Future scenarios: visions about digital rights beyond the here and now
The right to get information about your own data, the right to delete the digital self, the right to participate in digital expression.
These are some of the rights that digital rights campaigners and experts brainstormed at the “Future-Proofing our Digital Rights” workshop. Future-oriented sessions like these are important, because they help experts think beyond their everyday and to come up with visions for a world they would like to see. In times of oppressive technology, apathetic politics and dystopian science fiction this can be a challenge.
Campaigning and advocacy work is often rather reactive. Whenever corporations or governments crack down on rights like free speech, privacy or participation, digital rights organisations are stepping in to defend those rights. Many of them do this work on shoestring budgets and with a lot of volunteer work. Scarce resources make it tricky to think beyond the here and now and to spend time and energy on speculating about future events. In order to be prepared for a time that is yet to come and to shape the agenda when it does come, it is important to develop visions.
At the “Future-proofing our digital rights” workshop campaigners, lawyers, and activist from all across Europe got the chance to leave the everyday aside for a moment and focus on hopes, fears and strategies for the future. I was part of a group that set out to develop future scenarios based on a brainstorming of future digital rights. Our goal was to make the abstract rights more tangible. We focused on the right to access social network infrastructure and the right to disconnect. In order to come up with narratives, we started out by defining target audiences for the individual rights. Our roughly defined groups included teenagers, people in urban areas, and marginalised communities.
Here are two examples of our work:
The right to disconnect and people in urban areas
We started out with the assumption that in the future, even more than today, we will be connected no matter where we are. Devices in and on our bodies will track us, our homes will be full of smart devices, in short: we will be online 24/7. No corner of the world will be disconnected – quite the opposite it will be hard to go offline.
After framing the scenario, we thought about the needs that people might have and about how we can support them. “Silence is a brain juice fertiliser” was one of the ideas that came up. Silence as something that enhances your abilities, something that is crucial in order to be creative and healthy. We discussed how it might become a privilege or a luxury to disconnect, and how we might have to come up with a concept similar to the concept of holiday from work. A right that allows individuals to disconnect for a certain amount of time. To be offline, untrackable and unreachable for others.
Another aspect of the discussion was to have the right to obfuscate locations in order to protect privacy. In our example, you don’t want insurance services to know that you are seeing a doctor – that’s why you obfuscate your location on the devices that track you.
The third idea focused around the home and the questions of how we can disconnect when smart devices like our toothbrush, our door lock and many others are constantly tracking us. Our approach was a rather simple one: we thought about a “kill switch” for homes that lets you shut down all the connections to the internet at once.
Communities and the right to access social infrastructure
One approach our group came up with, was to say “we are the social network – we have the right to organize as long as what we do is legal. Private power should not impact this.” Another approach would be to have hyper local instances of social networks where info stays within a cultural context. A campaign idea that we developed was to tell the stories of prominent human rights advocates like the Suffragettes or Nelson Mandela, whose campaigns would have probably been blocked by social networks if they had lived in different times. Had that happened, we might have missed out on the rights and freedom these individuals brought us.
A next step for the scenario-exercise would be to use a methodology called backcasting. In backcasting, participants work backward from a future scenario to construct a plausible causal chain leading from here to there. This helps to come up with concrete steps on how to tackle an issue and to map stakeholders. For the “Right to disconnect“ this could look as follows:
2026 – The German government introduces a right to disconnect. Each individual has the right to be offline for at least 20 days per year.
2024 – Labour unions join the campaigns and start to lobby for the right to disconnect.
2022 – Campaigns promote being disconnected as the ultimate luxury of the 21st century. Being offline becomes a lifestyle choice.
2019 – Studies show that being disconnected from devices every once in a while increases the productivity and health of people.
It is important to reflect on concrete steps that have to be taken in order to pave the way for a preferred future scenario. This helps to identify stakeholders and measures that have to be taken on the way. What is crucial to remember is that there is no one solution or path to success. There are many different approaches that co-exist.
There is also not one single future: there are many possible futures. Not all of them are preferable, which is why we have to start to speculate and develop our own visions of the future in order to counter mainstream dystopian narratives. We need more of these exercises and workshops, because I believe that by exploring positive scenarios, we can increase the probability of more desirable futures happening.
About the author: Julia Kloiber develops strategies and concepts to innovate programs for the digital world. She is the Founder of Code for Germany, the Co-Founder of the Prototype Fund, and is a Fellow at the Mozilla Foundation since April 2018.