How to think about tech

What’s the most useful model of tech to keep in your head.  Most models are rationalisations of the status quo. But tech forces us to visualise something which exists everywhere but is developing constantly. Watching the foundation-of-Facebook movie ‘The Social Network‘ is a start but probably not enough.

For a structured but approachable model, listen to the podcast ‘Software has eaten the world’ by Marc Andreessen, founder of Netscape and tech venture capital pioneer.

He captures the pervasive quality of tech – and positions it as the fundamental driver of change in our environment and lives (at a pinch, you might also throw in the vastly increased mobility of peoples in recent years).  He demonstrates this through three claims about the world:

First, if something can become software it will (eg, the camera becomes an app).

Secondly, every business will need to become a software business (think broadly here, in the way that every business needed to become an electricity business during the last century in order to do its nameplate business).

Thirdly, the best software business in the industry will win.

It’s extraordinarily ambitious – but should be taken seriously.  Andreessen uses the example of the car industry: hundreds of innovative firms in its first thirty years; transitioning to a hundred year stretch of industry consolidation and steady technical progress; now with the potential to be transformed because 90% of what you will buy will be software (he reckons).  Tesla is but the precursor.

This process of transition will see cycles of resistance, much gain and some pain. Digital music has reached a far wider audience, more cheaply, but in doing so consumer power combined with tech solutions to break up an industry cartel. Such change throws up entirely unexpected consequences, for example, a four-fold increase in performing music revenues, as consumers responded to cheaper recordings by buying more of the premium and experiential stuff.

We should also be alive to tech’s power to reframe the status quo by demonstrating new possibilities.  Hence, changes in the means and cost of delivering educational knowledge may lead us to reconsider our views on the bundle of supervision, information transfer, socialisation and credentialling that we rather weakly package up under the rubric of ‘education’.  New ways of capturing information once held only as diagnostic techniques and behavioural patterns in human brains will astonish us that we once tolerated extraordinarily high rates of hospital infection and medication non-compliance.

Compare the Andreessen vision with the very different message you find in the recent Netflix documentary ‘The Great Hack‘.  It’s the story of a firm called Cambridge Analytica apparently winning the election for Trump by targeting digital ads to narrower and different classes of voter than hitherto  (by pooling raw personal data on preferences and status generated by Facebook users among others).  A bit like the Obama campaign you might think.

But the documentary folk see a programme of political manipulation founded on improper consent and propaganda (that is the transmission of political views they think harmful).  That this campaign is led by The Guardian, a newspaper noted for curation of news in support of a certain worldview, has a touch of irony.  One can’t help sensing a little fear on the part of traditional media practitioners that their gate-keeping role is being bypassed.

That said, there is an big and serious question in relation to personal data.  You can make the case for the general principle that your data should not be be used to harm you, or indeed others.  A principle which existed before but which may need different application in light of new means of storing, transmitting and processing data.

But beware of jumping from this to a bunch of new rules.  The European Union brought in a right to be forgotten, without thinking that there might be an equally strong right to be reminded (on this, The Guardian justifies a more expansive view of media freedom than in the documentary).

The advantage of a system whereby you have the choice of giving general consent to your tech provider to use your data, provided they do no evil (well break no laws at any rate), is that it unlocks the benefits of tech at the speed anticipated by Andreessen. And with the possibility that easy access to your personal data will transform medical diagnostics and a bunch of other stuff in a few years, that might be quite important for a lot of people.

Update 27 August:  A critique of ‘The Great Hack’ from the not-at-all-pro-Trump publication The Nation

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