the reiterated sense of our identity and selfhood as relational autonomies. We will have rights to conscientious objection, dissent, freedom of expression and so on as members of thriving social-democratic societies and thereby we have a sense of positive freedom resting on our thorough interdependence upon one another and the larger, ‘more than human’ webs of social and ecological relationships. Much of the ‘green shift’ will be accomplished and critical progress will be made in repairing and restoring the ecosystems we have plundered with such catastrophic results over the past two centuries. This will entail high levels of equality – starting with income and gender equalities – that are further accompanied by very high levels of trust in our sister and fellow citizens as well as in our education, health care, political institutions and our diverse media institutions, starting with strong public-service media. In this cultural/social/political/ecological environment – in these large contexts – internet-facilitated communication of all sorts will have been established as public goods at national and international levels within Scandinavia and the EU. This means gaining funding for new infrastructures and support for democratically determined forms of education and regulation.
“Education must go far beyond the generic sorts of ‘digital literacy’ that tend to focus on basic how-to’s of digital technologies. A robust and democratically/humanistically-oriented digital education includes attention to digital media alongside other media that remain centrally important. Diverse media technologies entail diverse affordances, styles and capacities for thought and expression and so forth. This education would begin with a thorough examination of the role of freedom of expression in service to democratic societies, norms, processes and so on. This would include an understanding of the classic limits to freedom of expression – i.e., its forms, such as hate speech, defamation, and any speech that does not contribute to open and informed democratic debate and deliberation. Such well-educated citizens could largely be trusted to recognize and respect the boundaries between democratically oriented freedom of expression and merely destructive speech, and thereby have a better sense of how to engage more fruitfully in democratic deliberation.
“There will be reporting of and sanctions for the occasional scoundrel, neo-Nazi propagandist, etc., who intentionally steps over these lines (which, of course, are constantly under negotiation and contest). Both informal and formal forms of reporting and, if need be, sanctioning would be ordered (e.g., fines and, worst-case, in sentencing to genuinely rehabilitative facilities such as those that currently operate in Norway and the surrounds).
“These sorts of communicative environments would help us realize the best possibilities of these communication technologies, much as was hoped for in the early days of the internet and computer-mediated communication. Those early utopian visions of the internet have taken a beating over the last decade and more in the contexts of an ever-growing digital authoritarianism, surveillance capitalism, the dark web, etc. My experiences over the last decade in Scandinavia, however, tell me that positive digital environments remain real possibilities, given the needed conditions. However, if only relatively niche domains such as these are established, an open question remains as to how these internets or social media as ‘public goods’ would relate to the digital realms of the larger world, as shaped and defined far more by digital authoritarianism and/or surveillance capitalism. But I can hope and, perhaps trust, that the sorts of informed, capable, equal and engaged democratic participants I envision as participating in such social/public spaces will thereby be as well-equipped as anyone to tackle such issues, among others, in responsible and democratically-viable ways.”
Mark Davis, associate professor of media and communications at the University of Melbourne, wrote, “Despite all of its emerging downsides, the internet remains a wonderful canvas. With a deadline of 2035, we could easily remake that canvas. But first a conversation has to be had about the offline world. Yes, different groups have different values, but what commonly held standards do we share as a planetary community of shared destiny, public accountability and empirical verifiability, and how do we then (re)build a digital network infrastructure that reflects and supports those standards? Specific solutions involve nationally-based regulatory frameworks that encourage investment, innovation, commercial and civic diversity and freedom of expression in the context of a renewed adherence to agreed standards of public good. International charters of online governance might do similar work at supranational level. Is the internet a failed social experiment or an opportunity? One way of thinking about this is to suggest that we have just about reached digital rock bottom. The rapid spread of COVID-19 disinformation, the hijacking of digital political conversation by international hacker groups, the online coming together of hate groups from white supremacists to QAnon conspiracy theorists that led to the invasion of the U.S. Capitol in 2021, the millions of dollars spent by fossil fuel companies to support online anti-science disinformation on global warming, the division of the world into digital haves and have nots, the subjugation of entire populations to facial recognition and other surveillance technologies, combined with the ever-growing wealth of tech companies who profit from all this, suggest a system that is deeply broken. Whatever mechanisms are used, we need to work collectively to reimagine digital networks as a genuinely useful infrastructure for creative global connectedness and the fostering of hope.”
Andrea Romaoli, an international lawyer expert in AI and a leader of the United Nations Global Compact, responded, “Digital life offers high potential to help the world recover from pandemic damages. The way it should be accomplished is through transformational governance, a resilient and sustainable process that emphasizes the one sovereignty that matters, which is the sovereignty of human rights in all spheres, including technology. As a way to strengthen the UN SDG 16.4 for peace, justice and strong institutions, there must be improved working relationships with national police authorities, judicial institutions and investigative units through collaboration. Actions can be taken to empower women globally by teaching them how to manage nongovernmental organizations that work along with governments to promote humanitarian goals and more-effective laws to protect refugees, women and children. Leadership by women is not optional. Leadership by women is a matter of survival for the planet. Sustainability depends on the care and assertive vision of women: halting violence, preserving natural resources, ensuring equality among human beings and loving the future generations and working to guarantee the only sovereignty that matters – the sovereignty of life. Sustainable actions contribute to the resilience of business strategies and to the life of the planet.”
Grace Wambura, media relations associate at DotConnectAfrica, based in Nairobi, said, “I imagine living in Shared Planetary Life Spaces where our digital life will always be on, a world where individuals are in control. The best knowledge, tools, resources and opportunities to succeed could be accessed freely. And, using a universal interface, everyone could run their entire Expandiverse from everywhere.”
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