Future Internet to Create 'Virtual' Addicts?

If people find social sites like MySpace and online role-playing games engrossing now, just wait. By 2020, people will spend more time online in connected, virtual worlds that will boost productivity but may lead to addiction problems.

That's among the findings of a new study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project that asked Internet leaders, futurists and others how the Internet would affect life by the year 2020.

Overall, the survey found that technological advances will make the Internet a universal benefit for most--but not without creating some major problems along the way.

While the report doesn't directly address the digital media landscape in 2020, it does suggest that a more immersive media experience lies ahead. More than half the respondents surveyed believe those with the means will indulge in "increasingly sophisticated, networked synthetic worlds for work and entertainment."

That could lead to addiction problems for some who lose themselves in alternate realities. Some respondents expressed the view that immersion in virtual reality had already begun with today's massively multi-player games online, synthetic worlds like Second Life, and even online chats.



"I'm not sure if 'addiction' is the right word, but the shift of people's attention to online information, media, entertainment and communities will erode culture and bring into being a colder if more efficient world," wrote panelist and independent writer and consultant Nick Carr.

Others were more optimistic, drawing comparisons to earlier media innovations that initially raised concerns. Futurist Paul Saffo noted that fears that kids could spend too much time with paperbacks, TV and movies have now been transferred to the Web and video games.

"I will bet that in 2020, parents will be lecturing their children that they can't go out and play until they finish their VR-based simulation games," he wrote in the study.

The Pew study also found there will be little expectation of personal privacy online by 2020 as government and corporations increasingly "own" access to information. A number of Internet media and technology leaders were skeptical about the benefits of more private and public information being available online.

Panelist Esther Dyson, editor-at-large of CNET, for instance, noted: "The world is not average, and the benefits and costs will not be evenly distributed."

The Pew survey was conducted online in late 2005 and early 2006, and included the views of 742 respondents from prominent figures in science, technology, business and politics.

Among the group were venture investor and analyst Stewart Alsop; Michael Botein of New York Law School's Media Center; Boing Boing blogger Cory Doctorow; "Smart Mobs" author Howard Rheingold; and University of California-Berkeley professor and Google consultant Hal Varian.

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