Futurist Thomas Frey: Over the past few days I’ve been wrestling with a very troubling thought.
It started with the simple question, “Ten years from now, anyone who is frustrated with those in power, whether it’s a local, national, or international issue, what options will they have for protesting what they see as an injustice, inequities, or outright corruption?”
Voicing complaints on social media like Facebook or Twitter, organizing a sign-waving rally on the Capitol steps, or taking out a full-page ad in a newspaper will probably still be options, but they’re also a quick way to be branded a troublemaker.
Every shift in technology brings with it positives as well as the negatives. In a hyper-transparent, open society, being the whistleblower for injustice can quickly become more about the accuser than the wrong that needs righting.
Like it or not, transparency changes the equation.
Is humanity prepared to live in the hyper-transparent world we’re creating? Caution, the conclusions I’ve reached may be more than a little disturbing.
Rich History of Rule Breakers
Rule breaking has many dimensions and there’s a wide chasm between someone who takes a calculated business risk in pursuit of something positive and a demented psychopath breaking rules in a purely evil fashion.
Pete Diamandis, as an example, who bluffed his way to his first X-Prize payout cannot be compared to Bernie Madoff whose only plan was to bilk people out of billions of dollars.
Similarly, Bugsy Siegel’s sleight-of-hand financing techniques used to build The Flamingo, the first major resort in Las Vegas, also cannot be compared to Bonnie and Clyde whose only goal was to rob banks.
Yet, as we begin extending the long arm of scrutiny, and attempt to shine the transparency spotlight on all forms of rule breaking, we often run the risk of lumping them altogether and throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater?
Could it be that our overarching drive to use our soon-to-be all-seeing, all-knowing technology for the powers of good, to rid society of corruption, fraud, and depravity may actually make things worse?
It is not only possible, but also very likely.
Protester in Turkey wearing a Guy Fawkes mask
Caught in the Transparency Spotlight
For years, the world cheered when someone like Mike Wallace, of 60-Minute’s fame, managed to confront a person on camera and catch him or her red-handed in a boldfaced lie. But capturing a “Mike Wallace moment” back then on video or photos was a rare occurrence.
Today, just the opposite is true. It’s rare not have a confrontation captured on photos or videos.
Within a decade, if you participate in a demonstration or protest, the probability of being personally identified will soon reach 100%.
Recent protests in Turkey have many wearing gasmasks or the ever-anonymous Guy Fawkes masks to conceal their identity. At this point in history, those are probably sufficient.
However, in a few short years, people will become infinitely more traceable and simply using face paint, masks, or other theatrical disguises will offer little to shield them from the scrutiny of those who take time to investigate.
Young people involved in the Turkish protests find it easy to get caught up in the moment, and are often involved in the destruction and burning of property in the streets.
To be sure, the dividing point between a protest participant and those officially labeled a “terrorist” is a very fine line.
As we move further down the path of automating justice, the use of drones for surveillance, identification, and capture will be greatly expanded. And once a person is labeled a terrorist, it will be a designation that haunts them the rest of their life, regardless of where they live, anywhere on the planet.
Are we prepared to throw away the lives of our young people, for these brief moments of indiscretion?
“The Screwed Generation”
Consider the Following
We currently have a generation of highly educated young people, trying to make a name for themselves. Many are deeply in debt from student loans, either unemployed or under employed, and often sidelined because they lack experience.
- Both Newsweek and NPR are referring to millennials in the U.S as the “screwed generation” because student loans, which now exceed $1 trillion and are not dischargeable through bankruptcy, a debt that will haunt many of them for the rest of their lives.
- The promise of “better living through high-priced education” has turned out, for many, to be a total lie. Over 43% of recent graduates are now working at jobs that don’t require a college education, according to a study by the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development.
- Since 2008 the percentage of the workforce under 25 has dropped 13.2%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while that of people over 55 has risen by 7.6%.
- Median net worth of people under 35, according to the U.S. Census, fell 37% between 2005 and 2010
- The wealth gap today between younger and older Americans now stands as the widest on record. The median net worth of households headed by someone 65 or older is $170,494, 42% higher than in 1984, while the median net worth for younger-age households is $3,662, down 68% from a quarter century ago, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center.
- The unemployment rate for people between 18 and 29 is 12% in the U.S., nearly 50% above the national average.
- 72% of those under 35 feel government programs appear to perpetuate dependency rather than provide a solution.
- Our excessive number of laws, rules, and regulations are viewed as background noise. In the minds of millennials, too many rules equal no rules, so why bother.
These factors, combined with a host of other perceived injustices, have combined to create a festering cauldron of hostility waiting for the right opportunity to be unleashed. But with the ominous eyes of big brother lurking on every street corner, a new breed of revolutionary is now in its infancy.
Portrait of a New Radical
Rule breakers need the latitude to make mistakes, but transparency increases the pain threshold for making those mistakes.
As we remove people’s ability to perform open and visible forms of protest, the portrait of a new radical begins to emerge.
Future radicals will share many common characteristics:
- Feeling trapped, trapped, trapped!
- Ultra-paranoid, wary of social networks and visible ties to others.
- Pervasive desire to become invisible, wanting to disappear at a moments notice.
- Subversive, digitally destructive, able to spot vulnerabilities almost instantly.
- Multiple identities make life easier, both online and in the physical world.
- Very little need for money. Able to find a “free” option for almost anything they need.
- When money is used, it’s transferred through alternative currencies, games, cash, and foreign exchanges.
- They will fight for causes that don’t make sense, just to throw people off.
- At their core, they are simultaneously anti-government, anti-police, anti-corporation, and anti-military.
The emerging new radical will be both highly destructive and highly creative, with an ability to orchestrate, manipulate, and influence battles that they can sit on the sideline and be entertained by.
In much the same way a magician has no act once the trick is known, or the poker player has no bluff once the cards are revealed, a hyper-transparent society becomes a devastatingly efficient playground for the true puppet masters.
People on the higher end of the food chain will have access to the master control rooms where countless “levers of oppression” can be pulled if anyone crosses them.
Our ability to abuse transparency cannot be overstated.
Those who are willing to “go to war” against this kind of person will have to play by an entirely different set of rules.
In a desynchronized society, where the brute force workers on the bottom are woefully unaware of the ultra-manipulative tools being used by those at the top, we appear to be on a collision course with destiny that seems unavoidable.
My apologies to those who perceive this as little more than an uncharacteristic personal rant. Perhaps in many ways it is.
But as a topic that has been torturing me for several days now, I’d love to have someone tell me where I’m wrong. So please take a moment to weigh in with your thoughts.
Author of “Communicating with the Future” - the book that changes everything