THE BLOG

It's Life Jim, but Not as We Knew It...

28/01/2013 16:56 GMT | Updated 27/03/2013 09:12 GMT

The once science fiction notion of hyper-connectivity - where we are all constantly connected to social networks and other bubbling streams of digital data - has rapidly become a widespread reality.

This issue - present in the minds of every parent who sees their children growing up immersed in social networks - has just been addressed by the government's chief scientific adviser, Sir John Beddington, in a report this week, Changing Identities in the UK - the Next Ten Years .

I'm an enthusiast for what networks can do for learning, understanding and motivation to engage. But I also sense a problem. If you define yourself by your networks and what they feedback about you, what happens to your sense of self? How does the online soldier "killr1" or enthusiastic Tweeter "@topbeiberfan" relate to the off-line, face-to-face reality of student or worker, brother or mother?

One possibility is that we are seeing a generation grow up with fragmented identities, composed of a multitude of uneven mirrors, but hollowing out what's at the core. With a fractured sense of self we come to depend on what people feed back to us - often mediated through social networks - not what we are. We have complex identities but may become less able to act as a subject - confident in what we really are. When there's a setback, as there always is, there's less to fall back on.

There are many consequences of this. At a personal level, one is the temptation is to act in ways that are bright and visible rather than ones that achieve real or lasting traction. A stunt that gets onto the TV news, or attracts a million YouTube hits, appears to be a great success but experience shows that it may be illusory and, after generating a few minutes in the limelight, may have no effect at all. As the Internet of things advances the very notion of a clear dividing line between reality and virtual reality becomes blurred, sometimes in creative ways. Every object and even every body part may soon have an identity - a URL or successor. But some of that blurring is dangerous, if you can be a hero in virtual reality more easily than in reality why not take that shortcut?

At a more political level, control over identity is bound to become more fraught. Up to now we've been fairly relaxed about sharing vast amounts of personal data with big Internet companies and retailers, mainly because of the extent to which we benefit from this arrangement. But it looks unlikely that this will last. The public are becoming smarter both about what's done with their data, and about its value, and in movements like the Pirate Party we can see the beginnings of much more aggressive attempts to assert control. Young people who were relaxed about posting every detail of their life on Facebook become a lot less relaxed when they realise just how transparent their life has become to future employers.

The Internet is a technology founded on decentralisation. But it has ended up concentrating power in the hands of a few organisations whose business models make them unlikely guardians of personal privacy and identity. A positive response is to turn identity into a field of innovation, as people try to get the greatest benefits of digital networks without the costs. Projects like Mydex are attempts to maximise the flexibility of the Internet with much greater citizen control over data and identities. But we need much more experiment to discover better solutions.

One of the challenges will be to strike the right balance in relation to authentication. On the one hand free Internet advocates continue to argue for anonymity as a vital protection for civil liberty in countries like China. On the other hand pervasive anonymity brings with it a lot of social ills - and a culture in which trolling thrives. and aggressive, offensive and antisocial behaviour appears to have no costs.

Every powerful new technology brings with it great opportunities but also new risks and harms. Societies have typically taken decades to work out how to get the best of the opportunities and how to effectively contain the harms. Electricity and the car are good examples - both with more fatal risks than the Internet. Both innovations ended up highly regulated but also greatly expanded everyday freedom.

With the speed of digital development we don't have decades to work out the best way to proceed. The Internet is a space for freedom and that should be protected at all costs. But we shouldn't be shy of intelligent debate about the choices that need to be made to reap rewards without unintended harms, and we urgently need smarter solutions that aren't controlled by the new powers dominating the Internet, but rather put people and citizens' interests first.