How might individuals change in the future? How might the self -- and perceptions of self -- change?


 Individuals in a Society of the Future

Geoff Mulgan

What kinds of individuals will populate the societies of the near future? Much about their minds, hopes and fears will remain mysterious to us as we would be to our ancestors, and of course they will be every bit as diverse as today’s population. But we can guess some of the possible patterns.

Here I suggest 10 directions to look at:

Amplified: Some aspects of our nature will be amplified, others constrained. Social media has successfully amplified some quite ugly sides of our nature—the compulsive, addictive, vindictive—as well as some good ones. Hopefully we will have learned better how to shape these influences to reward the pro-social, generous, truth-enhancing tendencies in our natures.

Implanted: Our sense of self is bound to be changed as we become ever more shaped by implants, prosthetics and devices in our bodies communicating with devices and networks outside.

Aware: The many trends to make ourselves more quantified, with constant feedback not just on heartbeat, steps taken and also mood, will transform how some people live, while also probably continuing to ratchet up anxiety.

Long: As life expectancy hits 100 and beyond, our sense of life as a project is bound to alter. It will be normal to assume multiple careers, multiple primary relationships and periodic redefinitions of the kind of persons we are.

Multiple: Modern theories of the brain emphasise how much it consists of multiple elements, both cooperating and competing, which challenge the idea of a unified self. Outside our heads we already live surrounded by a range of digital identities. It’s possible these will proliferate and we will have to maintain a menagerie of different selves, perhaps calibrated for different roles: our workplace self, our home self and our romantic self. This may be exhausting.

Costly: Rising pay levels may change our sense of self: as our time becomes more valuable, we feel more stress, fear wasting time and fear missing out.

Resilient: Will tomorrow’s people be more like snowflakes (the epithet thrown at today’s young people), hypersensitive and vulnerable? Or will they learn to cultivate physical and mental resilience as the necessary counterpart to a period of profound change.

Gendered: Gender roles have changed dramatically.: feminists and feminised men, masculinised women and men rediscovering masculinity, the LGBTQ trans and incels are all part of a fast-changing landscape within which the self can be redefined.

Bored: Will people be “fatigued with being oneself”?, That is, there may be an increasing disillusionment with symbols of status and self-hood (for example, a good home, job or, spouse) which should be sufficient but aren’t. This anomie may be associated by some with the decline of religion, the absence of war and weakened communities.

Belonging: No-one is an island. Instead we depend on feedback from others to reinforce what we are. The predictions of ever-greater autonomy for example, from the World Values Survey) rather missed the continuing pull of often older forces of belonging—nation, religion and region. 21st century humans will hunger for affirmation from their environment to let them know that they are welcomed and belong. Without that feedback we feel lost and anxious.

Changing Who We Are

Huw Price

Pessimistic voice: AI and related technologies are going to allow us to reconfigure ourselves in dramatic ways, via what Yuval Harari calls “human hacking”. Something that has been constant for tens of thousands of years will now be radically malleable. That’s scary.

Optimistic voice: We’ve always been more than biological individuals. Our selves and identities have always been extended and malleable, constituted both by social relations and culture at many levels, and by our use of technology. (Much recent discussion of intelligence makes the mistake of ignoring these dimensions.). These social and technological selves have always been hackable, to some extent, as we rearrange our social networks, and change our use of technology. Certainly the pace and scope for change have been accelerating, and Harari is right to think that the intersection of AI and biology will add
new possibilities. Think of learning to read, learning to drive, falling in love, moving to Singapore. But it is not the sudden cliff edge that it looks like when viewed through an excessively individualistic lens. We should be alert but not alarmed.

A Squandered Reality

Nick Yee

Online games and virtual reality offer the promise of escaping our own physical bodies and creating new (if not altogether physically impossible) identities in novel spaces and places, but more often than not, these promises have backfired and been subverted.

MUDs—early text-based virtual worlds—foreshadowed the ironic hyper-salience of physical bodies in digital spaces by forcing us to articulate and type out every aspect of our bodies and their movements (for example, “I lean in and touch his shoulder with my hand as a gesture of support”), something that the real world allows us to do without thought or explicit articulation.

In Second Life, a graphical virtual world where users can become anyone and do anything they want (still with roughly half a million monthly users), the possibility of escape and experimentation are largely subverted by the rampant consumerism of physical status symbols. Designer-made bodies, high-end clothing and your very own cantilevered house by the beachfront to put all your virtual possessions in are now so cheap they’re within anyone’s grasp. As with the inversion in MUDs, Second Life seems more materialistic than Real Life.

The abundance of digital bodies allows us to project and perpetuate our own social biases in powerful ways, even under the guise of play. In a study we ran in World of Warcraft, we found that male and female players are equally likely to enjoy healing—a support role in combat. But within the game, players using female avatars are more likely to be healers. Thus, a gender stereotype that is actually untrue is reified and perpetuated in the virtual world.

Perspective-taking is one of the holy grails of VR, but this story of VR as the ultimate “empathy machine”, enabling us to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, is also far from conclusive. Simply putting people in other bodies can backfire. Asking undergraduate students to write about their future old age selves led to more positive view of the elderly, but putting students in a digitally-aged avatar of themselves led to more negative views of the elderly because it made explicit the very physical nature of ageing. Similarly, putting white undergraduates in black bodies in a VR job interview increased their racial prejudices of black people. In these studies, VR didn’t rewrite our prejudices; it simply triggered our existing negative stereotypes of others.

A deep, often-unquestioned insistence in VR is the need for embodiment to begin with. Most of our current VR efforts tend to revolve around replicating physical reality as much as possible. Even as we build virtual conference rooms, we seldom stop to ask why we need virtual chairs in the first place if our virtual bodies never get tired. But what if we had three arms in VR? What if avatars needed two people to work in tandem (à la Pacific Rim)? What if you were an olive grove on a compressed timescale of hundreds of years? What opportunities in relationships, play, and work are we squandering when we insist that our virtual worlds look and operate exactly the way that our bodies look and operate in the physical world?

Three Questions for Humanity

So-Young Kang

Who am I?

Where do I come from?

Why am I here?


I believe these are fundamental questions that define us as human. Even with the advent of technology and the 4th Industrial Revolution, these questions will persist. But what aspects of these questions will remain core to our understanding of humanity and which aspects will evolve? How will they evolve? What are the implications for humanity?


Who am I? Even this fundamental question is being challenged. Are we just a collection of genes and cells, or are we much more? What differentiates us as humans is a much more existential perspective around identity which is not merely physical but emotional, intellectual and spiritual. Adult development theorists, philosophers and psychologists seem to largely agree that as humans evolve, the highest order of development involves a spiritual element or “awakening” that moves us beyond the physical. It links to the larger questions of purpose (Why am I here?).


Are we evolving from Homo Sapiens to Homo Deus as per Yuval Harari, and what does this mean? We are questioning traditionally core markers of identity such as gender, race, national origin, and even age (where we attempt to increase productive longevity) which then complicates the question Where do I come from? I believe that bodies being repaired, restored and enhanced by technology will become commonplace, and these cyborgs may constitute a further new identity category.


So if identity is much more than our physical being, then what does it mean? How will it evolve? The identity question can also be answered in relation to others in society.


  • Role-based identity: I am a child, a friend, a boss, a leader, an employee, et cetera

  • Emotional identity: I am loved, accepted, cared for, et cetera

  • Spiritual identity: I am a child of God, a follower of x religion, a believer in y, et cetera


Society 4.0 impacts the physical identity of humanity. But the elements which I believe need much more focus, attention, intentional design and influence are the emotional, intellectual and spiritual. In order to address the above, we need to engage in much richer discussions and debates around societal norms, values, principles and ethics for both now and the future. Who do we want to be as individuals and members of a very interconnected society? Why do we exist? Where do we want to go?


This dialogue requires a more educated and enlightened Society 4.0. It requires people who have evolved beyond merely meeting physical needs and who have the capacity and freedom to address those deeper emotional, spiritual and intellectual needs. This will require constant learning, questioning and curiosity. It will require a humanisation of technology. It will not be easy.


But most importantly, it will require human intention and human design.