Six signals for 2020: From responsive spaces to synthetic media

Six signals for 2020: From responsive spaces to synthetic media
By Ethical Futures Lab • Issue #15 • View online
The end of the year is a time for reflection and for looking forward to the year to come. In this issue, we synthesize the key trends that we think will shape our experiences at the intersection of technology and society in 2020. Read on for thoughts on fake reality, genetically personalized everything, algorithmic spaces, and more.
—Alexis & Matt

1: Algorithmic pop-up shops
For a while, we’ve been able to generate data about our physical spaces, from environmental sensors to Google Maps. But we’re seeing signals of how our digital interactions might begin to feed back into our built environment. Ghost kitchens have arisen in response to the use of food delivery apps. Traffic patterns change in response to real-time congestion data (and neighborhoods request that their streets be removed from Waze / Google as a result). And we see the rise of autonomous vehicles that can evolve well beyond “cars” — let’s think of them as spaces that happen to be mobile. Put all of these threads together and we can imagine a future where the built environment is no longer a static artifact, but a dynamic system that can adapt and respond to the digital ecosystem that has thus far only existed alongside it. This reality isn’t likely to come to full fruition in 2020, but we will likely see stronger signals of this kind emerging over the coming year, including more instrumentation and measurement as well as some limited experiments in adaptive environments.
2: The playground between fake and real
A dead woman is currently starring in the top-grossing box office hit. Deepfakes are being used to spread disinformation and to create art. A combination of 3D rendering tech and social media has spawned fully digital pop stars and celebrities. In 2020, we will wrestle with the impact of synthetic media and how it is incorporated into our lives. On the one hand, we will grapple with its power to spread lies and increase mistrust. On the other, we will develop a more complex and nuanced set of postures toward digitally generated art and culture. And, as futurists, we will continue to explore the design of fake realities as a means of shaping the real ones. Fake and real are no longer black-and-white terms, but represent a host of possibilities along a spectrum, for both good and ill. 
3: Solidarity dot com
In 2019, both Google and Kickstarter have been at the center of highly publicized union-busting efforts, criticized for firing employees who were organizing workers at both companies. These are just the most public and recent signals of a growing awareness of labor issues in technology. From the exploitation of workers in content moderation farms to run-of-the-mill bad labor practices elsewhere, there has suddenly been a larger conversation about labor rights in Silicon Valley over the past year. In 2020, we anticipate more tech workers turning to unions as a means of organizing and protecting themselves, and the culture of tech evolving in response to an increasingly organized labor force. To go deeper, we recommend listening to the Voice of Design podcast episode, “Union Strong”.
4: Privacy conversation becomes privacy regulation
At the close of 2019, we’ve seen concerns about data privacy start to manifest in legal ways in the U.S. (we’re several years behind Europe on this front). Companies are scrambling to comply with the California Consumer Privacy Act — as of two days before the end of the year, open questions still remain. Facial recognition tech has been banned in Portland, OR, San Francisco, CA and Somerville, MA, in one case for private companies as well as law enforcement. In 2020 we expect data privacy to be a continuing concern, with local legislators leading the charge for increased protections. While regulations to protect personal privacy will be welcome in many areas, it’s likely that companies trying to comply with a disparate set of state and local regulations may ignore some of these rules, build for the toughest restriction, or simply bow out altogether. 
5: The decentralization of media consumption
From worries about data privacy to frustration with outrage machines and filter bubbles, concerns about social platforms as a means of media distribution have grown to a dull roar. We’ve started to see movement away from Facebook and Twitter, which also means a movement away from the aggregated, socially mediated means of consuming news and media that has been dominant for much of the past decade. Instead, the growth of formats like podcasts and newsletters speaks to a trend toward more intentional media consumption that is built upon relationships with trusted sources. Will this lead us back to the patterns of media usage we saw in the pre-platform internet? Will existing social platforms adapt to these needs in unexpected ways? Or will new platforms arise to support different kinds of media experiences?
6: Genetics is the new astrology
If you’ve sent in your saliva to tell you about your genetic profile, you’re part of a new data vanguard. Congrats! Depending on which service you used, your DNA sequence may be helping to discover new drug treatments, identify perpetrators in cold cases, or find genetic markers for conditions like autism, breast cancer, and Alzheimer’s. That’s not all, though: we’ve recently seen sites pop up that will use your DNA to help you find the perfect mate or design a diet that’s right for you, though these consumer services must be treated with significant skepticism. To be clear, there’s still a lot to be discovered and understood in our genes, and we encourage scientific research and discovery in this area. But there’s a market for a science-y gloss over personal advice, so much like horoscopes purport to tell us who we are based on where the planets were in the sky when we were born, expect DNA-based lifestyle services to continue to proliferate wherever they find vulnerable people looking for answers.
One look back: Tech that died in the 2010’s
CNET published a retrospective looking at the gadgets and ideas that disappeared in the past decade. It’s a great way to spend a holiday afternoon, remembering both the weird (Flip camcorder) and the seemingly-critical (AOL Instant Messenger) tech that no longer exists. What we were struck by was the wide variety of timelines on which products died; VCRs were still being manufactured in 2016, but the Microsoft Kin - a social-media friendly phone for the youngs - lasted barely 3 months. 
From AirPower to Zune, a decade of tech and companies that died
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