tyuturist and CEO of Futuremade, Tracey Follows, discusses how our increasingly device and social media driven society is changing our identity in the digital world and changing our personal freedoms.
Simply put, “futurism prepares for what the future might bring, while also preparing for alternate futures,” says Tracey Follows. “We’re starting to do that,” says the CEO of Futuremade, who has worked with Google, Sky and Virgin, “by looking at history.
This is because futurists are looking for patterns of change over time. We look at different time horizons and we look at both short and long-term futures, mapping events and changing values and the way society, technology and economy will change and affect our lives.
” Her role, says Follows, is “to help companies and brands find their way into the future, spot trends and help with foresight. One of the techniques we use is horizon scanning, where we look for small signals of changing circumstances.
If we find enough of them in enough different areas, we can determine that we are starting to see a trend, and we can extrapolate from that and start thinking about the implications for the future.
” A critical tool Follows uses to differentiate long-term futures from contemporary fads is patent monitoring, an area where there can be long time lags between the early emergence of an idea and the eventual marketing of the packaged technology.
” So, while commentators would Thinking that a trend has been forgotten, a futurist will know that it isn’t, because sometimes it stays a little quiet on the surface while all the consumer research and commercial deals are done.
Then the product comes onto the market in a different way.” Follows says wearable electronics is a prime example of that: first there’s the media hype, followed by a deafening silence, and then the technology starts to come forward in a meaningful way.
It was Richard Branson who said that once you lose interest in the future, you “surrender yourself to the past”. Still, it is not easy to predict what will happen next, especially when faced with some of the anomalies that are occurring in the present.
If you were to leave the 9breaking headquarters in Savoy Place and take a stroll down the Strand towards Trafalgar Square, you could find yourself in the hypothetical scenario of participating in a real-time international video conference on your smartphone while being overtaken by a antique No 15 Routemaster bus which may have been in use since 1956.
It’s hard to reconcile how two such technologies can co-exist: When Routemasters first rolled over our roads, the kind of digital communication we have today was strictly something in the realm of science-fiction writer.
Meanwhile, in our digital age, the idea that we are still burning fossils to propel ancient omnibuses through the metropolis is both strange and alarming.
This category of temporal anomaly is what futurists call “tempo layers.” In this case, Follows says, we’re looking at the difference between transportation and communication. “Communication and culture move much faster than infrastructure.
When you get collisions like this, this tension is when you get the signs and signals of what could be happening. We don’t always get it right, Follows says:
You only need to see the 1982 film ‘Blade Runner’ to realize that futurists portraying a dystopian future are somewhat mistaken when they see landlines and Polaroid photos between the intelligent robots and flying cars.
Still, the film illustrates how time moves in tempo layers, confirming what futurist Michio Kaku once said: the problem with the future is that it never arrives in time.
One area Follows has been working on for some time is that of digital identity, and she has used much of the past year of coronavirus-related restrictions to gather her thoughts on the subject in her new book, “The Future of You.
” While she’d rather not use the word “trivial” to describe some of the “weak signals” she picks up, she seems fortunate enough to use the smartphone term “selfie” when it comes to how our digital identities are evolving. ‘ photographer.
“So it’s tempting to say, ‘It’s just a selfie. What does it matter?’ Well, it’s important because it was one of the signals that influenced the idea of our digital identity.
It was a statement of how the subject of the photo wanted to be seen. That gives an interesting dimension that made me wonder if we will have fragmented identities in the future.”
“We have chosen to polarize opinions rather than seek consensus.
” Tracey follows
When the front-facing camera for mobile phones first hit the market, “it was a weak signal. But it got me thinking about what other technologies should come out to make even more of this possible.
” mainly because there was interest in it, so what started as a weak signal turned into a strong signal, with implications for the patterns of future development.
” The subtitle of her book asks the question, “Can your identity survive 21st century technology?” Without giving too much away, the answer is you probably can (roughly).
But to protect your ‘real’ self, you’ll need to construct a digital alias if we want to “embrace this new era of transformation while preserving our autonomy.” Over the past century, the nature of our identities has changed, says Follows.
There have been times, especially around the world wars, when “our identities were defined by the state”. Today we live in much more individualistic times, where the trend is not longer is that we view ourselves as part of something bigger than ourselves.
This is described by Follows as a compromise, “made by technology, and in particular any technology based on global digitization, that allows you to to connect with the world outside of your own place, or even your nation-state.
This is one of the reasons why we have more individualism today: because people are no longer limited by pre-digital parameters.
” In the digital world, she continues, all obstacles are removed: there are “no more local borders, no national borders, no limits to your profession or expertise”.
Social media “allowed people to break through these barriers. They are empowered to be what they want to be. And the technology for that was the smartphone, specifically the iPhone with a user-defined uniqueness of the interface.
was the pinnacle of personalization through a technological product that allowed you to enhance your own individuality.I think this device has had more impact on the individual in recent years than, say, the global financial crisis.
It allowed people to create for themselves a set up a business, take care of everything yourself, then represent yourself and connect with new communities of interest.It really became a gateway to the rest of the world and it naturally reflected the priorities, profile and preferences of that individual user .
” But, says Follows, social media has also led to an upsurge in communitarianism that, on the face of it, seems completely at odds with our new-found individualism. using).
” The fact that as an individual you can connect with everyone in the world with the same interests means that “different groups that were not necessarily stuck in location could arise.
These communities of interest can become quite large.” Once you fight to be heard in a digitized media environment, Follows says, this community of interest becomes a community of activism. “That is what is emerging today.
“The truth is that any kind of networked media technology will create tribes,” says Follows. Today’s social media communication system is in contrast to “what we had in the 20th century, which was much linear and literary,” and has arguably encouraged the spread of phenomena such as the wisdom of the crowd, the court of public opinion and the ‘Twitter stack’. -On’.
But it also makes “people feel like they’re losing their own identity,” Follows says. “Once you’re in the virtual, dematerialized world of a conversation in a socially connected digital network, you have to fight to maintain your identity.
” Follows says she agrees with Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, who can be paraphrased as saying that when individuals lose their identity, society becomes more violent: “Because all you ever try to do is prove your identity, represent your identity.
” or fighting for it in a social context. I really believe that’s what’s happening on social media right now. On social media, maybe it’s just violence with words. But it’s an aggressive discourse. We chose to use the algorithms needed to create digital platforms to polarize opinions rather than seek consensus.
” For Follows, this division translates into a revenue stream for what she describes as the “technology oligarchs of Silicon Valley” because it “creates more content. It didn’t have to be. But it is.
The question is, what can we do about it?” At this point, the futurist in Follows begins a prediction, seeing “more people withdrawing from social media to have more meaningful offline conversations in physical space with people they know they can trust.
People are starting to feel that they are being attacked and that their views are being silenced.” In the future, she predicts, “more conversations will take place in the real world”.
The fact that “The Future of You” asks how we can “survive” rather than embrace 21st century technology seems to imply that Follows’ starting position is defensive. She agrees:
“Because there is a trend towards communitarianism in social media, I started to feel like I had less control over my identity.” She tells an anecdote at the beginning of her book about how, when she tried to prove her identity on Facebook by scanning her passport, she was told by the platform that she was not who she said she was.
This led to the question “who is responsible for authenticating me, if not me? And I concluded that it’s kind of an “outside group,” in this case a Silicon Valley company.
But important for the future is the fact that it’s just ‘other people’ who have a say in who I am and how I should represent myself.” In an effort to extrapolate what might come next, she posits the ‘hive mind’ of digitally connected human brains in the cloud.
“Once we can do this and share ideas in our collective consciousness, it will really become a question of how scary is that going to be? We let other people into our brains while invading others. We will have to ask ourselves where are the limits of the physical and mental self.
The right question will be: how can my identity survive? The self is the most important thing for yourself. Let’s not let other people force us into certain images of ourselves that we may not be comfortable with.”
The idea of the digital online identity is “still in its infancy” and, as with immature technologies of the past, Follows says there will be a realignment where “people will migrate to more immersive local platforms that they are more comfortable with, and away from the larger oligarch platforms characterized by hostility.
” Still, there is no need to get stuck solely in the pitfalls of social media as other phenomena emerge that “can be so difficult to navigate.
” to the World Economic Forum’s Internet of Bodies, “which promotes the idea that we’re going to give a lot of personal biological data to biobanks because it’s for the public good. I think this could eventually become the new social network:
a kind of tribal community that is based not so much on data about what you think or on your opinions you type on Twitter, but more on your physicality, your biological data s and health.
My concern, however, is that this is not a matter for the future, but has started with Covid-19 passports.” Follows says one of the strategies we’ll use to survive the Brave New World of our future selves’ digital colonization is to travel in cyberspace under the cloak of a digitally crafted alias.
Still, she goes out of her way to point out that with this disguise, we’ve already admitted that we’ve “lost things like freedom of expression and our autonomy as individuals.”
The Future of You’ by Tracey Follows is published by Elliott & Thompson, £14.99