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  • Elliot Grainger

Future Trends 2021 - Part 1 Rapid Tech Adoption and a New Normal

Technology and communication are interwoven. From the printing press to the telegraph, to the telephone to radio, and now the internet and social media – technology has driven communications. In early 2021 we took stock of the changing technology that is and will be influencing human-human interaction in the coming years. Through interviews with our clients, partners and friends in academia we have explored what is currently concerning people in maintaining national security, countering hate speech and preventing radicalisation.

This is the first of several posts we are now choosing to share here to highlight why we do what we do, and why we are working to counter digital exploitation.

Rapid tech adoption and a new normal

Throughout all of the interviews was the reflection that the pandemic has thrown technology into the forefront as a facilitator in our daily lives. This is not really a surprise and the impact will be increasingly discussed in multiple fields as we come out of lockdowns. However, this led to the conclusion amongst interviewees that whilst there are no big technology shifts expected in the next year, there are developments that cause a concern to the communications ecosystem.

The pandemic has changed how individuals engage in social relationships and has amped up reliance on technology. A question that remains is which changes will last and which will fade with the pandemic? The impact of this rapid change raises great concern. Only in developing an improved, and regularly updated, understanding of this ongoing impact will it be possible to better respond to changes in the communications ecosystem and how it might be infected by new forms of threats, exploitation and manipulation. Governments in particular are actively seeking answers to these questions, but we believe there is an over cautious, or uncertain approach in investigating how much of this change is becoming a ‘new normal’ or how much we will revert to the old normal as the pandemic abates.

Primarily these concerns are about the rise in and multiplication of platforms, manipulation of content, increased use of end-to-end encryption in the private spaces, and the lowering cost of access to existing technology, and the improved quality and proliferation of some emerging technologies - such as the technology for creating deep-fakes (which while still complex is increasingly easy to access and the cost, in time, expertise and cash, is lowering all the time). This move from the mainstream platforms to the proliferation of new, smaller, niche platforms is a feature that ran throughout every interview we undertook.

The key counter-intuitive headline from our interviews is that 2020 has not seen any shift in the technology in use, or new technology that is causing a concern. Instead, the current change is not new technology, but the lowering of entry and access to new tech, the increasing quality of products to access and use, particularly around content creation and manipulation, and new platforms providing existing technologies offering greater choice - often away from regulation or state oversight.

For those investigating the tech-industry, its development and use (both as intended and exploited), 2020 is seen as a “great pause” - a break in development of new technologies. There was a realisation that terms such as Industrial Revolution 4.0, quantum computing, blockchain, all part of the mainstream conversations in 2019, have radically dropped out of mainstream conversation through the pandemic. (Although, it is noted as we finalise this report that such issues are now beginning to return to the conversation outside of technology circles). One example cited has been how transport innovation has slowed - primarily as people are not using transport - raising questions over ways in which the pandemic has actually slowed innovation, whilst also speeding up adoption of existing technology more widely. Gaming was seen as the only exception to this shift, which is perceived to have continued innovating rapidly - but is still only lightly integrated into many policy conversations in Europe.

Our policy lead interviewees in particular raised the issues of the uncertainty caused by the “great pause”. Before the pandemic, technological development and concerns of online security were seen to be developing with some certainty. Since mid-2020 therefore it is unclear what the impact of technological changes will be. From a communications exploitation perspective we have seen a pause, this does not mean there is a pause in technology development entirely - simply that it is not being discussed or seen or engaged with at this level. This creates a problem. New changes will occur, and new technology may emerge from the “great pause”. However, governments are seeking more certainty on which developments are of concern that are not being considered, and which elements that were developing previously as areas of concern have already moved on or have really stalled in their implementation and engagement with the public.

Grappling with this uncertainty was raised repeatedly as the policy challenge of the next twelve to eighteen months. There is a need to regain a clear understanding of the evolving nature of the effect of the pandemic and its impact on security and thus required policy.

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