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Making a connection with the digital era

AN intriguing report commissioned by sinister UK Government scientists paints a paradox fomented by "hyper-connectivity" to yon internet.

To wit, communities are becoming less cohesive, while individuals are growing stronger. Exhibit A: the English riots of 2011. Exhibit B: online identities where you can really be yourself.

Let us be clear: I just bunged in the word "sinister" to give you a cheeky wee shiver. Something is afoot here, so feel free to have a frisson. First, the who and what. The London Government's chief scientist, Professor Sir John Beddington, got some blokes to collate intelligence in computer science, economics, politics and demographics to find out what the hell was going on. He wanted to know what all this electric connectivity was doing to our identities. Who, me? Yup, you. He wasn't doing this for a laugh. His Foresight programme will inform policy across Government over the next 10 years.

Here's the dope: near-continuous access to the internut – the aforementioned hyper-connectivity – heralds profound change in how we view ourselves and our place in yonder world. Social networks, such as Facebook in particular, are forcing the pace of interactional evolution. Harnessed subtly, that could work well for the authorities, and the knightly prof cites as an example "the solidarity seen in the London 2012 Olympics". Many citizens experienced a glow of identity as they cheered on persons draped in Union flags, and some analysts believe the breakdancing routines of the opening ceremony killed off Scottish independence forever.

However – and in life there's always a however – even more sinister (knew that word would come up again) group activities may be organised through social networks. Think flash mobs, though these may be humorous. Then think riots. The report says: "Due to the development of smartphones, social networks and the trend towards [greater] connectivity, disparate groups can be easily mobilised where their interests temporarily coincide."

Some people develop temporary interests in looting department stores for flat-screen tellies. Still, it's nice to have a hobby.

So much for the downside of hyper-connectivity. The good news is that, while the internut is playing havoc with social identity, it's opening up all sorts of personal possibilities. We all know the depressing side of this: trolls and anonymous commenters. But that's not the whole picture. According to Prof Beddington's boffins, the internet allows people to realise their identities more fully. "Some people who have been shy or lonely or feel less attractive discover they can socialise more successfully and express themselves more fully online," says the report.

Again, there's a downside: adopting fantasy identities for violent role-playing games which any free society with standards would ban. There's nothing unhealthy about turning your comfort blanket into a cloak and mutating every evening into Varg, son of Humphrey, Lord Protector and High Priest of the Pimple people. If you start to believe your powers are real, those sirens in the distance could be heading your way. On the other hand, if you keep it real, if you communicate with others – bearing in mind all communication is social – and can be met without presumptions or prejudice regarding your looks, ethnicity, religion, job and age, you may prosper personally. Thus, traditional ideas of identity, such as the above, become less meaningful. It's this change that has implications for where society is going.

In Scotland, curiously (as ever), an extra dimension may be adduced: hyper-connectivity has helped cement the civic nationalist community. Online, intelligent writing about independence prospers and the sense of community, while virtual, is palpable. We live in interesting times, which is always worrying. But while Prof Beddington's report suggests social networking fomented dissent in Tunisia, Egypt and Lybia, as well as riots in England, there's a sense in which computer activism keeps people off the street.

From any government's point of view, that can only be a good thing. And from the individual's? Well, to adapt the words of EM Forster: only hyper-connect.

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Local government

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