The potential problems are many. For one thing, the rise of data-driven services leads some to worry of a Minority Report-style future in which our course in life is mapped out for us, eroding our ability to make free choices. Then there’s the worry that the data savvy might become a web-empowered elite, keen to keep those who are not digitally enabled firmly on the lower rungs of society.
“The internet will help the rich get richer and become a tool to further marginalise people who are already living with poverty, mental illness, and other serious challenges,” wrote an anonymous director of operations for social network MetaFilter in the Pew report.
One way of keeping the web democratised and egalitarian is by safeguarding net neutrality, which means a web that is open, decentralised and universally accessible – rather than one which is segmented, better featured for some rather than others and so on. “We need to keep fighting for net neutrality,” Berners-Lee said in London. But those who fear for the future say there’s every chance that neutrality won’t survive in the long-term. In fact, there are some who believe key battles have already been lost. At the beginning of this year, for instance, the US DC Circuit Court of Appeals struck down network neutrality rules. The move theoretically allows wealthy corporations to pay to have their online services promoted – and to have rival services blocked, stifling competition.
It’s not just net neutrality that’s at threat. Other contributors to the Pew report expressed concerns over the aggressive enforcement of police state policies online, which allow oppressive regimes to censor media or spy on their own citizens with increasing ease. And if government interference wasn’t enough, there is also the threat of increased security problems posed by criminals. Already, networked devices in people’s homes have inspired nightmarish scenarios in which personal appliances can be compromised from afar. Even baby monitors have been hacked maliciously.
The tempered view
For the realist, what might actually happen by 2040 probably falls somewhere between these two extremes. Good things, and bad things, will happen via the internet. It’s a point made by Schneier when the spectre of cyberterrorism is raised. He’s not overly worried about such things because, he says, the web is a place balanced by the diverse intentions of the many who use it.
“Everyone uses cyberspace,” he says. “Everybody. The moon shines on the just and the unjust. Everybody drives cars, eats at restaurants and sends email. The good guys and the bad guys. So what?”