Technology doesn’t shape the future

I’ve spent the last couple of days mostly in the wonderful Names Not Numbers event in London, a festival of eclecticism that was timely given my recent thinking about the importance of diversity of thought.

The final session I was able to attend yesterday was a debate about the impact of emergent technologies, and particularly the blockchain. It raised, for me, a number of thoughts:

  1. I don’t buy into the idea that we are living at a period of unprecedented technological change. This is chronocentricity, a conceit that I imagine every generation since the start of the industrial revolution has held.

    See my Silicon Beach talk about the lifetime of my grandfather for more on that:

    https://vimeo.com/85107982

  2. I’m also not convinced that we are seeing the systematic up-ending of established businesses as a result of digital. Sure, a few new players have come to the fore, but (for example) of the 100 brands on Interbrand’s Top 100 in 2003, only one of them no longer exists because of bankruptcy (Kodak), and one of the oldest industries (automotive) has been the one that has shown the greatest strength of all.
  3. Having said that, there is one factor that maybe makes the digital technologies different. They are very, very difficult to regulate. If one compares with, say, the railways or the emergence of radio and television, what’s happening with things like Blockchain is without much form of regulation.

    Moreover, politicians time and time again make it quite clear that they don’t understand what’s going on – witness the recent debacle of insisting technology companies maintain “backdoors” to encryption, fundamentally misunderstanding the way that Public/Private Key encryption works.

  4. The world of digital is not only difficult to regulate, but it’s also inhabited by people who seem to struggle with ideas of morality and ethics. As panelist Vinay Gupta commented towards the end (and something I’ve now been saying for years) a huge number of developers are somewhere on the spectrum of Asperger’s or even autism. They are not people people. They believe that the right thing to do is the right thing technologically, not necessarily societally.

    Heck, there is a movement in Silicon Valley at the moment focused on maximizing the psychological addictiveness of software products. The tobacco industry wouldn’t be able to get away with talking about “Behaviour engineering to maximise customer engagement”. The software industry shouldn’t either. There needs to be an ethical code developed for startups.

  5. This ethical code, however, can’t be done in a government regulation kind of way – remember, this world is very difficult to regulate. So here is the call to arms:

Technology is too important to be left to technologists

More of us who aren’t geeks need to engage with and be involved with the creation technology. It’s no longer enough to stand on the sidelines complaining that it’s all too complicated to understand. Here’s a secret: whilst some of the technologies we use today are quite complicated, much of it is really quite simple, just rather dull and tedious.

But this shouldn’t any longer be about “us” and “them”. I’ve spent most of my career as an outside in the world of technology, trying in my own little ways to show that the success of software depends on much more than the software. It’s about culture and behaviour and politics and Politics and psychology and sociology and art and design and passion and belief and luck and timing and storytelling and truth. And probably a few more things besides.

We need more of us to be involved to shape things in ways that allow technology to serve our needs, rather than for it to exist purely in intellectual bubbles, or even worse for it to merely be serving the needs of what increasingly looks like a massive Ponzi scheme of tech investment.

It wasn’t “steam” that forged the second wave of the industrial revolution, it was the engineering genius of the likes of Stephenson and Brunel, and the political foresight of the people who allowed vast swathes of the country to be covered in rails, and the navvies who built the blessed things and…

It wasn’t television that shaped the 20th century, it was the engineers and producers and artists and audiences and….

Similarly it isn’t digital that shapes the future – it’s the engineers and the artists and the psychologists and politicians and…

Technology doesn’t shape the future. We do.

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