Social Science’s Impact on Society, Circa 2065: Sam Miles


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Other winning essays

Overall winner
“CITY Inc.” | James Fletcher, King’s College London
Highly Commended
“The World in 2065: A rapidly changing climate and a renewed social science” | Gioia Barnbrook, University of Aberdeen
“They know how much oxygen I breathe, which is fine by me” | Josephine Go Jefferies, University of Nottingham
Shortlisted
“Doubting gender. Or why it is best to leave certain questions unanswered” | Kristin Hübner, University of Warwick
“After ‘posh and white’: the 50 year slog towards achieving educational equality” | Elizabeth Houghton, Lancaster University
“People will soon be at the very heart of law making” | Louise Thompson, University of Hull (PhD)/ University of Surrey (present)
“One morning in 2065” | Matjaz Vidmar, University of Edinburgh
“Policing in times of financial austerity and beyond: The role of psychology in maximising efficiency” | Rebecca Wheeler, Goldsmiths University of London
“Keeping pace with the ‘perennial gale of competition’” | Samuel Ian Quigg, University of Surrey

Last year, Britain’s Economic and Social Research Council asked early career social scientists to try their hand at what might be called social-science fiction, looking at what strides their particular fields might achieve in the next 50 years. And like the best traditional science fiction, the winning essays were grounded in the evidence and research of today extended by smart analysis of what the future can hold.

Science fiction, err, speculative fiction, is in the business of predicting what the world will look like in years hence. And the best science fiction gives equal weight to both parts of its moniker: science and fiction.

The World in 2065, as the contest was named, received an array of submissions covering a wide variety of topics addressing key issues affecting society such as climate change, gender inequality, education and the law. The contest was co-sponsored by SAGE (the parent of Social Science Space), which like the ESRC celebrated its 50th birthday in 2015, and which again like the ESRC is busily writing its own narrative for another successful 50 years.

“Science communication is currently something of a buzz phrase in the academic world, so it was particularly interesting to see how this crop of up-and-coming scientists set about encapsulating their hopes and fears for their disciplines over the next 50 years in under 800 words,” Tash Reith-Banks, one of four judges in the competition, wrote in The Guardian, where she is the production editor for the Science desk. The other three judges were Alan Gillespie, the chair of ESRC since 2009; Miranda Nunhofer, executive director for SAGE; and Martin Ince, a freelance journalist specializing in research and higher education.

Over the 10 weeks Social Science Space will present the 10 shortlisted essays: the overall winner, two essays honored as ‘highly commended,’ and the seven other essays on the shortlist.

Here, we present the highly commended essay “Navigating private life in a public world” by Sam Miles of Queen Mary, University of London. You can read hisfull entry below:

“Navigating private life in a public world”

By Sam Miles

Walking down a city street, you feel a buzz from the phone in your pocket. Looking at the screen, you read a message from the coffee shop on the next block. ‘We’ve got a new batch of that Javanese coffee you said you liked last week. Come and try it now and we’ll upgrade you to a Grande for free!’

This is not a vision of the world in 2065, it’s what the world could look like this year. Locative technology – that is, the GPS system in your smartphone that can track your location – is now sophisticated enough to link your position in space with corporations who could cleverly use the data to nudge you towards their products, all as you walk down the street in real-time. The only reason we haven’t seen this targeted mobile marketing on our high streets yet is because the extent to which our online data is shared between developers, governments and corporations would unnerve us – unless introduced in a way that benefits us as consumers.

Sam Miles
Sam Miles

My research will change the world by 2065 because digital technology and location-based services will be central to how we chart space, how we connect with people, and how we use the services, shops and social venues around us. I study the ways that gay men – to focus on just one population group – use locative dating apps in their everyday lives. I ask how these products affect social and sexual encounters, and how mobile dating apps mixes the concepts of virtual and physical space. But I also explore how dating app users consider privacy, surveillance and commodification.

In 50 years the idea of being locatable in space won’t be new, and it might not even raise any concerns: it will simply be a fact of life. We won’t need to ask where our friends or family are, because our devices will pinpoint them on maps projected onto our kitchen counter or our spectacles. Rather than mobile phones, we may communicate with wearable technology – not just the digital watches being developed today, but also tiny complex microchips worn as jewelry or even implanted into the skin. These devices will map our movements, our health, and even our appetites to others – including, in all likelihood, private corporations. After all, what better way is there to attract customers into your restaurant than by engineering conversation with someone nearby who you know is hungry and has been on their feet for several hours? Combine this knowledge with their credit card transactions – a penchant for Italian food, a recent holiday to Tuscany – and the restaurant can make the customer feel like the only thing they want to eat is a stonebaked pizza. In this way, corporations will know as much about us as we know ourselves – and maybe more.

If this sounds dystopian, we should consider the positives too. In 50 years, mobile technologies will help ambulances reach medical emergencies even more efficiently than they do now. A phone app was released this year that maps off-duty doctors onto your local city, so that if one is nearby, they can dash to your pinned location even quicker than paramedics. This kind of crowdsourced community may develop in beneficial, altruistic ways that we cannot even imagine. Friends and family will feel closer than ever, despite a growth in migration and global networking. Crime and security will be streamlined, with criminal activity mapped even before it happens by aggregating the locational data of known hotspots.

But crime and punishment raise some of the biggest questions, too. Many baulk at the idea of an electronic tag monitoring offenders today, but 50 years from now the whole population might be tracked in a similar way. The argument ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear’ will sweep aside the valid objections of civil liberties in the same way that app developers currently sell users’ personal data to corporations. After all, as a dating app user you share incredibly personal data not just with potential dates, but with third parties to whom your statistics, behaviours and likes are highly valuable. And you sacrifice this data because you get something out of the exchange too – a convenient social networking tool.

Mobile and pervasive digital technology, like the radio, the phone, and the television before it, is the future. It is therefore vital that we consider the questions these technologies raise. What do we lose when we lose our privacy?