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The Road Ahead: Marching Backwards Into the Future

Since 2003, the EDRi-gram is reporting on developments across Europe to raise awareness of attacks on freedom of expression and privacy as well as to highlight good news and best practice. To celebrate their 300th edition, the editors have asked digital rights thinkers to imagine what they will be writing about in 2025.

This is our submission to the 300th edition. You can read all the articles here.

“People often overestimate what will happen in the next two years and underestimate what will happen in ten.”

This is what Bill Gates wrote in his afterword for ‘The Road Ahead‘, his 1995 take on how our lives would change because of the ‘information superhighway’. It is easy to look at his predictions now and point out all the things that he got wrong (he thought it wasn’t likely we would receive video on our mobile devices for example), but it is more interesting to read into these predictions the preoccupations of that particular time. As McLuhan would say: we march backwards into the future.

Gates wrote quite a bit about privacy in the book. On the one hand he was concerned: “Loss of privacy is another major worry where the network is concerned. A great deal of information is already being gathered [..] and we often have no idea how it’s used or whether it’s accurate.” But he was also naive: “A decade from now you may shake your head when you remember that there was ever a time when any stranger [..] could interrupt you at home with a phone call. [..] By explicitly indicating allowable interruptions, you’ll be able to reestablish a sense of a sanctuary.”

If I try to extrapolate current trends and developments ten years into the future, then it is exactly this sanctity of the home that seems to be under pressure. In the next few years the ‘things’ in our house will all get their own operating system connecting them to the internet. Today it is a toothbrush that can tell you whether your kids spend enough time brushing their teeth, a scale that tweets your weight to the world to keep you motivated, or an electronic book that tracks your reading habits. Tomorrow it might be your washing machine ordering its own detergent or your candles tracking their own burning hours.

Today it seems like all my internet connected devices always have some update that needs to be downloaded right when I need to use them. I often joke that I don’t look forward to a future where I can’t open my washing machine because it is “Downloading 3 of 8 updates”, or where I can’t light my candles because they are getting a firmware upgrade for a better and safer user experience. But there is a serious point to make too. Gates seemed to assume that you would be in control over your own technology. You could explicitly set your preferences and your technology would just comply. This is not the direction we are moving in now. Governments are forcing ‘smart’ energy meters into many households that report your energy use back to headquarters, eBook providers are remotely deleting books from their customers devices and cars can already be turned off from a distance when a car payment is overdue.

The 1995 Bill Gates would be appalled by how little control we have over our own devices today. If we continue down the current road I think our current selves will be appalled by our future situation too. It is therefore important to take back control over our devices to ensure that we will have meaningful agency in the coming years.

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