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In the last twenty years, technology has changed the way the world works but in the next twenty, it will start to change how the world looks.Read More
Hi. How are you?
This question is such a standard part of every day life. One that we are so used to answering in non-specific fashion. “Yeah, fine thanks. You?” But today we can answer this question with greater specificity than ever.
Heart rate, blood oxygen and sugar, perspiration, body fat percentage: all of these things can be measured day-by-day, even minute-by-minute, by an array of relatively low-cost wearables. And from those base metrics we can extrapolate even more: fitness, and stress.
The sensors providing these measurements will become ubiquitous as their cost and size falls. Just a couple of days ago I was speaking to the BBC about printable transistors that might make it cheap enough to give disposable milk cartons an internet connection. We will certainly be in a position to connect our clothes.
You already know
So, how are we? In many contexts, that question will no longer need our minds to mediate an answer. Whether it’s our doctors, or our employers, they might know.
Already, thousands of workers around the world have agreed to wear company-issued fitness trackers feeding information back to corporate dashboards. As the NHS struggles to bring down costs in the face of an ageing population, the opportunity to remotely manage chronic conditions and detect new conditions early is hugely attractive.
Some researchers are starting to take the application of this data even further. At the University of Southern California, they’re trying to use a mix of physiological data with language analysis to predict arguments between couples and create an app that can intervene with calming measures.
This might seem absurd to us now but this is what the future cyborg life looks like: machines compiling huge amounts of data about every aspect of our lives and bodies, and returning that data to us with insight — or instructions.
Perhaps this is a way for us to be our best selves. An informed and objective conscience sitting on our shoulder, telling us to take a break, skip that donut, or walk away from the argument. But it could also make us lazy and irresponsible, passing the buck to the machine — especially when it fails to steer us.
We’re capable of so much. Maybe the focus should be on maximising that potential, developing our own self-control before we outsource it to machines.
What was your first piece of online identity? An Xbox Live handle, if you’re young perhaps? An ICQ handle, if you’re older? I’d argue the most common answer would be an email address.
A couple of weeks back,I headed into the Radio 4 studios to explain why EE is shutting down the Freeserve, Orange and Wanadoo email services — and why it can.
It may amaze the more tech-savvy, but these services continue to play an important role for some, in their business and home lives. It doesn’t have to be their primary email address that’s at stake. Because these addresses were often their first email account, they are the ones that many people used to set up everything else. For those who hadn’t started with Hotmail or Yahoo, or made the jump to Gmail, these are the recovery addresses for their Facebook, Skype and other accounts.
These people are probably in the minority. My guess is that the vast bulk of the storage underpinning the ageing Orange email systems is full of spam and unwanted newsletters. Of course, because EE owns the domain names — everything after the @ symbol and before the ‘co’ or ‘com’out— and the servers on which the service operates, it is well within its rights to do this. You might argue that more notice would have been welcome, but this is the reality of fast moving technology: things have to die eventually.
What interests me is what this means for our digital identity.
What’s in a name?
I am Tom Cheesewright. But I am also @bookofthefuture and linkedin.com/in/tomcheesewright/. These are more than mere addresses, just like a home is more than a house. But like a house, for many of us at least, we don’t really own these addresses. They are leased to us by a large and distant organisation over which we, at least individually, have very little influence. At any time these identities could disappear, or change radically — as Facebook’s interface has so often done.
What happens then to our digital identity? The unique facets of ourselves that we present on these different channels. The relationships we have built up conducted only in these venues? Already there are many casualties of the fast pace of change — Friendster, MySpace, FriendsReunited. What happens when Facebook dies?
Own your identity
There are pieces of digital identity that are uniquely and perpetually mine: my domain names. I own bookofthefuture.co.uk, tomcheesewright.com and futurism-tools.com. I control what content sits there, what email addresses are issued and any sub-domains. And yet these properties that we can own and control are increasingly superseded in importance by properties over which we have no control. Can this last?
Let’s be clear, Facebook will die, as ultimately will Twitter, and Snapchat and every other network, only to be replaced by something else. Facebook is demonstrating greater longevity than I expected and has maintained a surprising hold on the younger demographics, reversing an earlier trend that had seen its popularity decline in developed markets like the UK, US and Australia. Maybe it is going to have a Microsoft lifespan rather than a MySpace lifespan, but nonetheless it will one day be overtaken by a new network.
The chances are that what will replace it will be another private network. Or perhaps more likely, a collection of them: around a third of US Facebook users also use Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn according to the Pew Research Centre. Maybe it doesn’t die, it just loses primacy.
But in an ideal world, what would replace it would be distributed network of peers. A new email with addresses that we can own and control, but through which we can interact in the ways that have now become familiar through social networks — messaging, posts, rich media — and the ways that are fast becoming part of that experience — live videos and augmented reality.
A digital identity that is perhaps a little less transient.
I have been self-employed for 12 years now. For 12 years there has been little to bind me to ‘normal’ working patterns. During that period, I have granted myself varying degrees of freedom. But I’ve never been able to shake a sense of guilt when I’m not sat at a desk, or doing some other recognisable form of work, wherever it may be, between the ‘core’ hours of nine and five.
It’s worst when people call, or request a call or meeting. When I have to tell them that no, I’m not available at that time. Even now I can’t bring myself to simply tell them that I’m not ‘working’. That I’m ‘only’ thinking. Or reading. Or exercising. Or napping. Or doing whatever it is that I want, and that my brain needs, in order to recharge.
That’s not a good enough excuse for my own mind, and it’s often not good enough for them. “Can you not just…?” Even when I do explain what else I’m doing, like spending time with the kids, the response is rarely simple acceptance. What I want to hear is, “No problem. Are you free tomorrow?” What I often hear is “Everyone else is free, could you make some time?”
These are not original problems. I imagine they are familiar to anyone who has ever worked flexibly or part time. And probably to most women who, let’s be honest, continue to bear the brunt of family responsibilities, even while maintaining equally successful careers to their partners. My story is far from unique. But the fact that I, after 12 years, still feel the pressure to conform, just goes to show how deeply embedded these behaviours and expectations have become.
This will have to change.
Firstly, it has to change for me. I’m increasingly aware that as an applied futurist, talking and writing about the future isn’t enough. I should be ‘applying’ — doing what I can to live the future. How I do things, is as important as what I do. So I’ll be taking steps to increase my flexibility over the coming months, both to maximise my own quality of life but also to maximise my productivity.
I recognise that I am enormously privileged to be able to take decisions like this. But I don’t think this change stops with me.
It was a quote from Douglas Coupland that inspired this post. In a recent talk he covered the issue of the future of work in some depth. His opinion? That we will look back on the ‘barbaric’ nine to five much as we look back on 19th century child labour now.
I don’t know that that is true. But I do believe that the commute-work-lunch-work-commute model is not a means to maximise human productivity, or happiness, particular where a growing proportion of the remaining work — uncaptured by machines — is creative.
As Coupland also points out, a more flexible, free-rolling schedule is also not without its risks. You have to be disciplined to avoid work taking over your life. But this is just the other side of the same problem: it’s equally hard to break the habits and expectations of the nine-to-five.
Maximising our happiness and productivity in tomorrow’s world is going to require reserves of confidence, and a level of control that few of us can — or do — exert right now.
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