We spoke to experts from a number of fields – including art and design, government, journalism, industry – about the future of identity management technologies (IMT), and specifically what kind of world they imagined in 2025. The treemap below should give you an idea of the topics that were mentioned most frequently by these experts, and the consensus seemed to be that 2025 would be ‘smart.’ The majority of our interviewees said that phones (or similar handheld devices) would be the key IMT, connecting to spaces and objects in order to identify their owners. In many cases, they would automatically enable or deny access. “Your smartphone will be your passport to everything,” said one expert.
Figure 1: A treemap showing the most prominent ideas in our interviews. The stronger the colour and the larger the box, the more frequently an idea came up
Our interviewees differentiated between personal space and public space, however, with around half of them saying that there would be some kind of biometric system in place to identify citizens in public or commercial spaces, while most believed that in 2025, homes would be “smart”, recognising their owners/residents and enabling seamless authentication and personalisation. In homes with powerful operating systems, several people predicted that remote working would be the norm, though there was some suggestion of a possible lag between urban and rural areas (due to differences in connectivity/capacity). This caution ties in with the idea, raised by several of our interviewees, that technology – rather than social and personal needs – would be the driver of change.
Most of our interviewees imagined a world in which connectivity was pervasive: surfaces, spaces, and objects all able to speak to one another. The smartphone that identifies you to the world would enable personalised billboards (think Minority Report) and service, but also limitless surveillance opportunities. As a consequence, several experts wondered about the security of our data and whether we would retain ownership of it (especially since handheld devices would rely on cloud storage). This may be why some people spoke of a lack of trust delaying the development of the kind of society that they envisaged, and why around half of those interviewed said with some certainty that the government and commercial partners would face resistance, off-grid activism or some kind of public backlash.
Views on the possibility of getting “off-grid” in 2025 were mixed, but just over half of those interviewed felt that escape would be impossible or very difficult, available only to those who made it a cause. Around a quarter of the interviewees were more optimistic, however, and suggested that there would always be a way to get away from things, even if only temporarily.
Presenting these findings in a blog post, we invited readers to respond signalling their level of agreement with these ideas about the future of identity management. The summary was also emailed to all of those interviewed, as well as going out on our Twitter feed and Facebook page.
The response was limited, and perhaps the poverty of the response (relative to the scale of the interviewing process) suggests that imagining the realities of 2025 is not a priority for experts in the field of identity management, or perhaps that they did not feel a need for further revisions of the summary set out in the post. This idea might be supported by the fact that the one expert who did respond at this stage wanted to register disagreement. His argument was that a global economic and environmental collapse was coming that would disrupt the business of predictions to the point of futility.
Half of the respondents “agreed somewhat” with the experts’ vision of the future, highlighting especially the idea that technology would be the driver of innovation, and that privacy will not be preserved without a fight. One respondent set out a vision of the future world in which passive biometric technology-enabled real-time recognition was prevalent, particularly in its commercial applications; wearable technologies will enable real-world connections to flourish.
One response quibbled with the consumerist vision of the future presented by our experts, suggesting that the things they describe are not so much about identity management, but behaviour management. It is interesting, though perhaps not entirely surprising, to consider that the image of the future produced by talking to experts not from one but from various fields is largely premised on consumption and behaviour.
Another respondent took issue with a vision of the future predicated on the ubiquity of the smartphone and in which (the loss of) privacy would be a global issue. The problem being that “economically inactive” groups (the unemployed, the retired) did not share these concerns about pervasive surveillance (being dependent on state systems that required them to share their data) and did not own or use smartphones.
As a point of interest, the project’s focus groups with ‘vulnerable’ groups (including older people) found that surveillance was an issue, with participants discussing their fears that the future would resemble Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. They did discuss, though, the exclusiveness and even undesirability of new technologies. Does the experts’ version of the future fail to capture these nuances, or is it that they foresee a technological (r)evolution that itself ignores such variation? The experts’ accounts show a sensitivity to difference according to location (i.e. connectivity), yet several insist that technology, and not social or personal circumstances, will be the driver of change.