The rise of digital technology isn’t necessarily a story with a happy ending….a random list of worrying things

Let me start by saying that I am a rational optimist. I think that generally speaking things are getting better and will continue to get better. Whilst I rail against the technological determinist view, however I try to be realistic and rational about technology and avoid thinking every new thing is automatically great simply because it is new. I don’t believe that rise of digital technology is guaranteed to be a story with a happy ending. For me technology is a tool and we choose how to use it and we need to continually push to use it well. But here is a random list of some things that give off the impression that we could be choosing to use it better.

•Financial pressure on tech giants actually eroding customer service over time – decline in openness of services and interoperability, reliance on increasingly pernicious advertising formats and personal data exploitation

•Devil’s bargain of giving up personal data in exchange for free services results in decline of personal privacy and lack of trust in data security and platform brands

•Risks of our fragile economic system being shattered as a result of unintended consequences – e.g. Financial trading bots reading hoax Associated Press Twitter post and wiping billions off stock market

•Decline in the quality of information/news available to us about the world due to the massive rise in quantity – e.g. Boston bombings news coverage riddled with false rumours presented as fact in mainstream media due to pace and pressure of reporting a live event

•Fear of the impact of technology on livelihoods as many jobs become digitised shrinking overall market value or human workers replaced by computers and robots with no corresponding new job creation leading to mass protest/rejection of technological advancements

•Failure of most big companies to pursue disruptive innovation leaves them exposed and at risk of new entrants disrupting their marketplace with networkd digital technology which destroys marketplace value and impacts on shareholder value (which includes pension fund shares)

•Oh and threat to net neutrality from actions by bodies like the FCC stacking the deck against certain organisations by demanding fees for service or through the defacto favouring of big established business who can pay for faster services

I am sure there are more, but maybe I will write an optimists list next time….

“So modernity has brought with it an endless internal mental conflict between stern, rather parental inner voices and lazy childish ones. Unfortunately, these two voices, which have functioned as opposites, checking each other for centuries, have been confounded into idiotic agreement and collusion with the appearance of digital network technology…..both sides are saying that if technology makes life easier, it should also make you poor….. This is the stupidity of our age, a conclusion so utterly bankrupt that no single generation could muster a sufficient momentum of mental failure to express it alone. Only a collaboration of generations could manage to spread a dusting of credence over such a gaping, appalling, vacant falsehood.”
Jaron Lanier. Who owns the future


The future of technology is more human and emotional, not more technical

I was inspired by a couple of excellent articles by Mel Exon on BBH Labs to write this post on the singularity and technological advancement. I recently read Ray Kurzweil’s mindbending book “The singularity is near” and like many of the other people commenting, found Mel’s article an extremely helpful and lucid overview of a very complex and conceptual area and it certainly broadened my understanding.

I found her distinction between different viewpoints and attitudes to technology particularly interesting. But I felt that many of the viewpoints described tend to see the alternative futures as quite black or white. Technology for good or evil, technology under control and our servant or out of control and our master.

The singularity means that the merging of humans and technology will continue and result in non biological human intelligence. So rather than creating a them/us scenario, we will need to re define what human intelligence is.

So I don’t think it is likely that we will come to see the situation as humans vs robots. It seems more likely that both human and non biological intelligence will work together for a long time and technology will continue to augment human abilities in both positive and negative ways at the same time. Technology is a product of human nature, and as an optimistic realist I believe that human nature will pursue positive outcomes, but in an imperfect way that will lead to negative outcomes that we can learn from. After all good and bad is inherent in human nature and so technology can easily be a product of either, it could either be good or bad or both depending on how we design it.

I think the relationship we have today with our mobile devices is a good current example of this and I was struck by an article in last weekend’s Observer. The current boss of the Orange mobile phone company quoted his son as saying “Why do I need to learn things when I can just Google them on my Iphone”. This change in behaviour is both good and bad. Clearly the power of having the internet in your hands is useful and empowering as it enhances your biological intelligence, but the danger is that the next generation fails to understand the importance of experience and learning to developing true understanding.

So far technology has been pretty good for most people overall, despite some substantial misuses in war, which are a product of human nature of course rather than the technology itself. Steven Pinker has written recently of the decline in the actual violence experienced by the majority of people in developed societies as culture has evolved. And this decline has happened despite an explosion of technology.

That got me thinking that contrary to the view of many skeptics, I don’t believe that technology is changing human nature. Our behaviours might well be changing as they are enabled by technology, but I don’t believe that our fundamental human nature, developed over millennia of evolution is susceptible to a mere few hundred years or even decades of change. Moreover whilst technological change might be unsettling and risky, it doesn’t mean we are powerless to influence its advance, in part because technology is a product of human intelligence.

I think that future of technology will be more human not more technical. As technological capability continues to increase, and manufacturing parity is easier to achieve, technology in itself will be less and less of a differentiator and will be taken for granted in all areas of our lives.

As human intelligence becomes non-biological, pure computing power will no longer be a differentiator. Instead emotional forms of intelligence will be an increasing differentiator. Experiences will be easily faked/ virtualised and so emotional response and connection will be one of the few remaining true/authentic experiences.

So what happens to brands? You might also think that brands will be less important as super intelligence – in terms of computing power – becomes able to consider vast sums of info and make comparisons between products and brand on a rational level. The trends we see today where brands are punished for the smallest mistakes because of internet enabled consumer power, will continue.

However brands will still retain their power. Brands are a medium for providing emotional response. Brands allow us to feel differently about the choices we make. They add intangible value. So long as emotion is part of human experience then brands can contribute to our emotional experience of the world.

I am reminded of the scene in I Robot when Will Smith gets some new retro Converse sneakers. Imagine he was a nanobot enhanced super intelligent human. He could well be rationally aware that there are loads of far better sneakers out there, but the Converse brand still speaks to him, stirring up feelings of nostalgia, attachment and fondness.

Ultimately I guess no one really knows what is going to happen, but it certainly isn’t going to be boring……