ELON, N.C. – What happens when one holds a mirror to how humanity communicates?

The director for the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University says people are pushing the technological evolution today to continue improving communication in ways that make it increasingly more portable, pervasive, personal, and participatory.

But, could a fifth “P” positive or does it represent peril?

The Imagining the Internet Center is an initiative of Elon University. The center’s research effectively documents the use of communications technologies, informs policy development, exposes potential futures, and offers an historic record by providing insights into emerging network innovations, global development, dynamics, diffusion, and governance.

The center is a network of Elon faculty, students, staff, alumni, advisers, and friends working to identify, explore, and engage with the challenges and opportunities of evolving communications forms and issues. They investigate the tangible and potential pros and cons of new media channels through active research.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project, in collaboration with Imagining the Internet, recently published a report on the future of big data and the impact of the Internet on higher education.

According to the report, respondents expect more-efficient collaborative environments and new grading schemes in higher education but worry about massive online courses and the shift away from on-campus life. Tech experts also noted in the study that they believe market factors will push universities to expand online courses, create hybrid learning spaces, move toward “lifelong learning” models and different credentialing structures by the year 2020. But they disagree about how these whirlwind forces will influence education, for the better or the worse.

Janna Anderson is an associate professor and director of Imagining the Internet. She is also the author of the book “Imagining the Internet: Personalities, Predictions, Perspectives” and the lead author of the “Future of the Internet” book series, published by Cambria Press.

Anderson will introduce the work at the Imagining the Internet Center and talk about current issues raised in the 2012 Future of the Internet Survey at this year’s NCREN Community Day hosted by MCNC on Nov. 15-16 at Elon University.

Anderson said the center’s work challenges people to assess how we communicate today and how that will shape tomorrow, by asking questions like: What is the future of intelligence in an age of ambient information? How will smart homes and e-money evolve by 2020? What are the positives and negatives and the likely future influence of big data? How is it possible to uphold human rights and privacy principles while maintaining security and trust?

“Initiating the discussion of questions like these helps the thousands of technology leaders we survey face multifaceted issues and frame answers,” explained Anderson. “Sharing the results extends conversations and provides some intriguing answers and new questions. We hope the work will have a positive impact today that will help shape a better tomorrow.”

There are about 2.5 billion people online today, with billions more yet to be connected. One of the reasons the Imagining the Internet Center is documenting the issues of the evolving network of networks is to help show how important it is to grow and extend connectivity so all people have equal opportunity to access, share and create knowledge resources and communicate.

Anderson said people were excited about the positive benefits to be gained through the use of the Internet in the early 1990s, but few who were on the cutting edge then could have imagined that we would move so quickly to where we are today.

“We are witnessing the mapping, tagging and databasing of every item in the physical world, as humans experiment with making everything connected because they see obvious benefits in such hyper connectivity,” said Anderson. “But there are accompanying negatives, including complex changes in financial systems, heightened terror and criminal threat levels, and other concerns leading more people to say that the security and trust necessary for the public exchange of goods and services and for public safety might require that all individuals establish real IDs online, abolishing the potential for anonymity.

“We are also experiencing the complete disruption of all business models and the information and copyright empires of the 20th century – most notably the financial industry, news organizations, publishers of all sorts, and formalized education,” added Anderson.

Researchers for Imagining the Internet have found that most predictions made over the past 20 years have been prescient and quite accurate. Few of the early 1990s predictions were mistaken and some predictions that may still seem unlikely today may yet evolve.

What will we see in five years, 10 years, or even 50 years?

Just imagine…