<span class='p-name'>What will digital life be like in 2035?</span>

What will digital life be like in 2035?

The Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center regularly conducts surveys of stakeholders to assess the likely future of digital life.

The 2021 survey is focusing on insights about the evolution of digital spaces and whether or not there will be improvements in those spaces in the coming years when it comes to the overall good of society.

I’m sharing my responses to some of the prompts in order to promote open scholarship. I also want to challenge others to think about these prompts.

How do you imagine this transformation of digital spaces and digital life will take place? What reforms or initiatives may have the biggest impact? What beneficial role do you see tech leaders and/or politicians and/or public audiences playing in this evolution? What will be noticeably improved about digital life for the average user 2035? What current problems do you see being diminished? Which will persist and continue to raise major concerns?

Considering the negatives

As technology advances, there will continue to be positives and negatives that impact the ways in which the Internet and communication technologies impact the lives of average users. 

One of the biggest challenges is that the systems and algorithms that control these digital spaces have largely become unintelligible. For the most part, the decisions that are made in our apps and platforms are only fully understood by a handful of individuals. As machine learning continues to advance, and corporations rely on AI to make decisions, these processes will become even less understood by the developers in control…let alone the average user interacting in these spaces. 

This negatively impacts users as we fully do not understand the forces that impact our digital lives or the data that is collected and aggregated about us. As result, individuals use these texts, tools, and spaces without fully understanding, or questioning the decisions made or being made therein. The end result is a populace that does not possess or chooses not to employ the basic skills and responsibilities needed to engage in digital spaces. 

I fear the tech leaders and politicians will view the data collection, and opportunities to influence or mislead citizens as a valuable commodity. Digital spaces provide a way to connect and unite communities from a variety of ideological strains. Online social spaces also provide an opportunity to fine-tune propaganda to sway the population in specific contexts. 

As we study human development and awareness this intersects with ontology and epistemology. When technologies advance, humans are forced to reconcile their existing understandings of the world with the moral and practical implications said technologies can (or should) have in their lives. Post-Patriot Act era—and in light of Edward Snowden’s National Security Administration whistleblowing—this also begets a need to understand the role of web literacies as a means of empowering or restricting the livelihood of others. Clashes over privacy, security, and identity can have a chilling impact on individual willingness to share, create, and connect using open, digital tools, and we need to consider how our recommendations for the future are inevitably shaped by worries and celebrations of the moment.

In the end, I think most users will either surrender to these digital, social spaces and all of their positive and negative affordances. There will be a small subset that chooses to educate themselves and use digital tools in a way that they believe will safely allow them to connect while obfuscating their identity and related metadata.  

Considering the positives

Our world is increasingly dictated by algorithms. These algorithms complex algorithms drive, direct, and govern children’s experiences have not been constructed with their needs and interests in mind. Children represent an especially marginalized and vulnerable population who are exposed to high levels of poverty and inequality while being dependent on adults to structure their experiences and opportunities. Big tech and policymakers have a responsibility to consider the rights and needs of children. Instead, the burden is most often placed on families, educators, and community leaders to understand, support, guide, and regulate children’s access to media, information, and social connection.

Children live in and shape a connected world where they have the ability to consume and create literally at their fingertips. We need to prepare them to be lifelong learners with the skills they need to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and participate through digital technologies. Youth must also navigate the realities of a digital world in which every time they log into an app on a device they are using at school, they leave a data trail. 

We also know they engage in the affordances of digital technologies often through the price of their privacy. At the same time, we know that developing digital literacy includes the understanding that algorithms drive users to particular content. Children’s worldviews can be limited by geofencing and other algorithmic tools that are driven by for-profit purposes.

Even with all of these challenges, I am hopeful for the future of digital life for the average user in 2035 because of what I’m seeing as youth interact online. As adults seemingly do not understand how to effectively and critically use these texts and tools, in many ways youth are shown to be thoughtful, perhaps skeptical, users of tools and spaces. As youth leverage digital texts to restory their narratives, or engage in activist practices, they are documenting strategies to engage with algorithms and drive offline policies and behaviors. The hope is that we can protect them long enough to develop as more critical and aware consumers and creators in digital spaces.

No matter how you’ve answered the previous questions, we invite you to imagine a better world online: What is one example of an aspect of digital life that you think could be different in 2035 than it is today? We invite you to create a vignette of something you would like to see taking place in a “new and improved” digital realm in 2035. Your example might involve politics or social activities or jobs or physical and mental health or community life or education. Feel free to think expansively – and specifically.

As we consider the online and offline literacy practices that our students will need as future events warrant, the one constant is change. Our digital futures will be fluid, deictic, and ambiguous in nature. This means that tomorrow is not only subject to change, but it also the day that we should start dreaming or preparing for yesterday. Some of the spaces and places in which we currently exist online will cease to be relevant. New as-yet undeveloped literacies, technologies, and practices will soon take root. This requires a continual re-examination of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions utilized as we read and write the web. 

As an educator and researcher, what this means to me is that we need our schools to create cognitively flexible individuals that are nimble enough to handle any digital contexts, while empowered to create new possibilities. This means that we should not spend time in our classrooms teaching children how to best leverage social network spaces like Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. We must agree that our dreams and aspirations for what would become of the web have largely gone unrealized or quickly become bastardized and tainted. Youth should have the opportunity to use these tools, or ignore these tools as they see fit. 

I dream of a future where youth have opportunities to move from consumers to producers of digital content. This means that they build skills necessary to critically consume digital content, curate what is important or relevant to their purposes, and then create digital content and write their narrative into existence. Youth would have the opportunity to learn and grow in digital spaces without foolish notions of something living forever online and coming back to ruin their lives. Youth would have opportunities to examine and understand code as they consider the ways in which these algorithms and tools impact their lives. Users in digital contexts would be able to easily understand and switch on or off the signals and data they are sharing with others. Just the same way you can turn on or off wifi or Airplane mode on your mobile device, users could control cookies, tracking elements, and web history. All of this would lead to an empowered individual that can effectively read, write, and participate online. 

Photo by FLY:D on Unsplash

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