“The real problem is that when human societies lose their freedom, it’s not usually because tyrants have taken it away. It’s usually because people willingly surrender their freedom in return for protection against some external threat. And the threat is usually a real threat but usually exaggerated.”
The Future of You: Can Your Identity Survive 21st Century Technology? is a timely exploration of the impact of moving more and more aspects of our lives into the digital realm. Relying on technology in order to function as we have come to expect is not without risk. The author approaches issues raised from a variety of directions, offering facts alongside considered opinion. Although there are obvious benefits to many of the innovations detailed, the potential for harming the individual is chilling. Advances are rarely made available to every member of society. This exacerbates the differences between those who benefit and everyone else.
Follows is a futurist – someone who systematically explores predictions and possibilities about the future and how they can emerge from the present. She writes here about: social media, data mining, privacy, legal rights, digital ownership, artificial intelligence, required behaviour, healthcare, enhancing humans, bots, transhumanism. Many of the technologies discussed exist already, with Covid-19 enabling governments to bring forward change that many western civilisations would not previously have countenanced. Places such as China offer a window into how this could play out, their society being more familiar with blatant state coercion ‘for the common good’.
Early chapters look at how identities are created, controlled and authenticated in a digital society. There are, for example, many problems with attempting to create a globally useful ID for an individual, not least who owns and controls the data and how it is used. Interconnectivity can be difficult to achieve – agreeing protocols and standardisations. There is always a security risk when data is shared. Covid-19 has brought to the fore the concept of health passports, bringing with it the prospect of enforced health treatments – or suffering pariah status. Coercing citizens to behave in a certain way is regarded as an acceptable means to an end by many, with neighbours willing to police behaviours, however much others may disagree for valid reasons. Described as ‘social credit’, digital records could be used in a wide array of applications to encourage government mandated practices.
“Once governments know they have the power to ‘correct’ people’s behaviour in this way, it’s all too tempting for them to implement such draconian measures more and more widely.”
For those who believe this would never be accepted in a democracy, surveys have shown there is a mutual distrust between citizens – a desire to control ‘undesirables’, to keep them separate until they ‘behave’.
Taiwan is held up as an example of a different approach. Rather than trying to turn its citizens into ‘obedient zombies’, it uses technology to listen to a variety of opinions and implement change only for the true good of all.
“Taiwanese children are not taught to all give the same answer or even to seek the answers to the same questions; they are taught to follow their own interests, set their own projects and find their own solutions. And they are not set up in competition with each other; they are set up to pool their individual talents and to collaborate”
Raised to think for themselves and accept differences in opinion, people are more able to think critically and listen considerately. Technology is not used here to encourage conformity – and therefore predictability – in the population. Participation in debate is encouraged and dissent accepted. Individual liberty is valued, as it should be.
The author then turns her attention to the digital identity individuals create for themselves in such spaces a social media. Social media may indeed be social but it is also tribal.
“liking what our friends post, muting those who disagree with us, clicking to be seen to support the right causes, and excluding anyone who is not part of our tribe or does not conform to the established narrative of our group.”
On line sharing becomes a performance, self-presentation filtered to create an idealised version. This comes with many risks: feelings of inadequacy or jealousy when comparing to others in the group, the fallout from an ill-judged remark deemed unacceptable or inauthentic.
“one false move and we could be shamed forever”
The creation of ‘perfect’ avatars has led to bots becoming influencers.
Of course, digital connectivity has many benefits. This has become ever more apparent during the Covid-19 lockdown. Lockdown has also, however, sparked a pandemic of loneliness. Into this void has stepped the potential for robot ‘companions’. AI is becoming ever more sophisticated. Already widely accepted as assistants, social aspects are now being developed. For those who struggle to form relationships with people, a digital friend to talk to and seek advice from – one who doesn’t judge, mock or bully – can be beneficial.
AI robots are obviously digital but what of people who present themselves to the digital world in an altered state? The author writes of the Proteus Effect – how individuals are treated and behave based on how they look. If an avatar is created that is a favoured height, hair colour, race or gender, will some perceived ideal become more acceptable than individuality?
Another benefit of improved technology is in public health. Upgrading humans – fitting a pacemaker or quality prosthesis, replacing a vital organ, cosmetic surgery to right damage rather than for vanity – is usually only available to the wealthier nations, and sometimes only to wealthy citizens. This creates elites and ordinaries with very different potentials. There is a suggestion that this could be further developed to enable dictators to implement breeding programs – or introduce viruses that kill those not protected…
Moving on to mortality, there are thoughts on slowing the aging process and transhumanism. Technology has also been harnessed to memorialise the dead by recording: voice, mannerisms, facial expression. These may be used to create a bot of the deceased, in some cases projected as a hologram. Listening to histories recorded during interviews may be fascinating but the idea of the dead being enabled to interact with the living felt creepy. There is also the question of who owns ‘you’ when you are dead.
This book offers a wide-ranging study of many aspects of identity in the digital age, only a few aspects of which I have highlighted here. The writing is accessible, the subject interesting if somewhat disturbing. Choice appears to be a casualty of increasingly required connectivity. Form of government is key in how much individuals benefit. Only briefly mentioned are those living in countries lacking the infrastructure and economic ability to join in.
Well worth reading to raise understanding of what we lose and gain when our personal data is taken. A warning not to accept new technologies without question, whatever benefits they appear to offer. A reminder of the repercussive damage when choice to not participate is removed.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.