Tracey Follows

‘People are no longer constrained by pre-digital parameters’: Tracey Follows, CEO, Futuremade

Image credit: Nick Smith

Futurist and CEO of Futuremade, Tracey Follows discusses how our increasingly device- and social-media-driven society is changing our identities in the digital world and transforming our personal freedoms.

Put simply, “futurism is preparing for what the future might hold, while also preparing for alternative futures”, says Tracey Follows. “We start to do that,” says the CEO of Futuremade, which has worked with Google, Sky and Virgin, “by looking at history. This is because futurists are looking for patterns of change over time. We look at different time horizons and we look to both short-term and long-term futures, plotting events and changing values and the way in which society, technology and economics will change and impact our lives.”

Her role, says Follows, is “to help businesses and brands to navigate their way towards the future, spotting trends, assisting with foresight capability. One of the techniques we use is horizon scanning, in which we’re looking for little signals of changing circumstance. If we find enough of those in enough different areas, we can establish that we’ve started to see a trend. We can then extrapolate from that and start to consider the implications for the future.”

A critical tool Follows uses in differentiating long-term futures from present-day fads is to monitor patents, an area in which there can be lengthy time lags between the early dawn of an idea and eventual marketing of the packaged technology. “So, while commentators could be thinking that a trend has been forgotten, a futurist will know that it hasn’t, because sometimes things go a little bit quiet on the surface while all the consumer research and commercial deals are being done. Then the product will hit the market in a different way.” Follows says wearable electronics is a good example of this: first there is the media hype, followed by a deafening silence, and then the technology begins to emerge in a meaningful way.

It was Richard Branson who said that as soon as you lose interest in the future, you’re “consigning yourself to the past”. Yet predicting what will happen next is not easy, especially when confronted with some of the anomalies that are with us in the present. If you were to leave the IET’s headquarters in Savoy Place and take a stroll down the Strand towards Trafalgar Square, you could find yourself in the hypothetical scenario of engaging in a real-time international video conference on your smartphone while being overtaken by an antique No 15 Routemaster bus that may well have been in service since 1956. It’s difficult to reconcile how two such technologies could exist simultaneously: when Routemasters first rolled along our roads, the type of digital comms we have today was strictly something in the realm of the science-fiction writer. Meanwhile in our digital age, the idea that we still burn fossils to propel ancient omnibuses through the metropolis is both quaint and alarming.

This category of temporal anomaly is what futurists call ‘pace layers’. In this case, says Follows, what we are looking at is the difference between transport and communications. “Comms and culture move at a much faster pace than infrastructure. When you get this type of clash, this tension is when you get the signs and signals of what might be going to happen.”

We don’t always get it right, says Follows: you only have to watch the 1982 film ‘Blade Runner’ to realise that futurists depicting a dystopian future somewhat missed the mark when they included landlines and Polaroid photographs in among the intelligent robots and flying cars. Yet the movie illustrates how time moves in pace layers, confirming what futurist Michio Kaku once said: the problem with the future is that it never arrives on time.

An area Follows has been working on for some time is that of digital identity, and she has used much of the past year of coronavirus-related restrictions to gather her thoughts on the topic into her new book ‘The Future of You’. Although she prefers not to use the word ‘trivial’ to describe some “weak signals” she picks up on, when it comes to the way in which our digital identities are evolving, she seems happy enough to use the term for the smartphone ‘selfie’ photograph. “So it’s tempting to say, ‘It’s only a selfie. What does it matter?’ Well, it matters because it was one of the signals that impacted on the idea of our digital identity. It was a statement of how the subject of the photograph wanted to be seen. That provides an interesting dimension that made me start to wonder if we are going to have fragmented identities in future.”

‘We have chosen to polarise opinion rather than look for consensus’.

Tracey Follows

When the front-facing mobile phone camera first came on to the market, “it was a weak signal. But it got me wondering about what other technologies would need to come on to the market to enable even more of this, especially as there was an appetite developing. So what had started off as a weak signal changed into a strong signal, with implications for the patterns of future development.” The sub-title of her book asks the question: “Can your identity survive 21st-century technology?” Without giving too much away, the answer is that you probably can (just about). But to protect your ‘real’ self, you’ll need to construct a digital alias if we are to “embrace this new era of transformation while preserving our autonomy”.

In the past century, the nature of our identities has changed, says Follows. There have been times, especially around the World Wars, when “our identities were defined by the state”. Today, we live in much more individualistic times, where the trend is no longer one of thinking of ourselves as being part of something bigger than ourselves. This is described by Follows as a compromise, “brought about by technology, and in particular any technology that is based on global digitalisation, that tends to allow you to become connected with the world beyond your locality, or even your nation state. This is one of the reasons why we have more individualism today: because people are no longer constrained by pre-digital parameters.”

In the digital world, she goes on to say, all obstacles are removed: there are “no longer local borders, no national borders, no borders to your occupation or expertise”.

Social media “allowed people to smash through these barriers. They are empowered to be whatever they want to be. And the technology for that was the smartphone, specifically the iPhone that has a user-defined uniqueness to the interface. It was the epitome of personalisation through a technological product that allowed you to amplify your own individuality. I think this device has had more impact on the individual in recent years than, say, the Global Financial Crisis. It allowed people to set up businesses for themselves, to run everything through themselves, and then represent themselves and connect with new communities of interest. It really became a gateway to the rest of the world and, of course, it reflected the priorities, profile and preferences of that individual user.”

However, says Follows, social media has also brought an increase in communitarianism that, on the face of it, seems to be completely at odds with our new-found individualism. “That’s one of the cultural clashes that technology (and the way in which we are using the internet) has brought about.” The fact that you can connect as an individual with anyone in the world with similar interests means that “different groups that weren’t necessarily fixed in location could start to emerge. These communities of interest can grow quite large.” Once you are fighting to be heard in a digitalised media environment, says Follows, this community of interest becomes a community of activism. “That’s what’s emerging today.

“The truth of it is that any kind of networked media technology is going to create tribes,” says Follows. Today’s social media communication system contrasts with “what we had in the 20th century, which was much more linear and literary”, and has arguably encouraged the proliferation of phenomena such as the wisdom of crowds, the court of public opinion and the ‘Twitter pile-on’. But it is also causing “people to feel that they are losing their own identity”, says Follows. “Once you’re in the virtual, dematerialised world of a conversation in a socially connected digital network, you have to fight to maintain your identity.” Follows says she agrees with the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, who can be paraphrased as saying that when individuals lose their identity, society becomes more violent: “Because all you are ever trying to do is prove your identity, represent it or fight for it in a social context. I really believe that this is what’s going on in social media right now. On social media, it might only be violence with words. But it is an aggressive discourse. We have chosen to use the algorithms that go into creating digital platforms to polarise opinion rather than look for consensus.” For Follows, this division translates into a revenue stream for what she describes as the “technology oligarchs of Silicon Valley” because it “creates more content. It didn’t have to be like this. But it is. The question is: what can we do about it?”

At this point, the futurist in Follows kicks in with a prediction, in which she sees “more people retreating from social media to have more meaningful off-line conversations in the physical space with people that they know that they can trust. People are starting to feel that they are under attack and that their opinions are being silenced.” There will be in future, she forecasts, “more conversations taking place in the real world”.

The fact that ‘The Future of You’ asks how we can ‘survive’ rather than embrace 21st-century technology would seem to imply that Follows’s starting position is defensive. She agrees: “Because there is this trend towards communitarianism in social media, I was starting to feel that I had less control over my identity.” She tells an anecdote at the beginning of her book about how, when attempting to prove her identity on Facebook by scanning in her passport, she was told by the platform that she wasn’t who she said she was. This led to the question of “who is in charge of authenticating me, if not me? And I concluded that it is some kind of ‘group out there’, which in this case happens to be a corporation in Silicon Valley. But, importantly for the future, it is the fact that it is simply ‘other people’ having a say in who I am and how to represent myself.”

In trying to extrapolate what might be coming, she posits the ‘hive mind’ of digitally connected human brains in the cloud. “Once we can do this and share ideas in our collective consciousness, it really will become a case of how frightening will that be? We’ll be letting other people into our brains while invading others. We will need to ask where the boundaries are to the physical and mental self. The right question will be: how can my identity survive? The self is the most important thing to yourself. Let’s not have other people coercing us into certain representations of ourselves that we might not be comfortable with.”

The idea of the digital online identity is “still in its infancy” and, as with immature technologies of the past, Follows says there will be a reshuffle in which “people will migrate towards more immersive local platforms they feel more comfortable with, and away from the bigger oligarch platforms that are characterised by hostility”. Yet there’s no need to get bogged down exclusively in the pitfalls of social media, because there are other phenomena coming down the track that “could be as difficult to navigate”. She cites the World Economic Forum’s ‘Internet of Bodies’, “which kind of propagates the idea that we’re going to give lots of personal biological data to biobanks, because that’s for the common good. I think this might end up being the new social network: a kind of tribal community that’s not based so much on data about what you think or your opinions that you type into Twitter, but more on your physicality, your biological data and health. My worry though is that this isn’t a matter for the future but has started with Covid-19 passports.”

Follows says one of the strategies we will employ to survive the Brave New World of the digital colonisation of our future selves will be to travel in cyber space under the cloak of a digitally crafted alias. Yet she is at pains to point out that with this disguise we’ll already have admitted to ourselves that we have “lost such things as free speech and our autonomy as individuals”.

‘The Future of You’ by Tracey Follows is published by Elliott & Thompson, £14.99


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