The Internet Is Redefining Human Identity In The UK

Social networks, games, and internet hyperconnectivity is changing notions of identity in the UK, according to a report from the British government's chief scientist.

The report, entitled "Future Identities," published by Prof Sir John Beddington, shows that internet use (termed "hyperconnectivity") is changing Britons' view of who they are and their place in the world.  As more of the multicultural population share more personal data publicly online, policy makers need to keep in mind these changing trends of identity over the next decade.

HYPERCONNECTIVITY

In 2007, 17% of UK internet users were members of a social network.  The number is now at 60%, showing a meteoric growth thanks to a wide variety of circumstances.  Rapid advancement of technology has contributed to 'always-connected' devices (both mobile & not) and a more participatory internet with virtually unlimited storage capability.  

This new found opportunity to document any aspect of our lives online (our 'hyperconnectivity') leads to a vast database of personal information, freely shared across multiple networks, and mined for all sorts of insights from corporate to criminal.  Hence, identity has become a commodity to advertisers, private companies, the government, service providers and criminals.

Hyperconnectivity has lead to a virtual environment in Britain, as well as a physical one.  With the integration between each becoming more seamless, the boundaries between the two are being worn down.  Because while we are physically localised to a country, we are globally networked online.  Events that occur elsewhere around the world can impact us in the UK.

"People have become accustomed to switching seamlessly between the internet and the physical world, and use social media to conduct their lives in a way which dissolves the divide between online and offline identities," the report says.

This can have a positive effect: the report uses migrant communities keeping in touch with their families and friends as an example.  However, it also warns this can make the pace of social change more volatile.  

"The internet has not produced a new kind of identity, rather it has been instrumental in raising awareness that identities are more multiple, culturally contingent and contextual than had previously been understood."

SOCIAL PLURALITY

Through the unity of these two worlds could come less integration between the multiplying societies within them.  Cited as another factor for consideration by policy makers is an increase of "social plurality."  The emergence of online virtual communities, changing patterns of immigration and greater diversity could lead to more societies, which are less integrated.

Integenerational dynamics and the transitional stages of life (e.g. childhood to adulthood), are shifted due to online identity being defined by attitudes and roles, rather than age.  Simply put, your so-called 'mental age' will be affected the way you and people within your virtual community live their lives, rather than how old you physically are.

A stat to put that into perspective is that between 1997 and 2011, there has been a 20% increase in the number of adults between 20 and 34 who are still living with their parents.  It just goes to show the alternate social attitudes implemented by people under these different circumstances.

BLURRING OF PUBLIC AND PRIVATE IDENTITIES

It's common fact that privacy doesn't exist on the internet in the same fashion as it did for generations previous.  And through young people's changing attitudes to said privacy, the distinction between a public and private identity is somewhat blurred.  This loss of anonymity could lead to serious consequences further down the line, both in the short-term and long.  

The report warns of the short-term through posing a metaphorical situation of being refused a job because of what was posted on a social profile.  The long-term, however, seems more like a self-inflicted Orwellian dystopia.  

"This breakdown in the barrier between public and private identities could be an important and transformative consequence of social and technological change. The widespread use of mobile technology could, in time, allow social media to be linked with spatial tracking and even facial recognition technologies. This would allow people to draw on personal information about a stranger in a public place, changing the nature of what it means to be anonymous in public spaces."

The report explains that in the liberal society of English law, social identity is "a personally defined and freely chosen individual possession."  Your British citizenship might be defined by the state; but the individual owns their identity.  But with this potential socio-technological future allowing people to draw personal information about a stranger in a public place, changing what it means to be anonymous in public spaces, your identity could fall into the same camp as your citizenship.

"And so the legal system will need to continue to ensure that people’s online and offline identities are protected."

CRIME & DIGITAL LITERACY

After these findings, the report makes several recommendations to policy makers over the next decade.  A key consideration of this being the rise of new crimes solely enabled by the internet. The vast quantity of "personal and financial data online, as facial recognition technology, ‘big data’ and social media together begin to connect information about individuals," leaves people more vulnerable for criminal exploitation.  

This idea of identity theft is "more than simply a manifestation of crime, because it uses part of an individual's sense of self and so is particularly disruptive and invasive for the victim."  While these privacy concerns are apparent for criminal use, the idea of 'open source' intelligence gathering will become more important, making crime detection and prevention a simpler job online.  Makes for a Catch-22 that policy makers will have to make light of over the next decade.

Individuals also need to have the knowledge and technical abilities to keep control of their own identities.  They need digital literacy to know how their identity could be used by others, and maintain a presence.  In fact, the report states that over the next decade, "Maintaining an online presence could become normalised to the point where refusing to participate in online media could appear unusual or even suspicious."

Furthermore, the combination of social plurality, hyperconnectivity and a declining trust in authority make radicalist and extremism a more likely trait in people's identities, as it is easier to communicate with likeminded individuals who share their grievances.  "Due to the development and spread of new technologies, mobile smart-phones, social networking, and the trend towards hyper-connectivity, disparate groups can be more easily mobilised where their interests temporarily coincide."  Using the 2011 UK riots as an example, this could be for good, as in the multiple clean-up operations that occurred.  However, it could play a role in mobilising rioters and troublemakers.

In conclusion, the report recommends that government should utilise these hyperconnective, real-time technologies, rather than condemn them, to really understand what is happening to the country over the next decade, and assess the effectiveness of policies.

Source: Foresight

Jason England