“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.”
– Carl Sagan.
Success in human endeavour has required control over and access to scarce resources that were limited and inaccessible – land, raw materials, capital and property. Driven by disruptive technologies, the power of these barriers to exclude and disenfranchise is now severely diminished.
April 11 and 12, 2016 is Year Zero for a new socioeconomic construct; where ideas trump inheritance, and where innovation can be achieved with next to no financial or human capital investment. Organizations that rely on the barriers of incumbency and privilege are an endangered species and being replaced by ones that embrace innovation not just as a means of reckless profiteering, but also as a way of adding value to human and social interactions.
“The first rule of any technology used in business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”
– Bill Gates.
“Biological diversity is messy. It walks, it crawls, it swims, it buzzes. But extinction is silent and it has no voice other than our own.”
– Paul Hawken.
The pace and direction of human evolution in the last 20 years has been founded on the singular force of technology hyper acceleration.
Since 1995, the power of computing has increased over 50 fold while the cost has been reduced to a third, the pace of content creation has increased over 500 times, the availability of content at any given time by 10,000 fold, and the speed of content dissemination by over 3.5 billion times. Access to modern computing capabilities has grown from under 150 million people, the vast majority in wealthy countries, to over 5 billion people. The cumulative impact of increased power, reduced cost and accelerated access has led to a 85 quintillion-fold increase in 20 years, that is, 85, followed by 18 zeros.
This hyper acceleration has seen technology move from the narrow confines of the largest governments and corporations, to become an integral part of all aspects of human endeavour, across its various manifestations in individual interactions, economic organization and social structures, and has a had a greater impact on the human condition than the accumulated progress of the 5,000 years of civilization which preceded it.
The convergence of innovation and enterprise has made this unprecedented proliferation of technology possible, however, was marred by an original sin which has, in under a generation, unravelled much of its progress and impact. The first wave of widely available technologies remained a closely guarded and proprietary preserve of innovators and entrepreneurs, who eventually morphed into the corporate colossuses of our time.
Even as these technologies became foundational to the activities of individuals, governments, enterprises and societies, the pace and direction of innovation became beholden to the commercial interests of a small group of technology companies. This concentration of control within a relatively narrow class of innovators, over what was supposed to be an abundant and widely accessible utility, creates impediments in the way of progress, and the squandering of much of the potential of technology.
One may argue that this cumulative impact of proprietary, inflexible and incompatible technologies has led to an environment where enterprise technology has become wasteful, expensive, failed, and obsolete.
Is this a betrayal of the possibilities ushered in by the last generation of innovation and entrepreneurship? If so, where do we go from here? Is this the end of “enterprise technology”?
“History shows that where ethics and economics come into conflict, victory is always with economics. Vested interests have never been known to willingly divest themselves unless there was sufficient force to compel them.”
– B.R. Ambedkar.
Our laws and ethical practices have evolved over centuries. Today, technology is on an exponential curve and is touching practically everyone—everywhere.
Changes of a magnitude that once took centuries now happen in decades, sometimes in years. Not long ago, Facebook was a dorm-room dating site, mobile phones were for the ultra-rich, drones were multimillion-dollar war machines, and supercomputers were for secret government research.
Today, hobbyists can build drones and poor villagers in India access Facebook accounts on smartphones that have more computing power than the Cray 2—a supercomputer that in 1985 cost $17.5 million and weighed 2,500 kilograms. A full human genome sequence, which cost $100 million in 2002, today can be done for $1,000—and might cost less than a cup of coffee by 2020. But, we haven’t come to grips with what is ethical, let alone with what the laws should be.
Consider the question of privacy. There is a public outcry today—as there should be—about NSA surveillance, but the breadth of that surveillance pales in comparison to the data that Google, Apple, Facebook, and legions of app developers are collecting. Our smartphones track our movements and habits. Our Web searches reveal our thoughts. With the wearable devices and medical sensors that are being connected to our smartphones, information about our physiology and health is also coming into the public domain.
So where do we draw the line on what is legal—and ethical – and ultimately more important to the future of the human race than exponential profiteering?
“As a matter of historical analysis, the relationship between secrecy and privacy can be stated in an axiom; the defence of privacy follows and never proceeds the emergence of technologies for the exposure of secrets.”
– Jill Lepore
Progress is knowledge running ahead and waiting for understanding to catch up and correct it. That is immutable and cannot be any other way.
The essence of a capitalist commercial market is to satisfy need: fulfill desire or ease pain—at a profit. Thus, capitalism must have desires and pains, with the easing of a pain being more valuable than fulfillment of a desire. So, it makes sense that clever capitalists in want of a pain… create one. It’s an axiomatic cycle: (a) progress to satisfy a want; (b) create a problem; (c) solve the problem with some new progress; (d) create a new problem [Pass Go, collect $2billion]; and so on ad infinitum.
Intractable, genuine problems are too big, too hard, and take too long in a world where the race to zero is a sprint. Much easier and lucrative to generate dubious progress for clever MBAs to “monetize.” (Like capturing, analyzing, and selling user data.)
When knowledge ran ahead of understanding in the past, guinea pigs and the earliest of adopters were caught in and affected by the gap. Today, progress gets put to market at light speed. So, fallout is instantly broader. And, since what Silicon Valley is now toying with is personal property: private, personal information, the impact is not only fast and wide, it’s deep. It’s also irreversible.
Privacy is like virginity: once it’s gone, it’s gone. The casualties of the privacy problem that technology is creating are looking to technology for a solution. Wash, rinse, repeat. Are these casualties looking at the wrong place? Does Silicon Valley need to have its axiom pulled out of the fire?
“In times of terror, when everyone is something of a conspirator, everyone will be in a situation where he has to play detective.”
– Walter Benjamin
While we come across conspiracy theories with predictable frequency, we are oblivious to and complicit in the most cynical, most insidious and most enduring conspiracies of them all – the secret agreements between various vested interests to divide up control over the masses and concentrate power among increasingly narrow constituencies.
While the historical great powers played out their perverse fantasies over the battlefields of Europe and the “uncivilized” colonies beyond, the forces at work and the carnage they caused were still visible, and criminals could be still called to account.
But what happens when the same games are played today over monetary policies and international trade agreements, concentrating wealth in the hands of the already wealthy? When innovations that could benefit humankind are used to concentrate profits into the hands of a select few? When technology advances lock billions into spending ever-increasing monies they do not have on technologies they do not need? When the very act of participation in the digital economy marks one as a candidate for surveillance, imprisonment and death at the whim of unknown agencies?
Are we going to just stand by and watch technology become another enabler to the accelerating servitude of the species and the next generation of tyrants?
If technology is to finally fulfill its potential of benefiting humankind urgent dialogue and action is needed. Dialogue that identifies and exposes the modern conspiracies of the digital age, which seek to subvert innovation as a means to perpetuate the entrenched incumbencies of the plutocrats, or at best, replace one generation of oppressors with another. Action that accelerates open technologies, democratizes institutions, tears down barriers to competition, and discredits and destroys incumbent and privileged thinking.
“If future generations are going to remember us more with gratitude than sorrow, we must achieve more than just the miracles of technology. We must also leave them with a glimpse of the world as it was created, not just as it looked when we got through with it.”
– Lyndon B. Johnson
“Sometimes the best lighting of all is a power failure.”
– Douglas Coupland
“Apple and Dell are the only ones in this industry making money. Dell makes it by being Wal-Mart. We make it by innovation.”
– Steve Jobs.
If it hasn’t already, “innovation” will soon eclipse “cloud” as this generation’s most abused—and now meaningless—buzzword. If every little thing is an innovation now, then nothing is truly an innovation.
Is it possible that the iWatch and applications for things like airline boarding passes on that watch are sparkly diversions that distract from meaningful developments? What’s the actual innovation? And does it remotely compare to driverless cars, batteries that could power a house, or what else? Doesn’t the first one feel just a little like sleepwalking toward oblivion? Could it be that there are grades of innovation and at least some of us need to be a little more discriminating about them?
Watch, hear, and talk back to a panel of insurgents as they debate whether all innovations are equal or if some magic of innovation is that you never know where it will lead and what cascade of other effects may be triggered. Is it even possible to know in advance what’s valuable and what’s not? If you could judge which innovations lead to rapture and which to perdition, what dimensions and scale would you use: Profit? Societal Development? Survival? Extinction?
“The fear of death increases in exact proportion to an increase in wealth.”
– Ernest Hemingway
The generation born between 1945 and 1964 has been at the forefront of most major events that have shaped western civilization in the last five decades. Never has a single generation defined and shaped its environment as the Baby Boomers have.
Faced with the reality of accelerating obsolescence, exacerbated by the prospect of prolonged and perilous retirements, Baby Boomers are responding by leveraging their unprecedented incumbency in positions of power to delay generational change. This vicious cycle threatens the pace and direction of innovation in our societies and economies, and presents an urgent challenge to human evolution.
So how do we respond to this challenge? Our response, surely, will define what type of society we will be in the Digital Age.
“Creating problems is easy. Human beings do it all the time. Finding solutions, ones that last and produce good results, requires guts and care.”
– Henry Rollins
Information technology is a weapon, and data the ammunition, enabling an exponential digital arms race between citizens and the state, and workers and corporations.
How will advances in the digital armory such as mobile social communications, anonymous trusted networks, crypto-currencies, open data and deep learning analytics will further disrupt power, governance and control across the public and private spheres? What reactions are likely? What steps will government and business leaders take to adapt to the reality of an increasingly digitally empowered politik and how do we as citizens ensure sure that democracy, and not autocracy, wins the future?
“Changes can only be affected by alterations of the original. The only thing not pre-recorded in a pre-recorded universe are the prerecordings themselves. The copies can only repeat themselves word for word. A virus is a copy. You can pretty it up, cut it up, scramble it – it will reassemble in the same form.”
– William S. Burroughs.