Experts See Internet Curbing Institutional Inefficiencies

Continuing their ambitious survey work peering into the future of the Internet, researchers from the Pew Internet Project and Elon University canvassed nearly 900 digital soothsayers, who overwhelmingly expressed the hopeful belief that in 10 years new forms of online collaboration will substantially reduce inefficiencies in government, business, and other organizations.

Seventy-two percent (72%) of respondents inThe Impact of the Internet on Institutions in the Future survey agreed with the assertion that the uptake of new, Internet-enabled communications would make institutions far more responsive to their customers and constituents.

“Most people who took the survey believe the Internet will force change in institutions, no matter how resistant they are,” Janna Anderson, co-author of the study and director of Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center, said in a statement.

But just over a quarter of the Internet experts polled said 2020 was too optimistic; that a decade from now most institutions will remain tied to “20th century models for conduct and relationships with consumers and citizens online and offline.”

The naysayers of the bunch argued that institutions, as a class, are by definition resistant to change, so a decade, which seems like an eon in Internet time, won’t be enough time for broad, noticeable change of the sort that will overturn business and government interactions in a meaningful way. Across the board, respondents tended to agree with the assertion that businesses will warm up to change more quickly than government and non-profit agencies.

“Many said there is too much pressure from the public in today’s age of collective intelligence and transparency for institutions to be able to continue to cling to 20th century forms,” Anderson said. “However some people shared concerns that entrenched institutions will find ways to maintain the status quo or to exercise new controls.”

Pew and Elon have teamed on the biennial Future of the Internet project since 2004. They released the first portion of the 2010 results in February, and plan two more phases to round out the 2010 survey later this year.

In the surveys, researchers cast a wide net looking for respondents, calling on leading tech executives, analysts, academics attorneys and others to peer into the future and answer the big questions. In an effort to elicit thoughtful written responses, the researchers present the surveys in what they describe as “tension pairs,” asking respondents to cast their lot in with one of two opposing statements. In the case of the question regarding the Internet’s impact on institutions, respondents were asked which of the following two scenarios is more likely:

“By 2020, innovative forms of online cooperation will result in significantly more efficient and responsive governments, business, non‐profits, and other mainstream institutions.”

Or, conversely:

“By 2020, governments, businesses, non‐profits and other mainstream institutions will primarily retain familiar 20th century models for conduct of relationships with citizens and consumers online and offline.”

Peter Norvig, Google’s research director, offered an argument typical of the Internet optimists.

“It has already started, and other institutions will be forced to offer similar features to keep up,” Norvig said, issuing his response on the eve of Google’s announcement about its new, tougher stance on China. “The remaining battlefield will be in countries with repressive, controlling regimes: will they open up to compete with freer countries, or clamp down in an attempt to prevent their citizens from seeing what is going on elsewhere?”

Less optimistic was Susan Crawford, a former top tech advisor to President Obama who at the time of the survey had only recently left the White House for a professorship at the University of Michigan. Her disillusionment with the mechanisms of government was evident.

“Having just spent some time in government, I’m less optimistic about the possibilities for change than I used to be,” she wrote. “It takes a very long time for entrenched interests to be open to paradigm shifts, and I’m afraid to say that our era is one of great entrenchment — at least in government. No matter how much information is online and available, there will still in 2020 be some small circle of men who will be hanging on to all the levers. For years to come, they’ll give lip service to openness (and they will commit to better customer service), but they won’t actually change their ways. Ask me again in 2020.”

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at, the news service of, the network for technology professionals.