A large number of experts think sweeping societal change will make life worse for most people as greater inequality, rising authoritarianism and rampant misinformation take hold in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Between June 30 and July 27, 2020, Pew Research Center and Elon’s Imagining the Internet Center conducted a survey and build a database of experts to canvass from a wide range of fields, choosing to invite people from several sectors, including professionals and policy people based in government bodies, nonprofits, and foundations, technology businesses, think tanks and in networks of interested academics and technology innovators.
The purpose of this survey was to get expert views about important digital issues a nonscientific canvassing based on a nonrandom sample; this broad array of opinions about where current trends may lead in the next few years represents only the points of view of the individuals who responded to the queries.
The predictions reported came in response to a set of questions in an online canvassing involving 915 technology innovators and developers, business and policy leaders, researchers, and activists that responded to at least one of the questions covered in the report.
It is fundamental to understand that when pandemics sweep through societies, they upend critical structures, such as health systems and medical treatments, economic life, socioeconomic class structures, and race relations, fundamental institutional arrangements, communities, and everyday family life. The experts that responded to this survey expect similar impacts to emerge from the COVID-19 outbreak.
When the 915 innovators, developers, business and policy leaders, researchers, and activists invited to take part were asked to consider what life will be like in 2025 in the wake of the outbreak of the global pandemic and other crises in 2020, people’s relationship with technology will grow very much as larger segments of the population come to rely more on digital connections for work, education, health care, daily commercial transactions, and essential social interactions.
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Notable shares of these respondents foresee significant change that will:
- worsen economic inequality as those who are highly connected and the tech-savvy pull further ahead of those who have less access to digital tools and less training or aptitude for exploiting them and as technological change eliminates some jobs;
- enhance the power of big technology firms as they exploit their market advantages and mechanisms such as artificial intelligence (AI) in ways that seem likely to further erode the privacy and autonomy of their users;
- multiply the spread of misinformation as authoritarians and polarized populations wage warring information campaigns with their foes. Many respondents said their deepest worry is over the seemingly unstoppable manipulation of public perception, emotion, and action via online disinformation – lies and hate speech deliberately weaponized in order to propagate destructive biases and fears. They worry about significant damage to social stability and cohesion and the reduced likelihood of rational deliberation and evidence-based policymaking.
At the same time, a small portion of these experts expresses hope that changes spawned by the pandemic will make things better for significant portions of the population because of changes that:
- inaugurate new reforms aimed at racial justice and social equity as critiques of current economic arrangements – and capitalism itself – gain support and policymaker attention;
- enhance the quality of life for many families and workers as more flexible-workplace arrangements become permanent and communities adjust to them;
- produce technology enhancements in virtual and augmented reality and AI that allow people to live smarter, safer, and more productive lives, enabled in many cases by “smart systems” in such key areas as health care, education, and community living.
The bulk of this report covers these experts’ written answers explaining their responses. They sounded many broad themes about the ways in which individuals and groups are adjusting in the face of the global crisis, describing the most likely opportunities and challenges emerging as humans accelerate their uses and applications of digital technologies in response. It is important to note that the responses were gathered in the summer of 2020, before the completion of the presidential election in the United States and before COVID-19 vaccines had been approved.
As these experts pondered what was happening in mid-2020 and the likely changes ahead, they used words like “inflection point,” “punctuated equilibrium,” “unthinkable scale,” “exponential process,” “massive disruption” and “unprecedented challenge.” They wrote about changes that could reconfigure fundamental realities such as people’s physical “presence” with others and people’s conceptions of trust and truth.
As the global pandemic unfolds, experts fear growing social and racial inequality, worsening security and privacy, and the further spread of misinformation.
The advantaged enjoy more advantages; the disadvantaged fall further behind. Concerns particularly focus on the growing power of technology firms. Many suggested solutions have a double-edged quality because they threaten civil liberties. Automation could take many humans out of the work equation. And the spread of lies via social media and other digital platforms is likely to further damage all social, political and economic systems.
Inequality and injustice are magnified: The pandemic and quick pivot to the use of digitally-driven systems will widen racial and other divides and expand the ranks of the unemployed, uninsured, and disenfranchised. More people will be pushed into a precarious existence that lacks predictability, economic security, and wellness.
As risk grows, security must also; privacy falls and authoritarianism rises: The health crisis spawned by the pandemic and broader dependence people have on the internet heighten threats of criminal activity, hacks and other attacks. Optimized security solutions may further reduce individuals’ privacy and civil liberties. They are likely to expand mass surveillance, as authoritarian states will use this as an opportunity to silence dissent and abuse citizens’ civil rights.
Threats to work will intensify from automation, artificial intelligence, robotics and globalization: In order to survive, businesses are reconfiguring systems and processes to automate as many aspects as possible. While artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics will enhance some lives, they will damage most of the the others, as more work is taken over by machines. Employers may outsource labor to the lowest bidder globally. Employees (if any at all) may be asked to work for far less; they may have to shift to be gig and contract workers, supplying their own equipment, and they may be surveilled at home by employers.
Misinformation will be rampant: Digital propaganda is unstoppable, and the rapidly expanding weaponization of cloud-based technologies divides the public, deteriorates social cohesion and threatens rational deliberation and evidence-based policymaking.
People’s mental health will be challenged: Digital life was already high-stress for some people prior to the required social isolation brought on by the pandemic. The shift to tele-everything will be extensive and that will diminish in-person contact and constrict tech users’ real-world support systems and their social connections.
Privacy was always a luxury in the past – only the rich enjoyed it. Then it spread to a large fraction of the population in the West. Now it is receding again, in a way that mirrors the rise in inequality and the inevitable fall in civil liberties.
Marcel Fafchamps, professor of economics and senior fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University, commented, “Here are some of the changes I anticipate. Please note that many of them were already in the background and could have occurred anyway, but I suspect less fast and less strongly.
Economic and social inequality: The economic contrast between the ‘confined,’ the ‘essentials’ and the ‘unemployed’ will perdure. The confined are those who can work from home and be productive. Because employers save money on them, they will continue to prosper. Anyone who cannot work from home will as a result earn comparatively less than without the introduction of work-from-home as a normal way of life. Many workers will be displaced or made redundant by this change, e.g., all those who support work-life (restaurants, transport including car making, maintenance of office buildings, etc.). A gig economy will arise that caters to the same needs for those working from home but, because they will work in a very competitive industry (they will compete with each other for each home-worker-customer) and they will be much harder to organize in unions, strikes, etc., they will earn less. And they will become invisible, like domestic workers or gardeners today.
The generalization of work-from-home will change where people live – possibly away from city centers, but this need not be the case if people value their social life, as is likely, especially for the young – possibly into small towns instead of a big metropolis. This will in turn lead to more social segmentation/parochialism/segregation in terms of residential choice and social circle. Business districts force different people together by need rather than choice. If people can choose who they live with, they will sort on similar attributes, including wealth and all its correlates.
By reducing the cost of congestion inherent to having a workforce in large office buildings, these changes will enable even larger firms, leading to an even stronger concentration of corporate power into a small number of key actors. The last wave saw the concentration of financial and service industry into a small number of world banks into a small number of geographical centers (e.g., New York, London, Shanghai, Singapore, etc.). We have already seen this with Amazon, Alibaba, Google, and the like for their respective industries. We will now see this spread to other work-from-home industries: more agglomeration, but this time happening in the digital world, and not requiring geographical concentration itself.
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Civil liberties were severely curtailed during COVID-19. New tools and technologies were introduced to control people better, including phone apps that identify likely social interactions between people. These tools will be used by totalitarian regimes to control their population better, on the Chinese model. Furthermore, people working from home will be much harder to organize and much easier to target individually by repression. I, therefore, anticipate population control to become more efficient and effective, cutting down the productivity gap between autocratic regimes and democracies. As a result, democracy will be on the defensive, its spread will be reversed in many parts of the world, and democracies themselves will infringe more on civil liberties. We are entering a post-democratic era.
Privacy was always a luxury in the past – only the rich enjoyed it. Then it spread to a large fraction of the population in the West. Now it is receding again, in a way that mirrors the rise in inequality and the inevitable fall in civil liberties. The poor never have privacy. COVID-19 has justified the loss of the last bit of privacy we had left, namely, our health data and who we meet in the park.
In a not-too-distant future, the Soviet Union will be seen as ahead of its time: Its main weakness was the inability to deal with the complexity of matching production and consumer demand. Now, this can be achieved via Amazon or Alibaba, and the complex dispatch or matching algorithm that they and Google and Facebook have created. With the concentration of corporate power, increase in inequality, and weakening of civil liberties, it will be easy to recreate a post-democratic world that fulfills the Soviet promise, without necessarily requiring public ownership in the means of production: It will no longer matter who is formally the owner of capital, as China today demonstrates.”
Laurie L. Putnam, an educator, and communications consultant commented, “We need to stop looking for a ‘new normal,’ as though life will find stasis after COVID-19 is tamed. Eventually, yes, the virus will become manageable(I hope), but life will remain in flux. This pandemic is demonstrating that we must learn to adapt or we will not survive. Think of it as a trial run for the crisis that is to come”
Amy Webb, quantitative futurist and founder of the Future Today Institute, said: “We’ve entered a new Bio Information Age, a new period in human history characterized by the shift from privacy and personal choice to new social, government, and economic structures that require our data to operate. You can expect to see a Flying Internet of Things: smart drones equipped with object- and face-recognition, audio analytics, motion detection, and sense-and-avoid systems that communicate with each other in the air and back down to a command center on the ground.
“The fate of regulation, as national governments try to reconcile the desire for public safety with a reality in which algorithms are encoded with bias, could take many years to sort out, and the result is likely a patchwork of different protocols and permissions around the world. In the Bioinformation Age, transparency, accountability and data governance are paramount, but few organizations are ready. Everyone alive today is under persistent surveillance from a host of technologies, and what most people don’t realize is that tech companies don’t need cameras to see you. From Wi-Fi signals to single strands of hair, it is possible to recognize you without submitting to face scans.”
Barry Chudakov, founder and principal of Sertain Research, commented, “The ‘new normal’ for the average person in 2025 will entail adapting to multiple simultaneous accelerations. … COVID-19 will be followed by other pandemics. Atmospheric climate change will accelerate. Wetlands deterioration will accelerate. The number of homeless refugees – due to soil, crop and weather devastation – will accelerate. Information speeds and content compression will accelerate. The invasiveness and accuracy of tracking, search and recognition technologies will accelerate. Our reliance on remote-distance technologies and interfaces will accelerate.”
Douglas Rushkoff, media theorist and author, wrote, “My worries? Well, there are now trillions of dollars invested in companies that depend on addiction, isolation and fear to keep growing. That’s very dangerous, since these companies will spend their war chests on deliberately causing panic, pain and fear. They know the more upset and reactive we are, the more likely we are to engage with their platforms. So, when the wealthiest industry in the world is doing everything it can to attack our basic sense of well-being, I do get concerned we may not have the resilience as people to oppose these forces. Once they really get a handle on using AI for this purpose, I’m not sure how we get ourselves out of it. Even now, we see people on social media platforms attacking those with whom they should be allied. They cancel people rather than collaborate with them. If AIs determine that turning people against each other is the easiest way for them to deliver desired metrics, then we could be in great trouble.”
Fernando Barrio, a lecturer in business law at Queen Mary University of London expert in AI and human rights, wrote, “ it seems that, yet again, we are planting the seeds for the new normal to be very nice in the surface, while creating a society more unequal, unfair and sharply divided about too many things that need social consensus. In 2025 the new normal will imply a society more sharply divided between those who have access and those who don’t. In this context, access is multi-pronged: access to food, access to wealth, access to connectivity and technology, access to power.”
Maja Vujovic, a consultant for digital and ICT at Compass Communications, predicted, “If entire sectors – education, tourism and hospitality, food production, entertainment and more – continue to experience the deep freeze caused by COVID-19 through 2020 and beyond, the ‘new normal’ will likely not remain limited to benign disruptions, such as blended learning or continued work from home and the related office space redux. If the pandemic persists for many months or spills over into another year, the recession will go into free fall. Countries with strong social security systems and/or capital will activate a range of protective measures to prevent public disorder. Countries without such a safety net will be forced to choose between solidarity and oppression.
“If the pandemic persists longer than a year, it will affect the world’s economy like a global war; in that case, food rationing and other wartime measures will become inevitable. This will entail identification, allocation, distribution, and delivery – all of it enabled by a range of digital tech. Identity control will therefore have to be enforced very strictly, to avoid fraud. Other previously inconceivable disruptions will occur, e.g., primary and secondary education will need to enter into public-private partnerships with commercial providers of automated instruction, learning and testing platforms at scale, able to instruct the majority of students, while teachers from formal schools deal with small numbers of exceptions, such as special-needs students, etc.
Christina J. Colclough, an expert on the future of work and the politics of technology and ethics in AI, observed, “Unless our governments step into another gear, we will:
Become super-surveilled at the expense of our fundamental rights and human rights.
Work will become more and more individualized and precarious as companies first cut costs by making working from home the norm and then by hiring contract workers rather than permanent employees.
Mental health will suffer as loneliness, financial struggles and competitive forces pressure individuals.
Innovation will decline as social capital declines due to the above.
Workers who need to go to work (physically) will be segmented from the ‘others.’ I am a tech optimist under the condition that it is regulated and governed.
Kenneth Cukier, senior editor at The Economist and co-author of “Big Data,” said, “I see this for 2025: Economic crises, less global trade, and constant international political conflict. Companies substituting technology (machines and algorithms) for human labor. A rise in populist or ‘infotainment’ governments means serious, long-term problems aren’t addressed by the state, and well-meaning civil institutions can’t have the impact they’d like.
“The educated, wealthy, moderates (aka ‘elites’) retreat even further from mainstream society, believing the situation unfixable and to avoid being a target of attack. Worthy social-justice issues like racism get hijacked by extremists, creating a ‘cultural revolution’ of intolerance that crimps free expression and ideas.
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