Asummer’s day in the year 2040. Autonomous vehicles are humming through the city streets. They’re recharging their batteries independently at quick-charging stations, whose energy comes from wind farms. People are heading to a pop-up office on a meadow. They’ll do their tasks, assigned by artificial intelligence, on portable computers.
The future has often been described in this way, or as something quite similar. Digitization in particular fuels ideas about how technology, society and people’s everyday lives will change. Yet the discussion of promising developments often takes place from a very limited perspective. The main questions journalists usually ask are what future mobility looks like, how energy needs will be met and what work will be like in the future. In most cases, the economic perspective from highly developed industrialized countries dominates. The role model for the future person is usually a white-collar working adult.
Yet the world of tomorrow will have very many facets and different ranges of experience. The only way to get a commensurate idea of what the future will be like is by viewing the world from as many perspectives as possible. Progress isn’t the same for everyone, and it doesn’t have the same effect everywhere. Aspects such as age, background, education level, income and gender all strongly influence how a person perceives their daily life. That’s why we’re taking three unusual perspectives on different aspects of what tomorrow might be like: for a child, for the Global South and for the internet.
PERSPECTIVE 1 ___________________ WILL CHILDHOOD RETAIN ITS MAGIC?
Hassan has built a car out of chestnut shells. His friend Yussuf has painted an image of a globe on a piece of paper. The two young boys are going to use these props to make an animated film. A teacher hands the two a tablet computer and explains how the camera works. An everyday scene in the St. Joseph Kindergarten in Munich: digital education for three- to six-year-olds.
The idea behind it is that children today are exposed to far too much passive and unsupervised media consumption, which can be damaging for their development—particularly by way of videos, social media and computer games on the internet. Which is why even the youngest children should learn how to meaningfully use digital media—even if that may mean small children are then spending even more time in front of screens. This approach also has its critics, who fear that the frequent use of electronic media could have negative effects on the development of perception, creativity and intelligence. That’s why they’re demanding childhood be as free from such media as possible.
Frank Niklas, professor of educational psychology and family research at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich, has a less dramatic view of early media consumption. “Whether a tablet or dice game, electronic or paper book is used for learning, the medium doesn’t make a difference,” he says. Scientific findings currently show that daily media use of two to three hours isn’t a problem, even at kindergarten age. Playing games and learning on screen can even have positive effects, as long as the children are using age-appropriate learning software and still interact with adults or older children. As Niklas argues, “They are training their communication skills and media competence at the same time.”
According to most predictions, childhood will increasingly take place in front of a screen in the coming years, all over the world and across cultural and social boundaries, as digitization sweeps across the planet. In Germany, for example, an average of 2.4 hours are spent online each day. Young people in their teens even reach four hours daily on social media and browsing the internet. In the United States, where new developments concerning media use often emerge earlier than in other countries, the average screen time for teenagers is actually around 7 hours and 22 minutes every day. Note that this doesn’t yet include using computers, smartphones and the rest in school or for homework, meaning that these kids are spending most of their waking hours on digital media.
This radically changes the idea of what it means to be a child in everyday life. Lots of people still cling to the notion that childhood should be a time of playing outside or with more traditional toys, unscathed by technological advancements. This fantasy has nothing to do with today’s reality, and is much more likely to be a romanticized glorification of childhood.
Decades upon decades ago, radio, television and computers found their way into children’s rooms, with each new technology awakening fears in older generations.
Meanwhile, neurobiological research has shown that the risks for childhood development are not the various media themselves, but the way they are used in the parental home.
“Children’s media consumption only becomes a problem if, for instance, social activities or exercise fall by the wayside because of it,” Niklas explains. “The problem isn’t the media itself, but the one-sided focus on it.” He recommends that parents not leave their children alone with a screen too often but instead engage in activities with them—and also schedule time without a cellphone. Whether the influence of digitization on children is positive or negative strongly depends on the example set by the adult caregivers in their lives.
Who these caregivers are is also undergoing change. The childhood of the future will be less determined by the traditional nuclear family—mother, father, child—even if this model will most likely continue to predominate. New forms of living together will continue to gain in importance, including blended families, those with same-gender parents or single parents, and co-parenting.
As the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) writes in its report “The Future of Families to 2030,” the dissolution of the traditional family unit could lead to more social insecurity.
At the same time, there is also the chance that stable, larger, mutually supportive family communities will form, encompassing several partnerships and multiple generations. Digital media could help form some of the links of these communities, making it possible for family members in separate locations to remain in close contact—for the good of the children. Whether childhood retains its magic in the future won’t only be decided by the use of digital technology; family and social cohesion will continue to play at least as important a role.
PERSPECTIVE 2 ___________________ WILL THE GLOBAL SOUTH CATCH UP?
Desk after desk, screen after screen. In front of each screen sits a person, rapidly typing. The clickety-clack of countless keyboards fills the room. In a wealthy industrialized country, this large open-plan office might be considered a special circle of hell, but here in Uganda, it represents hope. Until recently, the east Africans working on the computers here barely had any chance of getting an education and joining the workforce. Many of them were forced to fight in the civil war as child soldiers. More than half of the employees are women, many of whom are now working their first paid jobs.
They are typing out “Rihanna,” “Meghan Markle” or, as another example, “Tom Cruise.” On behalf of a large American photo agency, they are labeling digital photos of famous people. Crowdsourcing is what this form of work on the computer is called. The tasks usually don’t require much in the way of specific expertise and can be performed from anywhere in the world with internet access and a computer. For economically struggling regions in the Global South, crowdsourcing and other digital services could present an opportunity for these areas to make connections to the more highly developed information societies of the North.
International development aid institutions are counting on the networking progress in economically underdeveloped countries in Africa and Southeast Asia to bring a number of positive side effects. They hope that digitization will stimulate innovation, education, job markets and democratization processes in the southern hemisphere in regions that are still affected by high levels of poverty and instability. However, technological progress also entails considerable economic risks for the Global South. One reason for this is the increasing automation in the working world, which continues to advance and will change the flow of value chains all over the world.
While global corporations in the North have until now been outsourcing many production processes to the South, creating jobs there, this trend may soon start to reverse. If robots replace human work, and labor costs stop playing a major role, it may end up being cheaper for companies to relocate their industrial production facilities closer to their home markets.
The World Bank estimates that two out of three jobs in India, for instance, are threatened by automation. It is difficult to imagine that new jobs in the digital economy will be able to compensate for losses of this magnitude. Critics additionally complain that the profits of the digital economy are distributed very unequally.
The largest proportion of the value creation flows to companies in the Global North while very little of the proceeds remain in the more economically underdeveloped countries.
Sven Hilbig, senior policy advisor on global trade for Bread for the World, a non-governmental organization, has condemned economic policy initiatives by the United States aimed at ensuring that digital products can be sold duty-free.
“The legal consolidation of unlimited, cross-border dataflows would deprive developing and emerging countries of one of their most valuable resources: their data,” he argues in his essay “The Effects of Digitization on the Global South.” In his view, the globally dominant IT corporations would be the ones to benefit most from digital free trade.
Despite this, digitization isn’t without benefits for the Global South. The process, which no industry or national border can stop, is opening up new potential, even in traditional economic sectors—not least in agriculture.
Like in an area near the Achiase District in Ghana. Here in Atakosuasu is the farm where Ben Owusu harvests cocoa, plantains and taro that he later sells at markets. He’s been earning a modest living by working hard for the past 25 years. But his extensive plantation, covering five hectares, could produce significantly higher yields with modern farming methods. Which is why Owusu is now using the services of Farmerline. This agritech startup was developed by farmers for farmers in Ghana, providing up-to-date weather forecasts, market prices and other pertinent information. The service is also available as voice messages in many local dialects so that all farmers in Ghana can understand the information being provided.
“When I drive to my plantation in the morning, now I know if I have to water my plants,” Owusu says. “It makes my job easier.” It may just be a very small step for improving the economic situation in Ghana, but it is one of many small steps with which digitization is changing the Global South and the world.
PERSPECTIVE 3 ___________________ HOW IS THE INTERNET CHANGING?
As the physicist Nils Bohr once remarked, probably quoting the humorist Mark Twain: “Prediction is difficult, particularly when it involves the future.” Whoever said it first, it’s an accurate description of the changes brought about by digitization. Was there anyone twenty years ago—when the internet was already more than a decade old—who correctly predicted the enormous impacts the World Wide Web would have on our society?
Back then, the internet felt more like a service hotline that was sporadically called up for individual questions: turn on the modem, listen to the beeps of the connection being made and then look up the latest sport scores. And for heaven’s sake don’t forget to log out afterwards, since time online was charged by the minute. Dialing into the virtual world was usually just a brief visit for most people, after which a person returned back to the real, or analog, world. Then flat fees, higher data rates, smartphones, powerful mobile data networks and social networks wormed their way into our lives and set developments in motion that remain ongoing: the internet isn’t just a place to visit now but forms its own reality, one that determines more and more aspects of our lives.
Things are developing so rapidly that by 2040, people may be completely merged with the internet, which will be like a sphere that always surrounds us no matter where we are. People use gestures to swipe through the data streams. Videos flicker in the air as three-dimensional holograms. The computer and cellphone will have been replaced by nano-implants in the iris and under the skin. Instead of using touchscreens or keyboards, we use the impulses of our thoughts to navigate the net.
“We’re on the verge of a new era,” says the innovation researcher Sebastian Raßmann of the Trend One consulting firm. The combination of artificial intelligence, 5G cellular data networks and biotechnology will create a completely new form of internet. While the 2020s remain part and parcel of the computer era started in the 1970s, Raßmann believes that the era of super intelligence in the form of a new internet will soon be upon us.
Wearables, which are already receiving data streams directly on the body and making them tangible, will be transplanted directly beneath the skin in this era.
The internet is merging with our bodies. At the same time, the Internet of Things is expanding. Almost every item sends and receives data, which can be captured with augmented reality goggles as necessary. The future internet will enable a person’s perception to merge with their entire surroundings, from which an all-encompassing virtual reality emerges.
This all-encompassing virtual reality will be driven by data connections that are becoming faster, more stable and available everywhere. For instance, Elon Musk’s Starlink project is putting together a satellite network to provide global internet access. The entire planet is “always on.” These networks will even allow digital mind reading to become a reality. Initially, disabled people will be able to control prostheses with their thoughts, and applications for the general public will follow.
All of this means we will leave even more digital footprints behind us in the future than we do today. Companies will use them for even more ingenious customization to tailor their products to individual customer needs.
Increasingly powerful algorithms will offer even more increasingly individualized offerings. At some point, companies will have the right products ready for their customers before the customers even know they want them.
All of the innovations currently indicated by individual trends and technologies will become increasingly intertwined over the next few decades—and eventually form an entirely new type of internet. By that time, this new network will have thoroughly permeated our lives and will be truly omnipresent compared to how we view the internet today. The analog and digital worlds will have become almost inseparable.