Digital Society: are you ready?
The Science Fiction of the 20th century is finally becoming a reality. Star Trek’s Tricorders are nearly here thanks to the Qualcomm prize (*), Asimov’s robots of 1950 are rolling out and there are fears of AI powered robots (whether you prefer to think Data, the android from Star Trek Next Generation, or the Cylons is of course up to you) perhaps just around the corner. Dystopian visions of the 21st century regularly occur in film (The Matrix, Elysium, Automata), television (Black Mirror, Humans), books (The Handmaid’s Tale, Ready Player One, The Circle) and games (Fallout4, Horizon NearDawn, Destiny).
These visions are, of course, created by humanity. They illustrate the potential (un)intended consequences of our technological progress, whether through AI and machine intelligence, quantum computing, nanotechnology, ubiquitous connectivity and more. Our creative spirit and scientific prowess, combined with a constant hunger for primacy – to be the best, the first, the most powerful – drives us onward, often without consideration of the impact on society, on humanity, and on our children or our children’s children.
It is too easy to justify this technological process through a utopian vision – advancing our technical capability forward to bring greater prosperity, a lifestyle rich in opportunity and an overall better quality of life. The problem of course is the probability that not everything will be done for such positive reasons. Humanity always has the aptitude to threaten and destroy as much as it can create the most amazing things. Having lived through the Cold War of nuclear threat, followed by the increasing threat of cyberwarfare, heightened by the immediate advent of IoT, machine learning and perhaps then quantum computing, we should all be aware of the closeness of catastrophe.
In short, whatever good we can create as a species, we are also capable of creating threat and danger. It is unlikely, if not impossible, that we can or even should stop the technologist and scientific advance– “… we cannot hit the brakes, … nobody knows where the breaks are (**)". Perhaps that advance only stops (or is reset) post-catastrophe, almost as a kind of self-policing or ecological rebalancing act.
Indicators are arising that such threats are becoming a reality today - an anti-establishment tone in Western Society, a lack of integrity in real-world reporting - ‘Fake news’, or breaches of cyber-security leading to losses of personal information, or physical threat. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that there is a growing recognition that the technological progress is too quick, that we have in fact created a continuous digital and economic divide - the haves and the have nots, those who embrace change vs. those who hark back to a past age.
It is time to ask the question, “Across the planet, what does a positive Digital Society look like?” Today, in 2017, it is still our (that is, humanity) choice to influence. How do we better balance technological progress with greater adoption and benefit to people and society? How do we create a Digital Society where there are fewer communities that feel cut off or disconnected, where there is a better understanding of what is right and what is wrong, true or fake, benefit or danger. Where there can be greater trust, and less fear.
As a technologist, who has worked with both public and private sector, I am conscious that my focus in asking this question must remain based around technological advancement and adoption, understanding how to more effectively engage every consumer and citizen. Understanding how to lessen the barriers of understanding, and of trust, despite the accelerating pace of change. However, the more that I read and explore around Digital Society, the harder it is difficult not to get drawn into the many other factors that are at play – for example, the future sustainability of capitalism, the impact of climate change, the scarcity of resources, or indeed the impact of Political will and rule.
It is interesting to note that the definition and perceived impact of Digital Society differs dependent on the outlook of those who consider it. If you are in a Western Democracy, you are probably older (and with a decreasing birth rate (***) which will only increase the average age) and have more to “protect” (possessions, way of life, comfort), than if you are, for example, in Africa where the demographic is a much higher proportion of younger people. For the first, a Digital Society may represent Dystopian fear (and slow adoption), whilst for the second it could represent Utopian growth and prosperity beyond anything they have previously seen (and see accelerated adoption).
In India, the Government introduced its Demonetization Policy (****) on 8th Nov 2016, driving an evolution for 1.2 billion citizens take a giant step towards digital currency adoption, an outcome of which is hoped to be transparency in every financial and non-financial transaction, leading to a reduction in corruption. In Senegal, citizens pay for their water and electricity over a mobile phone. The data analytics resulting from this enables local authorities to better understand the consumption and capacity needs for urban areas. In both these examples, digitalisation is clearly impacting the progression of society.
For many people in the West, they most likely haven’t even explicitly considered a Digital Society – for most it is simply not high enough up their list of political issues that is possibly more focused on political issues such as immigration and refugee crises, the economy and immediate job opportunities, or trade deals and international relations. In these Western Democracies, we have seen progression from a manufacturing to a service based economy. The imminent arrival of Robotics and Automation will impact large swathes of the existing job base (*****), and through automated decision making and accelerated analytics in financial services, legal, medicine, science and more, will also reduce the need for the same volume of white collar jobs. A natural consequence of that is perhaps further evolution to an experience based economy, raising the value of creative and artisan style jobs again, whilst manufacturing will ultimately be automated and commoditised.
Much of the challenge to come is about acceptance of change. In Western society, we are increasingly resistant to change. In my home in the UK, there are over fifty connected devices that are constantly monitoring my movement, habits and behaviours through sensors of various kinds, or that are listening to words that are spoken, awaiting instruction yet listening anyway. My Connected Home, my fairly Connected Cars, and my Connected Life are probably at the forefront of technology adoption – yet they would be viewed with fear and distrust by others – those in my broader family, in my town, and where I work. This is not about age, but about access, awareness, trust, change and uncertainty.
This will be true continuously as digital technologies continue to quickly evolve. I have read many articles expanding on the need to deliver computers, or tablets, or broadband connectivity into parts of society that do not have that ease of access, and that should be applauded. However, that intent will surely struggle to maintain pace with the evolution of technologies themselves. What about robots, blockchain, quantum computing and things that we have not yet foreseen. The divide will always be there, but we need to find more ways of making it manageable for a greater proportion of society.
As an industry, we have been obsessed with Digital Business Transformation, with delivering an excellent customer experience for our clients customers, of accelerating the speed of business, of changing the way in which we work, and yet that is such a tiny part of the challenge. How do we teach? How do we govern? How do we sustain? When do we stop? What is the goal? What will be normal? Why do we begin for a moment to think that the “normality” of the last 50 years is anything approaching “normal” in the lifetime of the planet? The Digital age will be massively more of a disruption than anything we have seen in the Industrial age.
We should increasingly ask ourselves, what type of Digital Society do you want to be?
This is the first of a series of blogs, from a number of authors, that ask the simple question “What kind of Digital Society do we want to build?”
Notes from the author:
(**) “Homo Deus”, Yuval Noah Harari
(***) various articles including https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/aug/23/baby-crisis-europe-brink-depopulation-disaster
(****) Involved withdrawing 86% currency notes as https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2016_Indian_banknote_demonetisation