Hyper-connectivity – where people are constantly connected to social networks and streams of information – will have a transforming effect on how we see ourselves and others in the next decade, according to a new report published by the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Sir John Beddington.
The Foresight study Changing Identities in the UK – the Next Ten Years looks at a range of areas affected by identity including social inclusion and mobility, education and skills, crime and mental health. It shows that traditional ideas of identity will become less meaningful as boundaries between people’s public and private identities disappear, with wide ramifications for policy-makers.
Reading the (long) executive summary, it all seems rather optimistic to me, as the grinding impact of a slow-growth economy in the UK as well as the increasing “under-the-rader” control systems of corporations and governments through the unleashing of algorithms on big data sets, don’t seem to be valued enough in this report.
Key findings (summary)
Rather than having a single identity, people have several overlapping identities, which shift in emphasis in different life stages and environments. These are changing in three important ways:
- Hyper-connectivity: Sixty per cent of internet users in the UK are now members of a social network site, increasing from only 17% in 2007. The UK is now a virtual environment as well as a real place, and increasingly UK citizens are globally networked individuals. Events which occur elsewhere in the world can have a real and immediate impact in the UK. People have become accustomed to switching seamlessly between the internet and the physical world, and use social media to conduct their lives in a way which dissolves the divide between online and offline identities. The internet has not produced a new kind of identity. Rather, it has been instrumental in raising awareness that identities are more multiple, culturally contingent and contextual than had previously been understood.
- Increasing social plurality: As the large UK post-war cohort reach old-age, the number of over-75 year olds will increase by over a million, from 5.1 million in 2012 to 6.6 million in 2022, a rise of more than 20%. The Report identifies a shift in attitudes, with the emergence of new transitional life stages being defined by attitudes and roles, rather than age. Traditional life stages, for example between adolescence and adulthood, or middle-age and old-age, are being delayed or blurred together.
- Blurring of public and private identities: People are now more willing to place personal information into public domains, such as on the internet, and attitudes towards privacy are changing, especially among younger people. These changes are blurring the boundaries between social and work identities. The widespread use of mobile technology could, in time, allow social media to be linked with spatial tracking and even facial recognition technologies. This would allow people to draw on personal information about a stranger in a public place, changing the nature of what it means to be anonymous in public spaces.
The Report goes on to question what identity means today. It finds that:
- Identities are controlled both by individuals and by others: People can choose to present certain aspects of their identities, or to disclose particular personal information. Identities can also be imposed by others. Even if a person does not create their own online accounts, their families and friends may discuss them or post photographs online.
- People have many overlapping identities: Understanding which of a person’s identities are most relevant in a given situation depends on the context. Identities are, therefore, culturally contingent and highly contextual, but can also be strongly linked to behaviours.
- People express their identities in different ways: One of the most significant observations of the impact of online identities is the way that some people can feel that they have achieved their ‘true’ identity for first time online. For example, some people may socialise more successfully and express themselves more freely online.
- Identities have value: People’s identities have personal, psychological, social, and commercial value. The growth in the collection and use of personal data can have benefits for individuals, organisations and government, by offering greater insights through data analysis, and the development of more targeted and more effective services. Identities can unify people and can be regarded as a valuable resource for promoting positive social interaction. However, this growth in the amount of available data also has the potential for criminal exploitation or misuse. Trust is fundamental to achieving positive relationships between people and commercial organisations, and between citizens and the state, but surveys show that people are less willing to trust in authority than in the past.
Finally, the Report provides some recommendations for policy makers, particularly in six key areas:
- Crime prevention and criminal justice: The growing quantity of personal and financial data online, as facial recognition technology, ‘big data’ and social media together begin to connect information about individuals, means that there will be more opportunities for criminal exploitation and cybercrime. However, there are also opportunities for enhanced crime prevention, intelligence gathering, and crime detection. The foundation of English law is a liberal society where social identity is, as far as possible, a personally defined and freely chosen individual possession, and so the legal system will need to continue to ensure that people’s online and offline identities are protected.
- Health, environment and wellbeing: The implications of changing identities for the built environment, transport, infrastructure, and mitigating the effects of climate change will need to be considered by policy makers. The development and application of biomedical technologies, such as drugs to improve memory and cognition, and developments in reproductive technologies, could have the potential to transform the way that people relate to themselves, each other, and their environment. However, there are complex ethical and practical implications for government in regulating and responding to these technologies.
- Skills, employment and education: A critical issue for the future will be to ensure that individuals have the knowledge, understanding, and technological literacy to enable them to take control of their own online identities, and to be aware of their online presence and how it could be used by others.
- Radicalisation and extremism: The trends towards greater social plurality, declining trust in authority, and increasing take-up of new technologies may all pose challenges for policy makers seeking to manage radicalisation and extremism.
- Social mobility: Perceptions of unfairness in access to opportunities, rather than actual inequality, may in turn reinforce certain kinds of social identities and increase the potential for collective action. However, as access to the internet and hyper-connectivity increase, information and education may become more freely available and shared, enhancing life opportunities for many individuals.
- Social integration: Greater social plurality, demographic trends, and the gradual reduction in importance of some traditional aspects of identity, suggest that communities in the UK are likely to become less cohesive over the next 10 years. However, hyper-connectivity can also create or strengthen new group identities. Policy makers will need to consider indirect as well as direct implications of policy for communities and people’s sense of belonging. There are opportunities for policy to support social integration and acknowledge new forms of community as they develop.