What will future society look like as technology’s role grows? The answers are speculative and concerning. It is clear that the daily use of sophisticated devices, systems, and equipment will mean significant time savings and increased efficiency, but other consequences will arise that are not yet fully known or understood.
We know the use of technology causes a reorganization of neural connections, a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity (the brain’s capacity to reorganize itself, transferring processing functions from one region to another, or even strengthening or weakening specific connections). We also are fully aware that the cell phone technology we have in our hands puts us closer to those who are far from us. But it also ends up moving those close to us farther away: Witness tables in restaurants where entire parties are connected to their phones but disconnected from the people in the here and now.
The British TV series Black Mirror, created by Charlie Brooker, portrays various scenarios of the near future. Brooker says the series’ name comes from the reflection of our images in the screens of our portable devices when they are in off mode. In one episode, Nosedive, the socioeconomic situation of individuals is determined by ratings they earn in all of their interactions — in both the virtual and physical worlds. People with higher star ratings get access to better services (more flexible bookings in airlines and better rental cars), shorter lines, and larger discounts, and the episode tells the story of a woman seeking a better social rating who ends up in a downward spiral with dramatic consequences.
Does this seem preposterous? Maybe not. In 2014, the Chinese government launched a program translated as Social Credit System (although a more correct translation may have been Public Reputation System). The West quickly characterized it as an instrument to be used by the state to exert control over citizens, since the proposition seeks to use the data inevitably made available by the population on a daily basis in their interactions with stores, transportation systems, restaurants, and public services to generate a score that reflects the reputation or trustworthiness (in terms of financial credit, primarily) of each user.
Data that could be used in the calculation of your reputation score in China could include obeying traffic regulations, volunteering for community services, paying bills on time, the quality of your contacts on social networks, your employment relationships, and even your energy savings. A good score would allow you to use services such as renting a car without a deposit, or to avoid lines at the airport.
The way we behave behind our screens reflects old characteristics of humans: the need to belong to a community, to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and to identify with others who have similar interests, principles, or tastes. Until recently, we had to be geographically close to the people with whom we wanted to discuss or share topics of interest. With the Internet and the possibility of instantaneous connections to practically anywhere in the world, this restriction exists no more. It is easy, inexpensive, and stimulating to be part of global communities — so easy that it is unlikely that we would only join one or two. We have dozens of WhatsApp groups, we follow hundreds of people on Twitter and Instagram, we connect with our extended professional network over LinkedIn, we have thousands of friends on Facebook (often people we have never Met(a)), and we share information — from the most mundane to the most significant — with a network of contacts made up of family, friends, acquaintances, friends of friends, and acquaintances of acquaintances.
The setup, maintenance, utilization, and expansion of social networks is big business — and will be our next topic. See you then.