Fifty years after the first computer network was connected, most experts say digital life will mostly change humans’ existence for the better over the next 50 years. However, they warn this will happen only if people embrace reforms allowing better cooperation, security, basic rights and economic fairness

The year 1969 was a pivot point in culture, science and technology. On Jan. 30, the Beatles played their last show. On July 20, the world watched in awe as Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin become the first humans to walk on the moon. Less than a month later, nearly half a million music fans overran a muddy field near Woodstock, New York, for what Rolling Stone calls the “greatest rock festival ever.”

But the 1969 event that had the greatest global impact on future generations occurred with little fanfare on Oct. 29, when a team of UCLA graduate students led by professor Leonard Kleinrock connected computer-to-computer with a team at the Stanford Research Institute. It was the first host-to-host communication of ARPANET, the early packet-switching network that was the precursor to today’s multibillion-host internet.

Heading into the network’s 50th anniversary, Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center asked hundreds of technology experts, including Kleinrock and fellow internet pioneers, how individuals’ lives might be affected by the evolution of the internet over the next 50 years. Overall, 530 technology pioneers, innovators, developers, business and policy leaders, researchers and activists in the nonscientific canvassing responded to this query:

The year 2019 will mark the 50th anniversary of the first host-to-host internet connection. Please think about the next 50 years. Where will the internet and digital life be a half century from now? Please tell us how you think connected technology, platforms and applications will be integrated into people’s lives. You can tackle any dimension of this question that matters to you. You might consider focusing on questions like this: What changes do you expect to see in the digital world’s platform companies? What changes do you expect to see in the apps and features that will ride on the internet? How will digital tools be integrated into everyday life? What will be entirely new? What will evolve and be recognizable from today’s internet? What new rules, laws or innovations in its engineering over the intervening years will change the character of today’s internet?

Considering what you just wrote about your expectations for the next 50 years, how will individuals’ lives be affected by the changes you foresee?

Some 72% of these respondents say there would be change for the better, 25% say there would be change for the worse and 3% believe there would be no significant change.

This is a non-scientific canvassing based on a non-random sample. Thus, the results are not projectable to any population other than the individuals expressing their points of view in this sample. The respondents’ remarks reflect their personal positions and are not the positions of their employers.

The optimists responding to the better-worse-no change question expressed hope that in the next 50 years digital advances will lead to longer lifespans, greater leisure, more equitable distributions of wealth and power and other possibilities to enhance human well-being. At the same time, nearly all of these experts’ written predictions included warnings about the possibilities of greater surveillance and data-abuse practices by corporations and governments, porous security for digitally connected systems and the prospect of greater economic inequality and digital divides unless policy solutions push societies in different directions.

In short, these experts argue the future is up for grabs and some argue key decisions need to be made soon. The main themes in these hundreds of experts’ comments are outlined in this table.

Themes about the next 50 years of life online

CREATING A FAIR AND EQUITABLE DIGITAL FUTURE Humanity’s responsibility Digital life will continue to be what people make of it. For a better future, humans must make responsible decisions about their partnership with technology.
  Public policy and regulation The age of a mostly unregulated internet will come to an end. Elected officials and technology leaders will move ahead with regulatory frameworks aimed at protecting the public good. The lawless alternative has caused dangerous disruptions across society.
  Internet of everything In 50 years, internet use will be nearly as pervasive and necessary as oxygen. Seamless connectivity will be the norm, and it may be impossible to unplug.
  Visions of the future From amazing advancements to dystopian developments, experts imagine a wide array of possible scenarios for the world 50 years in the future.
OF 2069
Living longer and feeling better Internet-enabled technology will help people live longer and healthier lives. Scientific advances will continue to blur the line between human and machine.
  Less work, more leisure Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools will take over repetitive, unsafe and physically taxing labor, leaving humans with more time for leisure.
  Individualized experiences Digital life will be tailored to each user.
  Collaboration and community A fully networked world will enhance opportunities for global collaboration, cooperation and community development, unhindered by distance, language or time.
  Power by the people Expanded internet access could lead to further disruption of existing social and political power structures, potentially reducing inequality and empowering individuals.
OF 2069
Widening divides The divide between haves and have-nots will grow as a privileged few hoard the economic, health and educational benefits of digital expansion.
  Internet-enabled oppression A powerful elite will control the internet and use it to monitor and manipulate, while providing entertainment that keeps the masses distracted and complacent.
  Connected and alone The hyperconnected future will be populated by isolated users unable to form and maintain unmediated human relationships.
  The end of privacy Personal privacy will be an archaic, outdated concept, as humans willingly trade discretion for improved healthcare, entertainment opportunities and promises of security.
  Misallocated trust Digital life lays you bare. It can inspire a loss of trust, often earns too much trust and regularly requires that you take the plunge even though you have absolutely no trust.
  “There is no
planet B”
The future of humanity is inextricably connected to the future of the natural world. Without drastic measures to reduce environmental degradation, the very existence of human life in 50 years is in question.


Among the experts making the case that choices made now could affect whether the future turns out well or not was Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy and author of “Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future.” He wrote, “I don’t think the right framing is ‘will the outcome be good, or bad?’ but rather it must be ‘how will we shape the outcome, which is currently indeterminate?’ I’m hopeful that we will make the right choices, but only if we realize that the good outcomes are not at all inevitable.”

Others echoed this point. David Bray, executive director for the People-Centered Internet coalition, commented, “There will be a series of disruptions to our current way of living and whether we, as humans, navigate them successfully for the benefit of all or, unfortunately, just a few, remains to be seen…. What we are seeing is an increasing affordability and availability of technologies that only were available to large nation-states 20 years ago. The commercial sector now outpaces the technology development of nation-states, which means groups can have advanced disruptive technologies that can be used for good or bad [and] that can massively impact global events. This trend will continue and will challenge the absorptive capacity of societies to keep up with such technology developments. No longer do we have five to 10 years to assess the impact of a technology and then incorporate norms, laws, etc. Now we have to operate on a six-month or three-month time horizon which, when combined with the media’s tendency to dramatically oversimplify news and reduce complications in narratives about what is occurring, risks oversimplifying for the public the issues at hand, polarizing different groups and creating an ever-increasing number of ‘wedge issues’ in societies.”