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Futures Week 2021: The future of social connection

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This video tackles the future of social connection along with three changes and their policy implications: The automation of social connections, our real connections in virtual worlds, and the deepening of social surveillance.


Kurt Richardson, Foresight analyst

Simon Robertson, Manager


SIMON ROBERTSON: What does the future of our social connections look like? What are some of the challenges and opportunities in this space? That’s what we’re here to explore today with the social connection team at Policy Horizons.

I’m Simon Robertson. I’m the manager of the Social Foresight team at Policy Horizons Canada. I’d like to hand it over to Kurt Richardson who will get you acquainted with our work on this topic.

KURT RICHARDSON: Thanks, Simon. Hi everyone, I’m Kurt Richardson, I’m a foresight analyst at Policy Horizons and a member of the future of social connection team. Before we get started, I just wanted to share a quick something with you. So a few minutes ago I was just in another room, I was holding my daughter, Ivy, in one of my arms, and in the other hand I had my phone. I was chatting with a colleague about today’s presentation and it took me a surprisingly long time to come to the realization that – wow this is exactly the kind of thing I’m going to be talking about in a few minutes.

I’m trying to maintain two connections to relationships at once because technology is enabling me to be semi-present in both of them at the same time. I think for me that this moment really drove home the closeness and the intimacy of what we’re going to be talking about here in this session. Social connection is so integral to our nature as human beings that it can be easy to forget that it’s even there and also that it can change.

I know that the connection between my daughter Ivy and myself will build her brain, it will build her body, her sense of security, her happiness I hope and it will shape at least part of her future. And for my part I can already say that that connection has has certainly shaped and changed me too, from the way I think and the way I act all the way down to the cellular level.

And speaking of human connection – like here we all are right – we’re all gathered here on our screens, we’re together but we’re apart. Over the past year and a half, so many people have been through prolonged isolation, significant disruptions to their relationships, and all kinds of other things, and I think that’s got people thinking really hard about social connection right now.

So I just wanted to say that for reasons that I hope will become clear to you by the end of today’s session, I just think this work on social connection is so so important. Not only speaking as a public servant, but also speaking as a new parent, a partner, a son, and a friend.

So, let’s get into it. This morning we’re looking at the future of social connection and its policy relevance. I’m going to touch on three of the many changes that are affecting this area: the automation of social connections, our real connections in virtual worlds, and the deepening of social surveillance.

As you listen, consider what these changes could mean in your own lives, how they could change your files at work, and how they could affect your own relationships and your own sense of belonging.

How do we look at social connection from a foresight and policy perspective? If you’re a social scientist, you might see connection as a means to produce social capital, which is the good things that come out of knowing and affiliating with people. A political scientist might think about social cohesion, the lubricant in a well-running society, or if you’re a health scientist you might talk about how the experiences of belonging and nurturing affect so much of our physical and mental health.

We’re looking at social connection through the lens of change. To understand what these changes really mean,
we’re examining their impact on three areas. Our human capacity to connect, our motivation to connect, and our opportunities to connect.

Okay, so how does this apply to your work as policy makers? What makes social connection a matter of public policy?

Let’s go through a couple reasons to care.

First, research suggests that feelings of loneliness and social isolation can have serious consequences for physical and mental health. Alternatively, a feeling of genuine belonging is thought to be of great benefit to our well-being.

Next, social connection is a necessary component of our economy. It fuels productivity at work, it drives innovation, and it helps with skills acquisition. A sense of connection is also tightly woven with feelings of trust for those around us, which in turn appears to inform the rate and nature of our democratic participation.

And finally, humans are a fundamentally social species. Connection drives our development and it helps build the brains, bodies and capacities of every generation.

So interpersonal connections are key to all policies that relate to human development. With this in mind, let’s turn to some major sources of change that we’re seeing on the horizon. At Policy Horizons, we’re exploring some fascinating changes to how we connect socially, but I want to zoom in on just three examples.

When you think of the word automation, what comes to mind? Maybe you’re thinking of mechanization of factories and robots. Let’s move beyond that, to digital automation where algorithms analyze, suggest, display, and decide. You’ve seen how digital automation came for retail, for music, and movies with profound effects on all of those industries. Now we have streaming services that know what media you’ll like and algorithms that determine what you see when you’re online shopping, and how it gets to your door.

It’s important to recognize how automation has already arrived in our social lives too. Do you or somebody you know use dating apps? What is deciding who you see as potential matches your opportunities for connection? Have you noticed when Google suggests ways to finish your sentence in an email? Have you ever said happy birthday to somebody because Facebook reminded you to? These are small ways that your interpersonal connections are being automated today.

There are less subtle examples too. Look at co-parenter, an app-based service that can detect signs of rising tension in the communication between co-parents and suggests alternative phrasing to de-escalate. Right now it can only parse text messages, but think about when this is combined with natural language processing or mood detection. In the future, a system like this could monitor our spoken interactions advising us moment to moment on what the other person might be feeling and ways to connect better with them.

Imagine a future where more people rely on these automated tools. What happens to their natural capacities for connection? Are innate social senses that have evolved for tens of thousands of years are now being automated by something external to us? What does mediated communications mean for policy? Think about accountability for words and actions, or about consent, or the value of ideas. If an AI is a co-author in any communication, who bears the responsibility for mistakes? Who gets the credit for a great new idea?

Okay, now we’re going to talk about video games. I want to ask you something though. When I say video games, what’s your first reaction? Does it seem frivolous to you? Something you don’t understand, or something outside policy concern? Ask yourself this now. How old are you? If you’re 15 years old, the answer is likely to be very different
than if you’re in your 40s or 50s. We’re talking about this, because video games are absolutely exploding in usage, value, population, and ambition for the future. And they matter more and more for social connection.

Social gaming is the defining aspect of younger generations, and in just a couple years, the total value of the market will be in the hundreds of billions of dollars in the U.S. alone. So, if your first instinct was to shrug at gaming, it is now time to be skeptical of that reaction. To see virtual worlds as a force of change that could shake your ideas around social policy.

How does this work? As we speak, game developers are launching their plans to build metaverses, which is a word you’re going to hear more and more in coming months and years. What do people mean by metaverse? They are massive virtual worlds that are beyond the scope of a single game. They’re rich, immersive, persistent, populated, and accessible in multiple ways. Today, for many people, the online worlds of Fortnite and Roblox are major hubs of social connection, and wouldn’t you know it, both of these companies are building their own metaverses to expand and cement their social significance.

Soon, virtual worlds could be the place where people across many demographics, even yours live their social connections with friends, family, and colleagues. If this is the case, we could soon live in a social reality where the norms of connection, of our relationships, are hard-coded into these virtual spaces. If as they say computer code is law, then the design and rules of these social worlds will determine the ways that participants can and cannot interact.

The people that decide how these worlds operate, could be the next authorities that shape what forms of connection are acceptable, and which are not. This could mean new opportunities to connect in ways we couldn’t before, but it could mean that traditional opportunities are no longer valid. If you’re a policymaker thinking about inclusivity, diversity, family, or community, consider what it might mean if certain types of relationships are unrecognized in certain worlds, or if new kinds of connection emerge and people demand that their government recognize it too.

Now is the time to think about government’s role in engaging with new frontiers of social connection. Does Service Canada need a kiosk to connect with and assist clients in Minecraft?

The last major source of change that I’ll talk about today is the way that surveillance technology is intermingling with our sense of personal identity and social connection. Today we’re surrounded by smart systems that watch us. They listen to us. They interpret what they gather and they send those insights about us to other devices that do the exact same. Most of these technologies aren’t run by governments or other authorities, but by private actors that people have invited into their neighborhoods, into their homes, even their own bodies in exchange for tailored services.

Where is this happening? It’s happening in shopping centers, where facial recognition technology monitors customers. It’s happening in thousands of video doorbells across North America. It’s happening in neighborhood cameras that scan license plates for unfamiliar vehicles. It’s happening in wearables, like smart watches that monitor your health data and location. This is probably so ingrained with your lived experience that you don’t even think of it as surveillance.

What does this have to do with social connection though? Let’s do a quick thought exercise. Consider who you are and how you might introduce yourself to somebody here. Most of us are Government of Canada employees and right now we’re all wearing our public servant hats. When you stop working this evening, I’ll bet that you take off that hat and put on another one. That of a friend to somebody who doesn’t work in government, somebody’s partner, or a parent. Maybe you’re part of a sports team, a congregation, a volunteer group, and I’ll bet that you have a couple hats that you never wear at the same time. This is a luxury we currently enjoy because of something called contextual integrity, and our personal ability to be plural, to inhabit multiple identities at different times.

Now consider a potential future where surveillance is even more normalized and accepted. In this future, people could lose the freedom to wear multiple identities across multiple contexts. Instead being known as an amalgam of all their previous words, relationships, deeds, and preferences. For example, someone who identifies as queer, gamer, and religious, in different contexts, may find it harder to maintain separate social lives and identities should they wish to.

The authenticity of social interactions may also fall into question, as social performance becomes a way to influence how one is perceived by these watching, thinking systems. This could influence our motivations to connect with each other, with social interactions requiring a calculated analysis of risks and benefits.

My point is this, social surveillance is no longer just an issue for policy makers thinking about privacy. We are now living in a surveillance society. There is probably no going back, but we can ask ourselves policy questions that move beyond whether to obstruct or encourage it, like how policy can shape a good surveillance society, one that helps authentic social connections flourish and encourages experimenting ethically with the multiple identities that we all carry.

This was just a sample of the changes that we’re seeing in our work on social connection. I want to return to what I said about my daughter Ivy, here she is by the way. When I realized that my attention was divided, I put down the phone and focused on her alone until I had to come here. What stuck with me in that moment though was that even though I put my phone down and gave her my undivided attention, she was still searching for that nice glowing light that was in my hand a few moments before. It made me realize that, no matter how much, whether I like it or not, and no matter how much I do to keep her from it, that technology and many others are going to be a part of her future, particularly her capacities, motivations, and opportunities for connection.

And I hope I won’t be alone in figuring out how to navigate that new reality as the years go by.

Thanks, and back to you Simon.

SIMON ROBERTSON: Thank you for your presentation, Kurt, and for taking us into the future of social connection. Being myself the father of two young children, and also your teammate on this project, I know that it is essential to explore the challenges and opportunities related to social connection and new generations.

I note that most of us here, like Kurt mentioned, have seen increased interest in the topic of social connection during the pandemic. With that in mind Kurt, can you tell us what motivated this study?

KURT RICHARDSON: Sure, yeah, like I mentioned earlier the pandemic reality that we’ve all been a part of has really highlighted the role that social connection plays in our lives. But, for us at Horizons we’ve been thinking about social connection since about early 2019, before the pandemic happened.

I’ll elaborate a bit, at that time our reasons for exploring this area was that in our research, our conversations with experts we started noticing a common theme across our conversations, a couple of common themes actually, we were hearing a lot of concern about loneliness and social isolation, and the potential consequences of a proliferation of those kinds of feelings. And we were also hearing a lot about a breach in or waning feelings of trust in society, trust for government, trust for fellow citizens, if anything I think the pandemic has amplified the reasons we started on this course in the first place, and maybe highlighted the importance for doing so, but those are the common themes that kind of brought us to this point.

SIMON ROBERTSON: And while you’ve been exploring this topic, can you identify for us any vulnerable policy assumptions you observed?

KURT RICHARDSON: Sure, so highlighting vulnerable policy assumptions is part of the reason we do foresight at Horizons, so that’s an end goal, but there are some that have come up already that we can already see are quite shaky in the future.

For example, first, we’ve definitely noticed potential vulnerability and the idea that people will take care of their own needs for social connection, some people feel it like a hunger, it’s been identified. We found that disruptions to our capacities, opportunities, and motivations for social connection can result in people feeling isolated and instead doing what we think they, instead of doing what we think they would do, which is seeking social connection in those instances, they tend to retreat further. So, the assumption that when people are feeling lonely or socially isolated that they’ll go out and seek social connection, might be vulnerable in the future.

Another one, another interesting one, is that policy also tends to assume that people will seek, sorry that our human needs will be, our human needs for connection rather, will be met by other humans and with evolutions in artificial intelligence and robotics we can see that might not be the case in the future. When it comes, we can see this in examples of – there was a prominent article recently – I think in the New Yorker – about animal robots being sent to the to seniors to kind of help them cope with social isolation.

Yeah and there’s just lots of stuff going on in that area, my colleague Katherine who’s joining the panel can speak to social robots a little bit better than I, but those are two quick assumptions that we’ve identified might be vulnerable in the future.

SIMON ROBERTSON: Thanks, Kurt, so I’d like to turn to some of the questions from our audience. Should we be learning and adapting to this changing ecosystem of contextual integrity, or should we be resisting it? If so, how do we do that?

KURT RICHARDSON: Contextual integrity, yeah that’s the idea of contextual integrity disappearing, is a very different reality than that which we’ve been living before. We’ve never had any systems that can completely obliterate the walls between situations and I don’t know if there’s much we can do to completely work against or obstruct it, but we may need to put up some, I don’t know maybe in our relationships we can people will figure out their own codes or boundaries for what what contexts are remain sacred and which can be subject to the the kind of bleed that social surveillance could create.

SIMON ROBERTSON: And what does this new social connection mean for personal security, in terms of younger age groups in particular? The individual here is thinking about protecting against radicalization and multiplayer games, like you like you were talking about.

KURT RICHARDSON: Sure, yeah, so the need for personal security and privacy particularly when it comes to young people is paramount and we don’t know what following generations are going to think about. Our current ecosystem of privacy and sharing, so that could be an interesting turnabout in the future. When it comes to radicalization, particularly in games, these are like I said new frontiers for social connection that government may need to work out a way to be involved with enough that vulnerable people, that’s not an area where too many vulnerable people can be swept up. On the topic of radicalization itself, I’ll leave it to one of our great panelists Rosalind to to elaborate on that further instead of me speaking with less expertise to it.

SIMON ROBERTSON: Yeah, I’m certainly looking forward to that as well. In regards to virtual worlds and social connection, have you heard much about those worlds being adapted for other purposes, such as religious gatherings?

KURT RICHARDSON: Great question, yes, the short answer is yes, the longer answer is that the idea of them – of a metaverse, of these big virtual worlds, is that they will be adapted for many more purposes and we’re already seeing that. I believe the Vatican has a server in Minecraft. It was quickly subject to I think some kind of attack or takedown, but those are the kinds of securities that government may be asked to to work into place for people to gather freely online, for example, but yeah in a metaverse there are so many opportunities to do so much more.

Social connection is the basis of those things, but as we know from in real life so many activities, so much opportunity and challenge, proliferates from simply the act of socially connecting. So any space that provides a space, that provides a means to gather, to identify, to congregate, you’re going to find those activities hopefully flourishing.

I’d like now to turn to some of our poll results and one of the questions we had asked people was whether their department maintained an official presence in video game or virtual worlds. And 95% of those who responded said “no”, but there were 5% who said “yes”. Before Kurt discusses this further, I’m going to say to those of you in the 5%, we’d love to discuss this further with you or your team at some point, because it’s certainly a topic that Kurt has been following and that interests us here, at Policy Horizons.

KURT RICHARDSON: I would love to know more about that, the ways that various departments are involved in virtual worlds. I think that can be a thing that continues and it may be necessary as people, for example, if people start preferring these virtual worlds to the real one, find their communities there, find their their circles they identify more with people. We’re seeing that often already, so what services does government need to provide in those circles and what services are we providing already? Please, tell me.

SIMON ROBERTSON: Excellent, well we’ll have some follow-up to do on that front. So, another one of the questions that was asked was: what opportunity do you think the use of surveillance devices would present in society or in your daily life?

And in this respect, data collection that can lead to better outcomes was an area that many of our audience highlighted data collection and particularly with respect to disaggregated data as being quite important, particularly over the course of the past year as an area for government during the course of the pandemic. Hoping you can touch on that Kurt.

KURT RICHARDSON: Sure, so yes in the the social surveillance space I think we can agree that data collection is the probably the main objective of that kind of thing. In that area, it really comes down to trust, who people trust to get their data. As I alluded to earlier, people trust private companies right now far more than they trust governments, unfortunately. So, if the Canadian government has a desire to use surveillance to collect data from multiple means, even if it’s disaggregated, they may have to work to regain some of that trust and I think that’s something that our colleagues on the sense-making project can speak to better in incoming sessions.

SIMON ROBERTSON: Thanks for that Kurt and I’m sure everyone here is eager to engage with you further on this. Please feel free to reach out to Kurt if you want to learn more about our project.

To learn more about foresight and read our latest reports, please visit horizons.gc.ca

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Policy Horizons | Horizons de politiques

Policy Horizons Canada, also referred to as Policy Horizons, is an organization within the federal public service that conducts strategic foresight on cross-cutting issues that informs public servants today about the possible public policy implications over the next 10-15 years.

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