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February 3, 2023

Avatars, AI and Authentication, with Tracey Follows

Rachel Salaman

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Sometimes it feels as if we're living in a science fiction or fantasy movie.

We've become accustomed to digital assistants that recognize our voice to conjure up information on demand. And we're as comfortable to use fingerprint scanners to unlock our phones as to accept facial recognition technology to cross a border or to catch a criminal.

The pace of technological change is fast and phenomenal. But how afraid should we be that it will run away with us, creating a world where our identities are swallowed up and reshaped for profit and control?

This is a question for a futurist – someone like Tracey Follows (pictured above), the author of a new book titled "The Future of You: Can Your Identity Survive 21st-Century Technology?"

When I spoke to her for the latest Mind Tools Expert Interview, she stressed the importance of engaging with the march of technological progress, rather than ignoring or resisting it. Each of us, she says, has to "operate as a digital persona" to function in today's world, whether we like it or not.

Below is an audio clip from our conversation. You can download a transcript here.

As Follows emphasizes, "if our identity is being digitized, then we want to be in control of it."

Technology: Possible, Probable or Preferable?

According to Follows, members of the "futuring community" can be divided into those who think you can predict the future, and those who think you can't, but you can do some useful preparation for what might come. She's the second kind.

"Obviously, anything societal or cultural is a lot more difficult to predict, and so that's really more about preparing," she explains. "So you're preparing for different possible outcomes or different possible futures, as we would call them, not just the probable future."

In her book, she brings together research and insight about several aspects of our identities in the 21st century, in chapters that indicate their focus. There's "Knowing You," about data collection; "Watching You," about digital surveillance; "Creating You," about our online personas; and "Connecting You," about communication. The others are "Replacing You," "Enhancing You," and "Destroying You."

This builds a mostly dystopian vision of the future, where governments and companies can influence who you are and what you do. I asked Follows if people can opt out of this by simply not using technology. After all, not everyone has an online life. Her answer? It's not that simple.

"It doesn't really matter how much or how little you're using technology. Society is using technology and the state certainly is using technology. And that obviously has ramifications for not only who you are, but how you are treated and how you are assumed to be someone you are," she says.

Creating "You" Through Technology

So what can we control? Our social media personas, for one. We can curate a digital image of ourselves that is close to the reality, or very far from it. Or something in between – a better version of ourselves, if you will. And while this may be fun, it can also have a fascinating impact on our day-to-day lives, back on Planet Earth.

Follows explores this in the chapter "Creating You," in a discussion about avatars. This stood out for me, with its logical and tantalizing upside.

She cites research by Jeremy Bailenson at Stanford University, looking at how people represented by avatars behave in virtual environments.

"What he found was that their own behavior was very much affected by the avatar they thought they were. So how they thought they showed up affected their own behavior," she reports.

"If they thought they were a really tall person in a virtual reality space, they might be much more confident. He found that they were, I think, better negotiators, because they felt like they were more imposing when they were taller. And if they felt like they were very small avatars, they acted differently. Likewise, if they were more 'attractive,' they would be much more confident."

Follows encountered a similar effect among people in Tokyo who spent a lot of time on live social media feeds. The avatars they chose allowed them to be "discovered" – and in more ways than one.

"Sometimes when they are themselves on some of these social platforms, they are less confident," she says. "And if they can take on an avatar suddenly, they're able to turn up in these environments and sing their heart out or play the piano, and they've found these amazing talents."

Tech to Hide Behind or to Shine Through

An avatar can be a mask that hides a person's identity, but it can also enable people to adopt a new identity, with the power to draw out new strengths. It's an intriguing idea, particularly since we increasingly communicate online.

"Who we turn up as, who we represent ourselves as, how we profile ourselves, is obviously having a really fundamental and quite profound effect on our communication and our interaction in lots and lots of different ways," Follows reflects.

Granted, there are moral dilemmas and even mental health risks if "we build ourselves a wardrobe of avatars" for different situations, or to deal with different people in different ways. But on the positive side, unlike some of the other scenarios presented in Follows' book, this is one technological advance that we can manage – and benefit from – ourselves.

Transhumanism and Transparent Government

Mind Tools Club members and Mind Tools for Business licensees can listen to my full 30-minute interview with Tracey Follows. In it, she also touches on the use (and abuse) of technology for democracy, physical and mental augmentation, creativity, and more. It comes with a complete transcript.

If you're not already signed up, join the Mind Tools Club now to gain unlimited access to 2,400+ resources, including our back catalog of 200+ audio Expert Interviews. And to find out more about Mind Tools' enterprise solutions, you can book a demo with one of our team.

Meanwhile, you can read more from me, Rachel Salaman, by searching the Expert Interview blog topic.

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