What does technology want? And what do I want? Tom Chatfield, author and BBC columnist, opened this week’s DataIQ Future Summit with this philosophical consideration. In doing so, he revealed how little political and social debate there has actually been about the direction of travel which connected devices, big data, open data and the cloud are actually taking us in.
Take Google as an example. It has set itself the goal of organising the world’s information. Nobody asked it to do that, nor does it answer to anybody other than its shareholders. While the vast oceans of the world wide web clearly need to be charted to allow users to navigate them, leaving that task in the hands of a single commercial organisation has risks. Just look at the problems caused to a variety of rival search engines when Google changed its ranking system and they effectively fell off the first page of searches.
Pressure from the European Competition Commission is forcing Google towards providing a more objective approach, although its proposals have been described by one competitor as “lipstick on a pig”. The ECC is so far the only body to take on the search engine giant, with limited success. Now suppose that Google started to leave out results which did not fit its commercial purpose in some other way - is that any different from the way certain governments seek to censor social media? How would any such abuse of its dominance be constrained? (I do not suggest Google would ever do such a thing, by the way, only that its current market position gives it power without accountability.)
Another example of the unplanned drift which technology can cause was provided by Dave Coplin, chief envisioning officer at Microsoft UK. He pointed out that email has become a self-perpetuating task, rather than a tool to solve a need (ie, distributing information). Email now demands that we constantly check it and respond, creating an urge and sense of disconnection and/or failure. Has anybody ever reached the point where their inbox is completely cleared, wondered Coplin.
What started as a neat technological solution has become both the question and the answer. As a result, time that could be spent on value creation is wasted on simple administration. Yet how many organisations will accept a delay of even a few hours from their own executives in dealing with email traffic?
As a final example of the blind march of technology, consider the growing use of sensors. Thomas Power, head of business communities at Google+, expects these to become universal, embedded into everything from your coffee cup to pills that sense your health as you digest them. Get used to never losing anything, he forecast.
Cheap and widely-used near-field communication is at the very heart of the true big data movement. Not surprisingly, it is being promoted by those with something to gain, from chip manufacturers through to American health insurance providers. Yet where is the discussion taking place over how desirable this fully-trackable environment is, let alone what the manufacturing and disposal of those NFC chips might do to the real environment?
The march of technology is being led by a handful of American corporations, fed by Chinese manufacturing, supporting by global mining concerns. It may solve some critical human needs and problems - or it may simply generate strong financial returns for those businesses and their shareholders.
It is easy to assume that all technology equals progress and that all progress is good. Yet the consequences of having all 7 billion humans on the planet connected via devices and the web are unknown and could just as well prove catastrophic as triumphant. At a minimum, if the DataIQ Future Summit identified anything, there is a need for a much more coherent debate around technology that does not simply consider if a given device is cool or the flood of data it generates is valuable.