Few observers, in 2000, would have foreseen Facebook being a ubiquitous presence on the Internet in 2010. Even fewer would have felt comfortable predicting whether some phenomenon like it would be “good" or bad” for human interaction, or for society's use of the English (or any other) language, for that matter. Undaunted by the perils of prognostication, the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project recently asked nearly 900 tech-savvy professionals to “imagine the Internet” in 2020.

More specifically, the project presented people with five pairs of opposing statements, forcing them to choose one from each pair and to then explain why they made the choice. For example, one set of statements said:

By 2020, people’s use of the Internet has enhanced human intelligence; as people are allowed unprecedented access to more information, they become smarter and make better choices.


By 2020, people’s use of the Internet has not enhanced human intelligence, and it could even be lowering the IQs of most people who use it a lot.

Some 76 percent of the respondents said the Net would make us smarter. Okay, but why? That's where the results become more interesting, noted Pew project director Lee Rainie, who presented the findings at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting this past weekend in San Diego. Rainie said Pew's analysis indicated that the respondents thought that ever-greater use of the Internet will shift people’s cognitive capacities. People will spend less of their mental energy memorizing facts and instead will spend more brain power synthesizing information and in critical thinking.

Another pair of questions essentially asked if the state of reading and writing would improve. Rainie was initially surprised to find that 65 percent opted for "improved," given the many ways in which texting, Tweeting and other messaging mediums maul the English language. But respondents seemed to agree that the mediums are encouraging people to read more and particularly to write more, and that users are likely to gradually begin to critique each other's bad language habits, prompting society's linguistic skills improve. (IMHO that may never happen, but u never know.)

One telling question had to do with how "open" the Internet can remain—whether disagreements over information flows will be resolved with a minimum number of restrictions, or whether intermediary institutions that control the architecture and significant amounts of content will gain the right to manage information and the method by which people access and share it. A full third of the respondents felt that by 2020 more control would be in force, which would violate a founding principle of both the Internet and the Web. The respondents cited recent events such as the clash between the Chinese government and Google management over the source and intent of cyber attacks, and also felt that users may even accept some level of restrictions if they thought the measures would help ward off potential evils such as identity theft.

More results are available from the project, called The Future of the Internet: IV.

Photo from iStockPhoto/joshblake