In 1964, Isaac Asimov boldly shared his thoughts on the distant year of 2014. While Asimov’s prescient look 50 years into the future identified some accurate hits (smart homes, video-chatting, 3D television, and self-driving cars), there are also some disappointing misses (more readily available space travel, flying cars, and underwater colonies) that have yet to come to fruition. It is a worthwhile, sometimes bizarre, and always entertaining read (see: Visit to the World’s Fair of 2014).
Imagining the future is of course a time-honored tradition upheld by science fiction writers, but every innovator, entrepreneur, and idealist has an innate ability to imagine an improved future. The best among us can actually simulate life in this future and work to bend reality to meet that vision. Not being constrained by present limitations or conventions is the first step towards technological and social progress. Elon Musk eloquently captures this powerful philosophy and suggests, “The first step is to establish that something is possible; then probability will occur.” Once the realm of possibility has been breached, Paul Graham adds the following approach on execution, “Live in the future, then build what’s missing.”
While impressively accurate, a glaring omission from Asimov’s vision of the future is any comment on related changes or evolution in the fundamental relationship between the citizen and state- though he does offer the following in terms of growing inequality with regard to access to technology:
“Not all the world’s population will enjoy the gadgety world of the future to the full. A larger portion than today will be deprived and although they may be better off, materially, than today, they will be further behind when compared with the advanced portions of the world. They will have moved backward, relatively.”
Fair enough and sadly this troubling dynamic rings true in 2014, but we need more. Before building, we first we need to establish a vision of the future. At a social level, where should and will technology take us? What will technology and data mean for the citizen and the state in 2065, essentially e-Gov 5.0?
A 50 year look ahead in anything is of course inherently risky and perhaps a foolhardy exercise. I don’t claim to have the imagination or foresight of Asimov, but what I think gives this prediction a fighting chance is that technology-driven social change is inherently slower than pure advancements in technology. While appearing to crumble quickly from the finish line, cultural norms actually take immense time to reach a true shifting point, especially in the public sector. Want proof? How long has it taken for the web-based technologies to take root and be accepted as an “official” platform for information dissemination and related services? Some civic bodies are still struggling with these issues today. 50 years doesn’t quite seem that long from this perspective. And without further ado, here is my take on the future of technology, data, citizen engagement, and open government in the year 2065:
1. Information & Data Revolutions = Greater Parity
By 2065, the 3rd Industrial (Digital) Revolution and Data Revolution will have more completely run their courses, resulting in a more mature data society and knowledge economy. While the entire world will not be open by default, the sheer volume and nature of information flow dictates that it becomes harder to hide and conceal information for lengthy periods of time. The cost of data storage also falls to zero- “free” infinite storage. We inevitably become a more informed and data-literate society.
How will this matter? As the cost of technology decreases and the speed of adoption increases, it offers more of an opportunity to level the playing field. Technology can exacerbate the inequality gap- but it can also narrow the divide. The rise of mobile is proof that the technology curve can be bent in favor of faster and flatter global adoption. As an ancillary but important benefit, what’s good for the developed world is viewed as equally good and prescribed for the developing world versus approaches tinged with subtly racist or demeaning mindsets. So far so good.
2. Blurred Line Between the Citizen and State
Armed with all this information and increased data literacy and capacity, citizens will have grown more accustomed to active and regular participation in civic decision-making activities and processes. A smart government will recognize the need to fully embrace a data-driven approach. Over time, citizens will better recognize and more fully appreciate the difficulties of governance and resource management. When you build with and not for, both success and failure lie jointly with all participating parties. This results in a more informed and realistic citizenry and governments; the most transparent and innovative systems will leverage and benefit from this dynamic that favors collaboration.
3. A More Dynamic Political Menu
Two-party systems are such a throwback to earlier times. The world has never fit neatly into two buckets- even in analog. Imagine the limitations of a world that is only colored in black and white. In many ways, that is the political spectrum that is offered in many countries in 2014. By 2065, a more connected society offers an opportunity for better and faster methods of sentiment collection. For now, we rely on polling methods and statistical indicators to infer what the true temperature of a population is. In theory, if we can regularly connect and collect information on the entire population of interest, an optimal decision (according to pure public sentiment) can be extrapolated on every single issue. This is not to say that the masses should decide every single item on a civic agenda, but it will push our current system to evolve and expand to accommodate more intricate views and complex positions.
The privacy implications in all this loom enormously throughout. Like any neutral technology, intent and application will decide just how positive or negative these three dynamics will impact both the citizen and the state in 2065. How would you best leverage these dynamics to build a better world?
And just because I can’t resist- I would like to throw in that in 50 years (probably begin to see this in the next 10 years) brain waves will likely be harnessed (much like touch is today) for interaction with our computing devices and surroundings. You think it- it happens. How this technology and its applications develop is of course extremely important, because the power to capture, quantify, and process thoughts is a double-edged sword…