The Future of Internet: Cultural and Individual Conceptions

by William Sims Bainbridge

Forthcoming in The Internet and American Life,
edited by Philip N. Howard and Steve Jones. Sage.

Our culture's conception of the future of Internet will illustrate how novel surveys can archive aspects of an individual's personality - a new application that has begun to appear on Internet and may have much greater significance in the future. The research reported here is based in the tradition of computer-administered surveys (Bainbridge, 1989; 1992), but it reverses the conventional relationship between social scientist and research subject. Instead of having one person compose a questionnaire to be answered by a thousand subjects, thousands of people provided input over Internet to create a questionnaire for a single respondent.

Surviving in Cyberspace

Throughout history, a few individuals have been immortalized in art and literature. More than two thousands years after the death of Julius Caesar, we can see his face in sculptures and read his thoughts in the books he wrote. Philosophers may debate how much of a human personality can be preserved in artifacts, but clearly a few ancient individuals continue to influence life through their works, from Moses to Jefferson, and Aristotle to Einstein.

Today, anyone can be memorialized in computer data files burned onto CDs or distributed via Internet. The Library of Congress offers searchable texts of 2,900 life history interviews from the 1930s on its American Memory website. A vastly larger such project is the 180 terabyte digital library of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation which contains videotaped interviews with more than 50,000 survivors of the European holocaust of the early 1940s.

Many ordinary citizens have found ways of storing aspects of personality on the World Wide Web. For example, a man who calls himself Meathead offers a three-dimensional image of himself that can be downloaded onto an avatar in the popular computer virtual environment, The Sims, where he can cavort with avatars of the music group, Nine Inch Nails. Many people have created memorial websites for deceased relatives, and an average of 24 websites are linked into each of 92 webrings concerning the loss of a child, as of February 14, 2002.

Anyone who has ever responded to a major questionnaire may have contributed fragments of his or her personality to an online survey archives, such as the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research at the University of Michigan, the Roper Center at the University of Connecticut, or Harvard's Virtual Data Center. For example, more than 38,000 people have answered the questions of the General Social Survey (GSS), and their personal facts and opinions are currently available anonymously on the web. Information about another 62,000 anonymous individuals are posted on the web by the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), a longitudinal survey that repeatedly contacted them for as much as 34 years.

However, such surveys collect only a very small fraction of the information that defines an individual's uniqueness. Traditional surveys are extremely expensive activities, and the data in the General Social Survey cost more than a dollar a byte to collect. Administration of surveys over Internet makes a great variety of new kinds of research possible. In particular, the web facilitates a fresh approach to the development of questionnaire instruments to capture aspects of a person's opinions, attitudes, beliefs, and preferences.

In May 1997, I launched an experimental website called The Question Factory, with the goal of creating 20,000 new questionnaire items that could be used to archive aspects of a personality. To be sure, a vast number of sociological and psychological questionnaire scales already exist (Goldman et al., 1995-1997), but they were typically created to measure a particular variable of theoretical interest, rather than to chart the ornate contours of an individual human mind. The aim of The Question Factory was to collect a very large number of thoughts that were influential in the culture, without any theoretical preconceptions whatsoever, that then could be used to document the mental characteristics of a member of that culture.

For example, The Question Factory obtained responses from 131 people to an online survey consisting of open-ended questions about death and the afterlife (Bainbridge, 2000). One item was: "What do you BELIEVE will happen to you personally, after you die?" Some respondents were recruited from a sociology class, a Bible college, and a Buddhist webring, and they wrote a very wide range of opinions in response to such inquiries. Their responses were collated into groups expressing similar ideas, then summary statements were written using the verbiage practically verbatim, resulting in 100 Afterlife fixed-choice items and 100 Death items.

The following illustrates a fairly conventional if pessimistic Afterlife belief: "After death, you will writhe in the pit and the lake of fire, seeing distant Heaven and knowing you can never have the happiness of the souls who are there." In contrast, here is an unconventional technologically oriented item: "After death, you will be restored to life by scientists of the future, using samples of your DNA and data about how you thought and acted in this life." The Question Factory produced many topical modules, some of which were calibrated through online surveys of fixed-choice items. A total of 2,000 items became the material for the first of ten software modules, called Beliefs, assessing a person's view of many aspects of life. The modules were placed on The Question Factory website for anyone to download for personal use.

Another Question Factory questionnaire pre-tested open-ended questions about the future. The following worked very well: "Imagine the future and try to predict how the world will change over the next century. Think about everyday life as well as major changes in society, culture, and technology." On the basis of the pilot studies with The Question Factory, I was invited to participate in a massive online questionnaire study sponsored by the National Geographic Society, called Survey 2000 (Witte et al., 2000). Questions contributed by other researchers included food preferences and incidentally provided me the material for another 2,000-item module, Taste. About half the 46,000 adults who responded to Survey 2000 wrote something in response to my Future item, providing material I collated and edited to make a set of 2,000 items for the software module, The Year 2100.

The Year 2100

Data from one actual but anonymous respondent will illustrate the process. These data have been placed on Internet and recently published on the CD-ROM included with a book on social science computing (Burton, 2002; Bainbridge, 2002b), as the "test data" in The Year 2100. The module administers 2,000 statements about the future to the respondent, asking him or her to rate each item on two 8-point scales: (1) how good it would be if the particular statement came true, from 1=bad to 8=good; (2) how likely it is that the statement will come true, from 1=unlikely to 8=likely.

One of several analysis modes extracts statements rated in a selected manner. For example, the respondent gave just two of the 2,000 statements the maximum 8 rating on both the good and likely scales: "Human consciousness will be transmitted to advanced computers. For the first time in human history, human-computer interfaces will permit development of technologies of the soul." The respondent rated two proposals very bad (1 on the bad-good scale) but rather likely (7 on the unlikely-likely scale): "Humanity will not leave the Earth in meaningful numbers, because the technology required will be beyond its grasp. Space exploration will stall, symbolizing the failed promises of technology."

The respondent's utopia, is the set of predictions judged very good but very unlikely (a good rating of 7 or 8 and an unlikely rating of 1 or 2). For this respondent, there are 16 utopian statements, all concerning spaceflight:

"Humanity will become a spacefaring species. Arrays of solar panels on the Moon will provide much of the Earth's electric power. Colonization of nearby moons and planets will lead to rapid gains in space transportation. The other planets will be colonized, creating a united solar system. There will be a federation of planets to organize colonization of uninhabited worlds. Outer space pioneers will no longer be Earthlings, but form autonomous communities that leave the solar system in the hope that their descendents will inhabit distant worlds. Colonies on the Moon and on Mars will become independent nations. Humanity will have colonized this solar system and begin to look beyond. Scientists will learn to master gravity and how to repel it in order to hover any object. Anti-gravity or levitation will be developed to permit space travel to distant galaxies. Scientists will prove that it is possible to exceed the speed of light. How to achieve space travel at light speed will be understood completely. Faster than light speed travel will have been perfected. A manned spaceship will have reached the closest star. Spaceships will leave this solar system, bound for moons around some of the larger gas giant planets discovered in other solar systems. First direct contact with another intelligent species will be achieved through interstellar travel."

In contrast, the respondent's dystopia, statements rated 1 or 2 on both scales, consists of statements about nuclear doom, plus these five about millenarian religion: "People will seek God once again as science comes full circle and realizes that Darwin was wrong about evolution. God will rule over the Earth, destroy wickedness, and bring perfection to mankind. God will bring an end to war, famine, and disease. Those who do not accept Jesus as their savior will perish in a time of terrible tribulation. Government will be by divine intervention, since human government has not achieved good for all mankind, and only God can do that."

In order to make the task of rating predictions manageable for the respondent, the software arranged the 2,000 items into 20 groups of a hundred each and gave them descriptive labels: art, business, conflict, domestic, education, family, government, health, international, justice, knowledge, labor, miscellaneous, nature, outer space, population, quality of life, religion, society, and technology. These labels are very rough, as illustrated by domestic which refers to 100 items about home life, the physical attributes of houses, foods, urban and rural communities. Table 1 shows the average ratings from the 100 items in each of these categories.

Table 1: Respondent's Ratings of 2,000 Predictions

Groups of 100 PredictionsExamples of Statements in the GroupMean GoodMean LikelyOptimism (r)
Outer spaceThere will be permanent colonies on several of the major moons of Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and Uranus. First direct contact with another intelligent species will be achieved through interstellar travel. Hybrid engines will be developed for space exploration, working like jets in the atmosphere and like rockets outside it.6.134.25-0.36
DomesticHouses and furniture will be made from recyclable plastics. Many people will have returned to a traditional town setting, where they need to travel only short distances on a daily basis to fulfill their needs. Cities will have networks of delivery tunnels for trucks.4.835.150.54
KnowledgeAnswers will be found to many of the vexing fundamental questions about who we are and the universe we live in. Human consciousness will be transmitted to advanced computers. Increasing numbers of people will spend their lives seeking truth.4.825.290.08
HealthPeople will be able to locate and read any medical publication online. Repair of damaged heart tissue will be a common medical practice. Medicines will be created to suit the patient's personal genetic makeup.4.734.970.30
TechnologySociety will become so dependent on computer technology that normal daily functions will collapse if that technology fails. Magnetic levitation trains running in vacuum tunnels will provide cheap long distance transportation at more than five hundred miles an hour. There will be artificial intelligence systems that are able to respond to the full experience of the real world.4.724.820.52
LaborWorkers will revolt against supporting the many non-workers such as the aged and those on welfare. Manufacturing of many kinds will be done at home, using computer assisted design and fabrication techniques. Manual labor will be a thing of the past, as robots and computers will do the undesirable jobs.4.555.300.08
MiscellaneousPeople will more and more choose their cultural group, not be born into it. Cameras will be entirely digital, and photographic film will be manufactured only in small quantities for special purposes. The United States Marine Corps will be alive and well, as it nears its 325th birthday.4.515.070.51
ReligionScience will become the official state religion, with scientists as high priests. The spiritual deadness affecting prosperous societies will lead to a proliferation of strange cults and fanatic religious movements. Christian monastic activity will bring the church back to harmony with nature.4.514.530.61
ArtThe media will no longer be programmed by large corporations, but people will be free to program their own entertainment. People will have easy access to foreign books, movies, and music over the Internet. There will be a resurgence of high culture such as classical music, non-abstract paintings, and classical ballet.4.485.200.40
EducationAstronomy will be taught in the early grades of school. English will be the official global language. A college degree will have only modest significance, because there will be other options of respected higher education.4.484.980.26
GovernmentGovernments will be heavily burdened by debt, preventing them from providing necessary services. Democratic governments will vacillate between liberalism and conservatism. Political power will be decentralized, with most public decision making occurring at the local level.4.384.820.28
NatureDesalinization of sea water to produce drinking water will become widespread and inexpensive. The rain forests will slowly regain their former health and extent. The hole in the ozone layer of the atmosphere will reach a massive size, causing vast numbers of deaths.4.324.740.13
SocietyThere will be a shift in power from the holders of capital to knowledge workers. There will be agents of change, who enjoy creating chaos, and resisters of change, who fear the loss of their security. Society will evolve into a unified federal world system with a common secondary language, monetary system and justice system.4.314.460.47
FamilyA wide variety of alternative family structures will be accepted. The elderly will be revered rather than hidden in nursing homes away from their families. There will be many more intercultural marriages, whose offspring are likely to be bilingual.4.274.910.10
BusinessSmall companies and individuals will have a competitive edge over large multi-national corporations because of their flexibility and cost effectiveness. International financial organizations, like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, will be abolished because they pushed developing countries into debt to protect the developed economies. Consumers will have a vast variety of choices through Internet shopping.4.234.900.46
JusticePeople will come to realize that morality does not need religious justification. Prison systems will use computers and electronic restraints to control inmates, rather than walls or guards. There will be courageous individuals willing and able to counter injustice.4.234.700.26
PopulationAt least 500,000 people will live on the Moon and Mars. Population growth will slow as women become more involved in decision making. There will be frequent minor wars in which nations deliberately try to exterminate their enemies' populations to free up more resources for the victors.4.204.90-0.14
InternationalAfricans educated in developed nations will return to their homelands, causing rapid development. New York City will no longer be the cultural center of the world. There will be much unrest in Asia, as the lower class revolts against the regimes.4.194.540.55
ConflictWeaker cultures will merge into stronger ones. Wars will no longer be fought on the battlefield but in cyberspace with computer terminals. Society will change from a melting pot to self-segregation in which ethnic groups choose not to assimilate, wishing to retain strong ties to their original culture.4.174.880.37
Quality of lifeOnly a small fraction of the population will smoke tobacco. Groups of like-minded people will band together and set up their own communities, largely ignoring the surrounding world. Improved transportation and storage will allow adequate distribution and stock piling of food throughout the world.4.054.680.23

The 100 items about spaceflight were rated highest on the good scale by the same respondent, an average of 6.13 in the range of 1 to 8, but lowest in likelihood, just 4.25. Within each set of items, the software calculates the respondent's optimism, which is the correlation between the two scales. The respondent is optimistic to the extent he or she thinks the best predictions are most likely. But here we see that the coefficient for outer space items is -0.36, reflecting the pessimism we have already seen in this respondent. Note that the items themselves came from the surrounding culture, contributed by thousands of respondents to Survey 2000, but this measure of optimism or pessimism is normed to the particular values of the individual respondent.

Once someone has rated all 2,000 predictions along both scales, we have 4,000 measurements of the individual's values and expectations about the future, which logically should be reflections of the individual's essential view of life and thus central to personal identity. The 20 categories are very rough, so for the purposes of this study we went one step further, and asked the respondent to categorize the items afresh. We transferred the items and the respondent's ratings to a spreadsheet, then asked the respondent to mark each item that concerned technology. The respondent then organized them in the following groups: Internet, Electronic, Space, Biotechnology, Nuclear, and Other.

Individuals will vary in their categorizations, and with fully 2,000 statements there are many opportunities to draw fine distinctions. Understandably, the respondent placed this in the Internet category: "Books will be purchased online as packages of text documents." But this one went there as well, even though it does not explicitly refer to the net: "Instead of borrowing books from libraries, people will read them over their computers." However, this very similar statement wound up in the non-Internet Electronic category: "Textbooks and hardcover books will no longer be sold by the millions, but will be replaced by laser discs." And this one was placed in the non-technological category: "Reading an actual paper book will be considered a quaint historical affectation." Perhaps the respondent imagined that some non-technological substitute for books might be found, such as story-telling, but other respondents might place this item in one of the technological categories.

As indicated in Table 2, the respondent placed only 17 items in the Nuclear category. Fully seven of these items concern atomic war, so it is not surprising the respondent rates this the worst of any category. However, it also contains some potentially very good items, such as "Once the infrastructure of nuclear fusion power generation and distribution is installed, there will be unlimited wealth." This illustrates the potentially irrational impact of cultural categories. The technologies from which fusion may be developed are quite remote from the technologies of nuclear weaponry, yet by being placed in the same category they may share the stigma.

Table 2: Respondent's Categorization of 2,000 Predictions

CategoryExamples of Statements in the CategoryNumber of ItemsMean GoodMean LikelyOptimism (r)
InternetThe art of letter writing will revive through use of e-mail. E-commerce will provide consumers around the world with the best products and services at the cheapest prices. The Internet will allow gifted individuals to be heard without being controlled by the marketplace and nay-sayers.995.15.60.44
ElectronicDigitized art will be the most influential approach in fields as diverse as painting, movie making, and music. Everyone will be required to have some type of microchip implanted under their skin in order to buy and sell. The typical house will be controlled by a main computer that does the basic tasks around the home.1204.75.30.48
SpaceArrays of solar panels on the Moon will provide much of the Earth's electric power. There will be a defense system to protect Earth from asteroids. The meek will inherit the Earth, and the brave will travel to other worlds.1286.24.3-0.30
BiotechnologyGenetic engineering will be extremely useful in agriculture. Alzheimer's and other forms of senility will have been wiped out. A vaccine to prevent AIDS will have unleashed a second sexual revolution.1205.15.20.41
NuclearA major nuclear world war will occur between the West and Islamic states. Energy will be chiefly supplied by nuclear fusion facilities that operate on hydrogen derived from water. There will be a political crisis over the disposal of spent fuel from nuclear power plants.
Other TechnologyTerrorists having weapons of mass destruction will force nations to become police states in order to provide security for their people. Engineers will be able to build microscopic machines, assembled molecule by molecule, to do useful work. More and more women will enter the fields of engineering, science, research, computing, and technology.1484.95.00.24
Non-technologyNatural foods and herbs will be used widely for good health and fitness. The typical person will experience multiple divorces and remarriages. Radical politics will draw strength from the alienation of vast numbers of people who are disconnected from their neighbors.13684.24.80.29

As in Table 1, the respondent rates the Space category simultaneously best and least likely, but here with 128 items rather than 100. This reveals the particular values and perceptions of the individual respondent, but it also suggests the tragic reality of spaceflight in contemporary culture. Awareness of potential future accomplishments in space is very widespread, and the respondents to Survey 2000 believe that many things are possible beyond the Earth, yet little of that great potential has been realized in the three decades after the last trip to the Moon, and there is no assurance it ever will be.

In terms of fulfillment of technical promise and public perceptions, the Internet is practically the opposite of spaceflight. Thirty years ago, only a few federally-funded scientists knew what Internet was, and only a few visionaries imagined what it could become. Internet applications continue to proliferate, and there is every reason for optimism that we have seen only the very beginning of its benefit to humanity. The respondent rates the 99 Internet statements very good, tied with Biotechnology but well behind the Space statements that are so important for this particular respondent. The respondent considers the Internet predictions most likely to be fulfilled of all the categories.

The Twenty-First-Century Net

The respondent also sorted the 99 Internet related statements into sub-categories, collecting statements related to the same fundamental idea. We then arranged the statements in each category as a paragraph and wrote an italicized introductory sentence. Naturally, some of the statements in each group contradict each other or give somewhat different perspectives on the same topic. The result which follows is a brief synthetic essay on the future of Internet, produced cooperatively by the thousands of Survey 2000 online respondents, the individual respondent whose views we are archiving, and our computer software.

The technology for Internet will continue to develop for many years. "Wireless digital systems will become standard, so that every house will have a small satellite dish which will provide TV, Internet, and mail service. Every person will have a personal communications device that they carry everywhere, performing the functions of phone, fax, pager, laptop, and message service. Interactive holographic imaging, producing lifelike three-dimensional pictures, will change the way people are entertained and the way they communicate. Computer electrodes implanted in the scalp will connect the brain to the world's data bases."

Computer supported cooperative work will be increasingly common. "With improved communication it will become less necessary to meet in person, and therefore business trips will become less common. Video conferencing and virtual Internet meetings will be everyday occurrences. With Internet, people will be able to work in any company in the world without the need to migrate to another country. People will be able to collaborate on projects with anyone anywhere in the world, using video conferencing and computer technology. Telecommuting will become mandatory in every area where it is feasible, simply to curb excessive traffic on the roads. Many people will work in a general office, where a collection of people from different companies work in the same place using information technology. Workers will be largely self employed and work by computer from whatever location they happen to be in at the time."

Online business will be a major part of the economy. "E-commerce will provide consumers around the world with the best products and services at the cheapest prices. Consumers will have a vast variety of choices through Internet shopping. The local grocery store will post its daily specials on the web, so customers can think about what recipe they would like to prepare and make a shopping list of needed items. Groceries will be ordered online and delivered to the home. Homes will be completely wired, to the point that a refrigerator will know it is out of milk and will order some. Food will be delivered to the home from online grocery stores. Paper money will become a thing of the past, and all payments will be made electronically. People will use a debit card for all purchases, linked to a master account for each individual. There will be one world stock market, in cyberspace."

Electronic commerce will destroy some existing businesses and services. "E-mail will replace the postal system for letters. The telephone companies will be replaced by an expanded bandwidth Internet. People will buy products and food online directly from the producer, all but eliminating large physical department stores and supermarkets. Malls will close as entrepreneurs escape the physical overhead and adopt electronic commerce. Movie houses and video rental stores will disappear, replaced by instant download through a phone line onto an in-home computer screen. Electronic commerce on Internet will greatly reduce the role of middle men and retailer distributors in the economy. Small shop owners and middlemen will be under extreme pressure from the intense global competition of electronic commerce. The Internet will allow individual entrepreneurs to compete with large corporations through their websites."

Publishing and libraries will migrate to Internet. "Daily newspapers will disappear, replaced by Internet delivery of news. Newspapers and books will no longer be printed, because everyone will be able to read them online. Books will be purchased online as packages of text documents. In effort to conserve paper and rare books, and also to reach more patrons with their limited supply, libraries will offer books online to read. Instead of borrowing books from libraries, people will read them over their computers. People will have easy access to foreign books, movies, and music over the Internet. The increasing influence of electronic information technology will dramatically reduce the amount of paper used."

The creation and distribution of art and music will evolve. "Entertainment will become compartmentalized, as people tailor their entertainment packages to their own desires using Internet and rental of multimedia recordings. There will be virtual concerts where no one will actually sit in a concert hall with the musicians, who appear realistically in thousands of homes courtesy of the computer. There will be great demand for writers and illustrators for Internet publications."

Culture more generally will undergo radical upheaval. "Information technology will minimize interest in mass culture in favor of smaller cultures that have greater personal relevance. Online news services will use client profiles to tailor the selection of stories to fit the individual user's interests. The art of letter writing will revive through use of e-mail. E-mail and other text based interpersonal communication will be very popular in the younger generation, improving the quality of their use of written language. A new kind of English language will evolve from the Internet. The extensive use of electronic communication will mean that there will be no documents, letters, or even newspapers to preserve the day-to-day knowledge of the era for future historians. Archaeologists will dig through landfills and unearth old disk drives, re-discovering a Pompeii of culture from ancient web sites."

Education at all ages will change its form and content. "Education will be transformed from institutions based at single sites to networks manifesting themselves from time to time in cyberspace or at various public locations. Children will attend school in their own homes through interactive television. Many children will attend school electronically via their computers. Public schools will decline in importance as it becomes easier to get an education at home using computer technology. Universities will put all but the most intensively physical studies online, with high-level degrees being offered in many subjects via Internet. Centuries old universities will be rendered obsolete by Internet. Distance education will be the norm, not the exception, and dynamic professors will share their love of learning with millions of students around the world in virtual classrooms. The average educational level of people will be higher, due to the intellectual benefits of computers and Internet rather than formal schooling."

Health services will improve. "People will be able to locate and read any medical publication online. Delicate surgeries will be performed through computers, allowing the best surgeons to operate at a distance on patients wherever they are. People with disabilities will be more independent, because of the Internet. People in nursing homes will have computers hooked up to the Internet in order to communicate with those outside the nursing home and thus not feel so isolated from the rest of the world."

Digital government will become a reality. "The general public will have ready access to government information and services over their computers. The Internet will be an agent for democracy, as each community has an electronic town hall. Voting will be done online via personal computer. Internet-based voting will dramatically strengthen democracy. The selection of leaders will be done via electronic media, without paper ballots or voting booths. Citizens will vote from home by computer on daily and weekly issues which are raised by their elected representatives."

People will be liberated from political oppression. "No government will be able to regulate the Internet. Electronic media will be disseminating information through many of the current physical barriers placed by governments. Electronic commerce will undermine the effectiveness of government restrictions in the global economy. Politically biased media will no longer be able to control populations, since multiple opinions and potentially conflicting facts can be accessed over Internet. The Internet will allow gifted individuals to be heard without being controlled by the marketplace and nay-sayers. The flow of information on the Internet will become one of the primary means to fight large corporate agendas. The Internet will completely revolutionize the urban versus rural struggle, ending the advantages of cities. Internet will diminish the importance of nations, political factions, and religious groups."

Cybercommunities will grow in importance. "Friendships with those who have moved far away will be common, due to the ease of maintaining regular contact by phone calls, e-mail, and video. People will belong to virtual towns made up of all their friends and family members far and wide. People will have moved away from physical communities, toward online communities. Religious services will be conducted on the Internet. People will meet as a result of the Internet, often marrying someone they first contacted electronically. Many people will have more cyberfriends than real-life friends."

Loss of privacy will be among the dangers of Internet. "Economic privacy and anonymous transactions will be increasingly difficult, because digital currency will have replaced traditional cash. The government will be able to trace every purchase people make, every phone call they place, and every TV program they watch. Privacy will be a thing of the past, as electronic systems of payment and information exchange monitor people's every movement."

Significance of the digital divide is a matter of controversy. "The gap between the information rich and information poor will both widen and become more important, creating a global elite and proletariat. [Or, conversely:] The digital divide will decrease, as most people gain access to information technology. Information will be available to all, but only a few will use it effectively. Even the poorest members of the poorest countries will have access to the Internet, and they will use it for a variety of purposes from everyday requirements to education to recreation."

This is great uncertainty about whether people will be able to handle all the information available. "The combination of wireless technology, fast computer processing, and large databases will give anyone the answer to any question anywhere at anytime. More information will be at everyone's disposal, but the accuracy of such information will be uncertain. It will be difficult to sort out what information is really important to the individual. People will be bombarded with too much information to the point of mental information overload. [Or, conversely:] Generally, people will not suffer from information overload, because computer agent programs will automatically collect the information they want."

The result of cybercommunity and information overload could be personal isolation. "People's desire to explore their environments will fade as information is delivered faster, cheaper, and easier to their computers. The continued increase in communication devices such as pagers, cellular phones and the Internet, will reduce personal contacts. People will spend more and more time on the computer and less time going out to socialize with friends and neighbors. Electronic communication will increasingly isolate people from direct human contact and bring a coldness and emptiness to life. People will prefer cybersex to the traditional pleasure of two bodies touching. Society will be so fragmented and lacking in support systems, that people will rely upon the false sense of community provided by communication technology."

Finally, Internet could become an arena for many forms of conflict. "Debates over Internet privacy, freedom of speech, accuracy of information, and the safety of Internet for children will make Internet regulation a hot field for lawyers. Crimes against children will be greatly stimulated by pedophile Internet newsgroups and pornographic websites. Labor unions will be obsolete, because individuals will compete for jobs on the Internet. Wars will no longer be fought on the battlefield but in cyberspace with computer terminals."


This chapter has presented the values and expectations of one individual concerning Internet, based on ideas from thousands of people that were collected in an Internet-distributed survey. Some of the visionaries who are creating the technology of the future have begun speculating that it will be possible over the next century for people to merge with their computers and achieve a kind of immortality as dynamic patterns of information (Kurzweil, 1999; Bainbridge, 2002b). Here we have considered one small step in that direction, the archiving of an individual's opinions on a large number of related issues, notably the future of Internet itself. The approach is based on the realization that the study of any individual person must also take account of the cultural ambience in which he or she exists.

Traditionally, surveys have been used to test social scientific theories and guide public policy. As machines become smarter, surveys will gain the new function of gathering fragments of personality to make our computers both more humane and more sociable. In future, society will consist not merely of individual people and social institutions, but also of software agents, robots, and information systems (Roco and Bainbridge, 2002). This methodological exploration is a contribution to the complex system of tools we will need to create personable machine intelligences. More modestly, it suggests how traditional tools of questionnaire survey research can be extended into the new environment of the Internet.


Bainbridge, William Sims. 1989. Survey Research: A Computer-Assisted Introduction. Belmont, California: Wadsworth.

Bainbridge, William Sims. 1992. Social Research Methods and Statistics. Belmont, California: Wadsworth.

Bainbridge, William Sims. 2000. "Religious Ethnography on the World Wide Web," pp. 55-80 in Religion on the Internet (volume 8 of Religion and the Social Order), edited by Jeffrey K. Hadden and Douglas E. Cowan. New York: Elsevier.

Bainbridge, William Sims. 2002a. "A Question of Immortality," Analog (May) 122: 5, pp. 40-49.

Bainbridge, William Sims. 2002b. "Validity of Web-Based Surveys," pp. 51-66 in Computing in the Social Sciences and Humanities, edited by Orville Vernon Burton. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Burton, Orville Vernon, ed.. 2002. Computing in the Social Sciences and Humanities. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Goldman, Bert Arthur et al. 1995-1997. Directory of Unpublished Experimental Mental Measures. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 7 volumes.

Kurzweil, Ray. 1999. The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. New York: Viking.

Roco, Mihail, and William Sims Bainbridge. 2002. Converging Technologies to Improve Human Performance: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science. Forthcoming.

Witte, James C. et al. 2000. "Research Methodology: Method and Representation in Internet-Based Survey Tools," Social Science Computer Review, 18: 179-195.


American Memory: WPA Federal Writers' Project:

General Social Survey:

Harvard's Virtual Data Center:

Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research:

Meathead and Nine Inch Nails:

Panel Study of Income Dynamics:

The Question Factory: (obsolete, now:

Roper Center for Public Opinion Research:

Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation: