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Technology is shaping identities, says Foresight report

It will become increasingly important for policymakers to understand how technology is changing the way people see themselves, the UK government’s future scenarios unit Foresight has said.

In the report, ‘Future identities’, the government’s chief scientific adviser, John Beddington, says that developments such as constant internet access and a resulting blurring of public and private spheres will lead to a dramatic change of the nature of identity in the coming decade. It will be less meaningful to make “simple categorisations” based on “traditional notions of identities”, he argues.

The report says that policymakers need to understand these changes or they risk producing ineffective policies that could, for example, increase social exclusion. In particular, he adds, the government would benefit from “drawing upon a deeper scientific understanding of people’s evolving identities” when developing policies or designing randomised controlled trials.

Beddington argues that constant access to the internet—a concept dubbed ‘hyperconnectivity’—means that people have become accustomed to “switching seamlessly between the internet and the physical world”. Although this can have positive consequences, such as enabling migrants to keep in touch with friends and family, it can also be used to quickly “promulgate misinformation”.

Another consequence of online communities will be that society becomes more plural, but also less integrated. This is likely to be further fuelled by an ageing population, the report adds.

The report predicts that the changes will have implications in areas of policymaking ranging from crime prevention to social mobility. For example, it claims that increased social plurality and dwindling trust in authorities will make it increasingly difficult to manage extremism. It will also be important to consider the regulation of biomedical developments such as reproductive technologies and determine how these could affect identity.

“Over the next decade, identities in the UK are likely to undergo important changes, and will be increasingly dynamic or volatile,” reads the report. “Policy making across many different areas will need to be more iterative, adaptive, nuanced and agile, taking into consideration the multifaceted nature of people’s identities and how policies might affect different groups, or individuals, at different times and places.”