Best and Worst of 2035
By 2035 two trends will be evident, which we can characterize as the best and worst of digital life. Neither, though, is unadulterated. The best will contain elements of a toxic underside, and the worst will have its beneficial upside.
The best: everything we need will be available online.
The worst: everything about us will be known; nothing about us will be secret.
By 2035, these will only be trends, that is, we won’t have reached the ultimate state, and there will be a great deal of discussion and debate about both sides.
As we began to see during the pandemic, the digital economy is much more robust than people expect. Within a few months, services emerged to support office work, deliver food and groceries, take classes and sit for exams, perform medical interventions, provide advice and counselling, shop for clothing and hardware, and more, all online, all supported by a generally robust and reliable delivery infrastructure.
Looking past the current rebound effect, we can see some of the longer-term trends emerge: work-from-home, online learning and development, digital delivery services, and more along the same lines. We’re seeing a longer-term decline in the service industry as people choose both to live and work at home, or at least, more locally. Outdoor recreation and special events still attract us, but low-quality crowded indoor work and leisure leave us cold.
The downside is that this online world is reserved, especially at first, to those who can afford it. Though improving, access to good and services is still difficult to obtain in rural areas and less developed areas. It requires stable accommodations and robust internet access. These in turn demand a set of skills that will be out of reach for older people and those with perceptual or learning challenges. Even when they can access digital services, some people will be isolated and vulnerable; children, especially, must be protected from mistreatment and abuse.
We will have no secrets. Every transaction we conduct will be recorded and discoverable. Cash transactions will decline to the point that they’re viewed with suspicion. Automated surveillance will track our every move online and offline, with artificial intelligence recognizing us through our physical characteristics, habits and patterns of behaviour. The primary purpose of this surveillance will be for marketing, but it will also be used for law enforcement, political campaigns, and in some cases, repression and discrimination.
Surveillance will be greatly assisted by automation. A police office, for example, used to have to call in for a report on a license plate. Now a camera scans every simple plate that passes within view and a computer checks every single one of them. Registration and insurance documentation is no longer required; the system already knows and can alert the officer to expired plates or outstanding warrants. Facial recognition can accomplish the same for people walking through public places. Beyond the cameras, GPS tracking follows us as we move about, while every single purchase is recorded somewhere.
The greatest risk of total surveillance is an unwelcome, and often unjust, differentiation of treatment of individuals. People who need something more, for example, may be charged higher prices; we already see this in insurance, where differential treatment is described as assessment of risk. Parents with children may be charged more for milk than unmarried men. The price of hotel rooms and airline tickets are already differentiated by location and search history, and could vary in the future based on income and recent purchases. People with disadvantages or facing discrimination may be denied access to services altogether, as digital redlining expands to become a normal business practice.
What makes this trend pernicious is that none of it is visible to most observers. Not everybody will be under total surveillance; the rich and the powerful will be exempted, as will most large corporations and government activities. Without open data regulations or sunshine laws, nobody will be able to detect when people have been treated inequitably, unfairly, or unjustly.
And this is where we begin to see the beginnings of an upside. The same system that surveils us can help keep us safe. If child predators are tracked, for example, we can be alerted to the presence of child predators near our children. Financial transactions will be legitimate and legal, or won’t exist (except in cash). We will be able to press an SOS button to get assistance wherever we are. Our cars will detect and report an accident before we know we were in one. Ships and aircraft will no longer simply disappear. But this does not happen without openness and laws to protect individuals, and will lag well behind the development of the surveillance system itself.
Both the best and the worst of our digital future are two sides of the same digital coin, and this coin consists of the question: who will digital technology serve? There are many possible answers. It may be that it serves only the Kochs, Zuckerbergs and Musks of the world, in which case the employment of digital technology will be largely indifferent to our individual needs and suffering. It may be that it serves the needs of only one political faction or state, in which basic needs may be met provided we do not disrupt the status quo. It may be that it provides strong individual protections, leaving no recourse for those who are less able or less powerful. Or it may serve the interests of the community as a whole, finding a balance between needs and ability, providing each of enough with enough agency to manage our own lives, but not to the detriment of others.
Technology along won’t decide this future. It defines what’s possible. But what we do is up to us.