Do you think about the future? What do you visualise? How do you see technologies developing in the future? What kind of society will we live in?
These were the kinds of questions posed on Friday 28 September 2012, at a short envisioning exercise was held at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Fifteen people attended the session. All came from IT backgrounds. Yet they all also had a deep concern for ICT, society, and ethical challenges. Their origins were continents and countries as widespread as Africa, Australia, the USA, and Europe (Belgium, Finland, Sweden, the UK).
People’s concerns were both utopian and dystopian. While there was hope, there was also a lot of anxiety about the near future and the further future of humankind. Oftentimes, the good was counterbalanced by the threatening. Briefly, concerns included: “Will being part of an artificial intelligence-based global network in an era of instant communications, ‘growing up Google’ from birth, drive what it is to be human?” “What will it mean to have smart cities, pod cars, and renewable energy if we entirely lose sight of what it is to be human?” On the other hand, it was feasible to see the option of: “Having choice! And anticipating a big ‘anti-digital movement’.”
After a first round of priority-setting, the attendees self-selected to join three discussion groups. The three foci were: control (Group 1); education, research, and the planet (Group 2); and the loss of human contact (Group 3).
Led by Kai Kimppa of Turku University, Finland, the first group was interested in the challenges of control, both technological and societal. The discussants covered circumstances pertinent to information security and privacy, as wide-ranging as cities, food, energy, sustainability, and values. Many of their concerns were serious and profound. Yet, among the more creative ideas, was the notion, 30 years from now, of being able – à la fictional hero, Harry Potter – to have a “personal cloaking device”, to wear like a chador, so as not to be visible at all times.
Based on the inputs from this group, a draft vision snapshot was written later which began: “In 2050 we are all born digital, RFID chips and body implants were placed under our skin after birth in the hospitals. Identity cards will not be needed as information is stored ‘inside’ us. At a global level, we are concerned about better security and the right to ‘opt in’ and ‘opt out’ anytime from the digital world. […]”
Facilitated by Magda Hercheui of Westminster University, UK, Group 2 focused on education, research, and the planet. In this group, there was a real sense of a desire for people to align themselves better as individuals and collectively, and with the planet. The group desired to remain open to dreams and desires, particularly for human well-being and for planetary well-being.
The third group, which worked on the loss of human contact, was animated by Renier van Heerden of CSIR, South Africa. Here, group members spoke of the potential for the loss of human contact between cliques, groups, and generations. They also explored the differences between the real and the virtual: “Who we are as human beings, what is human warmth, and what might it be like to lose contact with ourselves in a more virtual world?” Notions such as dangerisation were also raised.
These discussions encourage ways of looking towards a vision of 2050, as well as to consider the policies and trends of the more immediate years until 2020 and 2030. Like the Long Now Foundation, they create ideas for living not in the year 2013 but in 02013 (i.e., starting to count out time using five digits, not four)!
The final feedback on the session was positive. The attendees enjoyed discussing and working together, forming a sense of civic intelligence. They found the interactivity exciting and stimulating. It was fun to fantasise with people, knowing that humankind has already been on a 50,000 or 60,000-year or more journey together. Interesting, technology was far from being the main focus of the discussions: humanity, social relations, and ethics really came to the fore.
This workshop took place at the end of the International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP) Technical Committee’s 9’s (IT and Society) Human Choice and Computers 10 (HCC10). It was facilitated by Ms Bernadett Koteles-Degrendele of the European Commission’s DG Connect and Ms Diane Whitehouse, Chair, IFIP working group 9.2 social accountability and computing. These Digital Futures workshops continue regularly, organised by the European Commission in conjunction with many other organisations. All those interested are absolutely invited to join in, and to build the future together! Much can already be done directly online. More information is available at: http://ec.europa.eu/digital-agenda/en/digital-futures and its Futurium http://ec.europa.eu/digital-agenda/futurium/
 See the work of Doug Schuler, Evergreen State college, US http://www.evergreen.edu/alumni/writersproject/douglasschuler.htm; online presentation made from Seattle, Washington, US, as a part of the Human Choice and Computers 10 (HCC10) conference (accessed 10 June 2013).