While those who developed the Internet had a clear vision and the power to make choices about the road it would take -- factors that helped shape the Web -- Georgetown University professor Mike Nelson wondered during a panel discussion whether the current group of developers possesses the foresight to continue growing the Internet.
"In the mid-90s there was a clear conscience about what the Internet was going to be," he said. "We don't have as good a conscience as we did in the '90s, so we may not get there."
While a vision of the Internet's future may appear murky, Nelson said that cloud computing will be pivotal. "The cloud is even more important than the Web," he said.
Cloud computing will allow developing nations to access software once reserved for affluent countries. Small businesses will save money on capital expenditures by using services such as Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud to store and compute their data instead of purchasing servers.
Sensors will start to appear in items such as lights, handheld devices and agriculture tools, transmitting data across the Web and into the cloud.
If survey results from the Pew Internet and American Life Project accurately reflect the U.S.' attitude toward the Internet, Nelson's cloud computing prediction could prove true.
In 2000, when the organisation conducted its first survey and asked people if they used the cloud for computing, less than 10 per cent of respondents replied yes. When asked the same question this May, that figure reached 66 per cent, said Lee Rainie, the project's director, who also spoke on the panel.
Further emphasizing the role of cloud computing's future, the survey also revealed an increased use of mobile devices connecting to data stored at offsite servers.
However, cloud computing faces development and regulation challenges, Nelson cautioned.
"There are lots of forces that could push us away from the cloud of clouds," he said.
He advocated that companies develop cloud computing services that allow users to transfer data between systems and do not lock businesses into one provider. The possibility remains that cloud computing providers will use proprietary technology that forces users into their systems or that creates clouds that are only partially open.
"I think there is a chance that if we push hard ... we can get to this universal cloud," he said.
Cloud computing must also contend with other challenges, he said. Other threats include government privacy regulations, entertainment companies that look to clamp down on piracy, and nations that fear domination from U.S. companies in the cloud computing space and develop their own systems.
Beyond the role of cloud computing and the Internet, the Pew Research Center also examined how the Web possibly decreased intelligence, redefined social connections and raised the question if people share too much personal information online, among other issues.
On the question of the Web lowering society's intelligence, the center found that people's inherent traits will determine whether they use the Web as a tool to seek out new information and learn or simply accept the first answer that Google delivers. The technology is not the problem, said Janna Anderson, director of the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University, who also spoke on the panel.
People responded that the Internet has not negatively impacted their social interactions. Respondents answered that they realize social networking does not necessarily lead to deep friendships. The Internet affords people tools that allow them to continue being introverted or extroverted, Anderson said.
Young adults face criticism for posting too much personal information to sites like Facebook. Research indicates that the extreme sharing of information is unlikely to change. Lee said that young adults have embraced social networking and will continue to do so because online sharing builds relationships. He also said that the survey showed a new view on privacy that advocated disclosing more personal details.