Review of The Future of You: Can Your Identity Survive 21st-Century Technology? by

Book cover for The Future of You: Can Your Identity Survive 21st-Century Technology?

If there’s anything I love, it’s discussing futurism and technology! This is the kind of book I could totally see myself learning about from CBC’s Spark (but in this case, I actually found it on NetGalley and received an e-ARC from Elliott & Thompson Limited in exchange for a review). The Future of You is an overview of various technologies that are complicating, problematizing, mutating, and perhaps rescuing our concept of identity as a legal and philosophical entity. Tracey Follows discusses everything from the bioethics of biometrics and facial recognition to transhumanist fantasies of mind uploading. There is certainly a feast for the mind here, but it’s the kind of multi-course meal that does not leave one sated.

Rather than attempt to summarize the wide array of technologies Follows discusses, let me quickly get at some of the themes. First, surveillance. The Future of You rightly points out that the rise in identity-tracking and identity-authenticating technologies means a corresponding increase in surveillance. Follows explains how this relates to the tension between decentralized and federated systems versus centralized systems. Second, convenience. New technologies make it easier and faster for people to confirm they are who they say they are. This is particularly important for the people in the world who currently lack any identity paperwork. Finally, innovation. New technologies would allow for changes to, for example, democracy, which Follows examines in the cases of Estonia’s “i-voting” and Taiwan’s highly personalized democratic system and handling of the pandemic.

Follows does a good job summarizing and surveying this very broad field. For people who want a whistle-stop tour of the various ways that digital technologies, particularly online ones, are challenging our notions of identity, The Future of You will likely be a useful guide. Unfortunately, for these very reasons, I personally was not satisfied.

Many of these technologies and issues were already known to me—and for the ones that weren’t, I was intrigued, but I wanted more than this book is equipped to give. This book made me realize I really miss the deep dives in non-fiction, the “here’s a whole book on a single bone in the body of this one dinosaur, lol” books. There is a whole book for each of the technologies discussed in this book. I can’t fault The Future of You for not being a deep dive, because it never claimed to go deep. But when I found myself skimming sections because I didn’t want to get attached to ideas I knew Follows would never explore thoroughly, I realized this book wasn’t working for me.

Preferences aside, however, I wasn't a fan of how uncritically Fellows presents some of the claims of technologists and futurists she features here. For example, at one point she cites a 2005 claim from Aubrey de Grey “that the rate of progress is accelerating so quickly that the first person to live to be 1,000 years old will probably be born only ten years after the first person to live to 150.” O rly? There’s no interrogation of this idea, literally no follow-up to it; Follows just moves on to her next thought, literally starting a new paragraph.

Now, I don’t believe Follows believes all of these various scenarios! Assuming the best of intentions, I would hope that Follows is simply trying to inspire and stoke the imaginations of her readers. I can get behind that. Nevertheless, extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. I believe the job of an author of a book like this is to examine critically these various ideas and technologies, not merely rattle them off like a “gee whiz, maybe in a century we’ll all be living to 1,000” factoid you’ll get on the back of a cereal box. This is particularly true for the more out-there stuff the transhumanists are saying, particularly around ideas like mind uploading.

Indeed, Follows claims in her introduction that The Future of You will eschew philosophical interrogations into the idea of identity—yet that is exactly what she does towards the end of the book. Discussions of modifying our kids’ genomes and uploading our minds into clone bodies inevitably verge into these philosophical territories. I don’t mind this, of course. I just wish Follows had been more up front about where the book was going.

Finally, I want to talk about how Follows discusses trans people. I was surprised to see us mentioned at all. At first I was just like, “Oh, it’s nice not to be erased in these discussions.” Issues of identity are so important for trans people, particularly when it comes to legal identity versus social identity. Alas, Follows chooses to focus narrowly on medical miracles of transition: look, trans men can have babies!!

And this is a problem.

I really, really need y’all to understand that if you only ever bring us up as medical curiosities, that is all we will ever be to cis people. We are not curiosities or props to be used in discussions of medical miracles. Stop featuring us in TV specials, and stop talking about us in books like this.

I will forestall my huge angry rant and just say that it would be easy to improve the trans discourse in this book. It’s fine to mention the medical stuff, but you need that to be a small part in a larger discussion about identity. If you’re not willing to go into that much depth, then yeah, honestly, I would prefer you didn’t talk about us at all.

Anyway.

The Future of You is a competent book if you’re looking for a survey. Poor trans discourse aside, I think Follows does a great job presenting some of the intriguing possible evolutions of identity in our future. Nevertheless, I was hoping for more depth to these discussions and more critical analysis.

Engagement

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