‘The Ecology of Technology’: Community and digital disruption

By Dr Phil Godsiff

(In which Our Man in Europe goes domestic)

Just back from a conference at Chicheley Hall, the country seat of the Royal Society, with Fellows and other luminaries from the Royal Society, plus a Rogues’ Gallery of science fiction writers and representatives from the National Trust, the National Crime Agency, and the National Physics Laboratory to name a few.  We were reviewing scenarios the Royal Society have been developing as part of a programme to provide insights for decision makers into how new and emerging technologies may impact humanity and the world.  A few of us had worked together on the DLT Blackett report, which was our admission ticket as DLT’s role is becoming central to more and more sectors.  But this was less a conventional scenario-planning session, and more a sleek and effective exploration, expansion and critique of some pre-conference work done by a number of foresight experts.

Four themes were developed:

Health – Personalised, but complicated by an underfunded NHS struggling with an ageing population; 3D tailored health care; and the Quantified Self and genetic technology;  

Resources: Many more GM crops and DLT supported supply chains; new energy storage but cyberattacks on essential infrastructure;

Spaces: Geographic, social and personal, with city-states on the ground vying with virtual communities; London is still hot but there are concerns over privacy and tracking data;

Economy: Automation has led to flexible jobs and flexible people, which in turn has led to potential isolation in smaller communities (“hyperlocalism”), compensated for by some through a retreat into virtual worlds; DLT based local currencies.

The technology, as in all good science fiction, was broadly hidden, and generally benign but a consistent (and very broad) theme was the role of Distributed Ledger Technology, privacy and security of things, processes and people.  Perhaps missing was an exploration of the difference between tools and automation – e.g. a screwdriver versus a robot.

There was no sense of bracing for a coming revolution, but rather a gentle evolution.

Deconstructing the various projected futures into their constituent parts, and into the normal two by two collapsed dimensions beloved of scenario planners, the argument seems to be person centred, based on the not-quite-orthogonal dimensions of community / society, and the individual / self.   Here, a community could be virtual or analog, (where the analog tended to be closed, and the virtual open, but with concerns over privacy and security); the individual could be empowered or disempowered, leaving them both flexible and apprehensive.

These more anodyne themes potentially open the floodgates for the topics of climate change, population growth, inequality, global migration, nativism, and the presence and actions of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (a.k.a. AFAG).

In fact, our digital economy research generally has identified Community as a major theme (followed closely by Connectivity and Convenience).  The exploration of community at the workshop was intriguing in that the futures we projected had communities that tended to exclude as well as include — where to an extent the community chose you.  In parts, this echoes city-states and mediaeval guilds, where the best bits of the world became hieratic, exclusive and excluding. Not being in the guild nor ‘in’ with the Squire meant you were effectively excluded from benefactors and benefits — anxious, lonely and poor, a citizen of somewhere but outside the community.

So is the moral less about the technology but the extent to which you can freely choose your community?

Running away to join the circus may not work if the circus doesn’t want you.

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About the Author : Kris Henley

Communications and Outreach for Surrey Business School's Centre for the Digital Economy, a newly-founded research centre to explore the implications of the Digital Economy for business, government and society.