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Tech shock: Tracey Follows on how tech influences identity

In this week’s episode of the Tech Shock podcast, Vicki and Geraldine spoke to Tracey Follows, futurist and author of The Future of You, about whether the internet will undermine everything we think we know about ourselves.

What is futurism? 

Futurism’s role is to try to predict the unexpected consequences of what’s happening right now. “Foresight is in some ways more valuable than insight,” Follows says. “By the time you’ve realised what an insight is, everything has already moved on.”

Homogenising tech

Follows sees a dark side to global connectivity – and for her its roots are in the tendency of digital tech to create communities. “Technology will try to form a consensus,” she says. “It tends to homogenise things, including people or opinions, and to flatten out identities.”

Rather than fostering goodwill, this actually results in more division. Social media sites are prone to segmenting people into polarised groups and amplifying the loudest voices within those groups.

This flattening effect can threaten people’s sense of identity, causing them to overcompensate – expressing their views more violently and responding aggressively to alternative viewpoints. 

“What we need to be very careful of is that we’re not demonising fellow citizens and that we’re trying to make space for as much variety and diversity as possible,” she says. 

Sacrificing the individual 

Follows argues that this digital culture affects individuals in their offline lives as well. Increasingly, those with peripheral opinions or needs are ignored for the sake of a wider societal benefit. 

“We are moving into this model of communitarianism where anybody who is an individual, who might have individual circumstances, potentially ends up getting sacrificed for an action that needs to take place at a societal or collective level,” she says. Follows oftens cites the move towards obligatory vaccine passports as an example of this process. 

An ‘unholy alliance’: state power and tech power

The power and influence of tech companies has in some ways surpassed that of nation states. Follows foresees governments responding by co-opting tech’s power in an “unholy alliance”: the successful state of the future will be a technological state. 

Governments are starting to see technology as a tool to influence or even control populations, she argues. They seek to promote political agendas on social media, support facial recognition technology and data-gathering that could be useful to the government. She sees them as increasingly “using technology companies to carry out some of the actions and policies that might otherwise be difficult for them to get away with”. 

Taiwan bucks this trend; and Follows sees its digital openness and responsiveness – for example its collaborative approach to the Covid-19 pandemic – as an example to follow. “Taiwan sees digital as a tool for the citizens to keep an eye on the state, rather than for the state to keep an eye on the citizens,” she said.

Government and citizens work together to form a digital framework that offers easy access to all kinds of government services. Citizens can ask about the progression of a new legislation, send direct emails to heads of state, and request to download any documentation the government has on them. 

Enabling genetic modification

As tech companies infiltrate more areas of our lives, Follows suggests that tech will combine with biological sciences - bringing benefits to the wealthy, who are already exploring how to augment their physical bodies and cognitive powers, but threatening to control the majority. 

Follows cites several possibilities – from governments requiring their population to have certain genetic traits, to biological warfare against groups that share certain genes. If the state decides it wants to choreograph its population, for example denying services to those who don’t comply, it’s going to be able to do so, she said.

Technology of the self

Can our individual identities survive these technological changes? Follows argues that it won’t be easy. As technology moves towards this more collective model, the identity of the individual risks being chipped away. 

The digital sphere is a new frontier; we don’t know exactly how to navigate it. “We used to have the psychology and biology of the self,” Follows says, “but now we have this third realm: technology of the self. How do we retain our autonomy, given that a third of ourselves will be technological?


Listen to episode 6 of Tech Shock, season 2: "Tracey Follows"

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