Hyper-connectivity driven by internet access is changing the way we live our lives. By 2020, it is predicted that net-worked devices, streaming information and connecting us globally, will exceed 50 billion. But will we be able to switch off, or maintain distinct identities in online and offline worlds?

A Foresight study1 was recently commissioned by the Government Office for Science to provide policy makers with a better understanding of changing identities in the UK over the next 10 years.

The beginning of the 21st century is characterised by near ubiquitous internet connectivity. Hyper-connectivity (otherwise known as the Internet of Things) is the use of multiple communications systems and devices to remain constantly connected to social networks and streams of information. Hyper-connectivity has several key attributes: being always on all the time and everywhere; readily accessible; information-rich beyond anyone’s capacity to consume; interactive; and with virtually unlimited storage capacity. By 2010 there were more networked devices than the population of the world, a number predicted to rise by CISCO1 to 25 billion by 2015 and 50 billion by 2020.

A recent report by the Government Office for National Statistics summarises 2013 internet access in the UK:

  • 21 million households (83%) had Internet access.

  • 36 million adults (73%) accessed the Internet every day, 20 million more than in 2006, when directly compatible records began.

  • Access to Internet using a mobile phone more than doubled between 2010 and 2013, from 24% to 53%.
  • 72% of all adults bought goods or services online, up from 53% in 2008.

There is an age-related aspect to hyper connectivity, with a greater take-up of internet-based communications by younger people than older people. Among young people in the UK aged 16 to 24, 45% said they felt happiest when they were online, with 86% feeling that new technology helps them to communicate with people. Increasing digital network coverage and higher access speeds will continue to drive this trend, while bringing new opportunities to rural communities.

The Hyper-Connected World
The trend towards hyper-connectivity has the potential to have a positive impact on migrant communities in maintaining social connections with family and friends. However, there is now the capacity for migrants to communicate online with people from their home country, potentially isolating them more from the host society. Over the next 10 years dispersed communities will increasingly be able to stay in close touch with events in their country of origin. This means that events which occur elsewhere in the world can have an immediate impact on identities in the UK, for example through the transmission of consumer culture and heightened awareness of political events, conflict and persecution in other countries.

With still further hyper-connectivity we could speculate that people will find it harder to disconnect themselves, switch off or maintain distinct identities in different situations. One likely development is that the increasingly networked state of many people’s lives could blur the boundaries between online and offline identities, work and social identities, and merge the different spheres of contextual identities. The advent of widespread mobile technology and email has led more people to remain identified with their work during the evenings, weekends and other leisure times, and it is possible that this breakdown in the barrier between separate fields of identity is among the most important and transformative consequences of social and technological changes.

The issues which empower Generation Y (the ‘millennial’ or ‘digital’ generation) can hence be regarded also as a burden. The pre-internet generation was defined by more physical parameters such as family, home, school, or occupation; whereas the current generation tends to collect more virtual identifiers such as on-line persona and solely cyber interactions (some would argue to the detriment of social interaction, others would argue the opposite). Manifestations of these differences may be studied in terms, for example, of the types of crime in modern society – both large/organised and small/personal scale – with old-fashioned bank robberies almost non-existent, and vastly more on-line ‘crimes against the person’ than the off-line variety.

Social media differs from traditional communications technologies in that, being online, social media allows users to create, share, consume and collaborate on content in new ways. The use of online social media has surged in recent years, initially spurred by young people but now used by the majority. Over 60% of internet users in the UK are members of a social network site. Over the next 10 years, the nature of online platforms can be expected to change radically. Control of online identity will become increasingly important and will highlight issues such as the ownership and use of personal content and privacy.

It is hard to predict exactly how social media might develop over the next 10 years. There may be more political activism using social media (“clicktivism”), as these networks become more influential in spreading the message and allowing instant feedback and commentary. Social media can facilitate political movements. In some cases this is very influential, for example in the revolution in Tunisia in 2011, and potentially in mobilising dissent in Egypt and Libya, or at least in raising the international profile of what is happening.

Blurring the lines between man and machine: Joaquin Phoenix in ‘Her’ develops a relationship with his operating system. Her/Spike Jonze

Online Privacy
Evidence shows that younger people between the ages of 8 and 18 are generally less concerned with their privacy than older people and are more willing to share information online, with often poor awareness of online security. The rules governing the possession of digital information are dramatically different to those of offline possession: for example, once an image has been posted online, it could be retained by the website or others could reproduce it, share, adapt or use it in ways which could be unwelcome to the original owner. An online personal history cannot be completely erased but serves as a permanent autobiography. This means that care needs to be taken when sharing personal information online, with an awareness of how that information may be retained or used by others.

Social networking sites have been associated with a loss of anonymity and a threat to privacy. People’s willingness to disclose information in exchange for access to services combined with the financial value to be gained from exploiting customer data mean that people increasingly cede control over what happens to their data. Even people with no online presence may be identified online, such as through tagging in uploaded photos. People may no longer be the primary creators of their own online identity.

Social media can facilitate links between like-minded individuals to create niche communities of interest, which could be benign or malign, and may reinforce existing behaviours, normalise minority identities, and broaden choices. The persistence of digital data will also have implications as young people grow into adulthood, seek employment and progress in their careers, as information could become potentially available to unintended audiences. Social media sites can conflate work and social identities within the same online space and lead to information leaking from one sphere to another.

The Future of Identity
Identities will, in some ways, change significantly over the next few years, and this will have a huge impact on society and on the way people live their lives. The main drivers of change are likely to be technology and social media, data mining, hyper-connectivity and the changing nature of society, which will produce identities in flux. However, some are likely to remain reasonably impervious to change, such as religious and national identities.

Increasing numbers of people now have some online presence, and so online identities are becoming part of the many overlapping identities held by individuals. Identities can be inclusive, or act to exclude groups and individuals as identities are co-created by an individual and other people, for example by accepting someone as part of a group, or rejecting them from it. Society may become increasingly pluralised, partly as a result of overlapping and shifting identities, alongside other social, cultural, and economic drivers, which could pose challenges for policy makers. Disparities in wealth and opportunities can create resentment and social unrest, while the elite may become more distanced from mainstream society and its concerns.

Context is crucial in understanding identities. An individual may hold multiple identities simultaneously. At some times, in some places, one identity or another may come to the fore depending upon the context. Sometimes big events or global trends are important but more often people’s sense of self and daily activities can be affected to a greater extent by local events, community, family and friends. Understanding the context and which identities are most relevant is therefore crucial to predicting behaviour. Hyper-connectivity represents a step change. The world is now a virtual environment as well as a real place and its citizens are globally networked individuals. This means that events which happen elsewhere in the world can have a real and immediate impact at home. New communication technologies have provided ways for people to find like-minded others, and spread ideas, but equally misinformation can spread quickly. The younger generation are entirely comfortable in the digital environment, with different expectations as consumers, although there are generational differences in attitudes towards privacy, with an increasing blurring of public and private identities.

Identity is a resource that can have personal, psychological, social, and commercial value. Governments can con- sider identity as a resource for promoting social change, for example in policies to tackle inequality or promote social integration. Identities can also be the focus of improving relationships between the citizen and the state, for example through more targeted services and engagement in political and social discussion. The commercial value of identities through the mining of ever-increasing data sets is likely to become crucial to some private sector organisations, but also has the potential for criminal exploitation, for example through opportunities for fraud through the deliberate misrepresentation of identity.

Trust is fundamental to relationships between citizens, between people and commercial organisations, and between citizens and the state, but people are less willing to trust in authority than in the past. Research indicates that the decline in trust will continue if the line between commercial organisations and the state continue to be blurred. Ethical issues will become more complex as varying identities come into conflict, and so maintaining a balance between privacy, freedom and protection, will become a key priority as we move further into the hyper-connected online future.

This article is based on the main findings of the Foresight Project into Future Identities, commissioned by the Government Office for Science (GO-Science), which was managed through a number of academic studies overseen by a Lead Expert Group chaired by Professor Chris Hankin. The final project report is available from the Foresight website1.