Category: 21st Century Society (page 2 of 6)

Our irresistible screens of splendour

Apple is touting a new feature in the latest version of iOS that helps you reduce the amount of time you spend on your smartphone. Facebook are doing something similar. As this article in The New York Times notes, that’s no accident:

There’s a reason tech companies are feeling this tension between making phones better and worrying they are already too addictive. We’ve hit what I call Peak Screen.

For much of the last decade, a technology industry ruled by smartphones has pursued a singular goal of completely conquering our eyes. It has given us phones with ever-bigger screens and phones with unbelievable cameras, not to mention virtual reality goggles and several attempts at camera-glasses.

The article even gives the example of Augmented Reality LEGO play sets which actively encourage you to stop building and spend more time on screens!

Tech has now captured pretty much all visual capacity. Americans spend three to four hours a day looking at their phones, and about 11 hours a day looking at screens of any kind.

So tech giants are building the beginning of something new: a less insistently visual tech world, a digital landscape that relies on voice assistants, headphones, watches and other wearables to take some pressure off our eyes.

[…]

Screens are insatiable. At a cognitive level, they are voracious vampires for your attention, and as soon as you look at one, you are basically toast.

It’s not enough to tell people not to do things. Technology can be addictive, just like anything else, so we need to find better ways of achieving similar ends.

But in addition to helping us resist phones, the tech industry will need to come up with other, less immersive ways to interact with digital world. Three technologies may help with this: voice assistants, of which Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant are the best, and Apple’s two innovations, AirPods and the Apple Watch.

All of these technologies share a common idea. Without big screens, they are far less immersive than a phone, allowing for quick digital hits: You can buy a movie ticket, add a task to a to-do list, glance at a text message or ask about the weather without going anywhere near your Irresistible Screen of Splendors.

The issue I have is that it’s going to take tightly-integrated systems to do this well, at least at first. So the chances are that Apple or Google will create an ecosystem that only works with their products, providing another way to achieve vendor lock-in.

Source: The New York Times

Inequality, anarchy, and the course of human history

Sometimes I’m reminded of the fact that I haven’t checked in with someone’s worth for a few weeks, months, or even years. I’m continually impressed with the work of my near-namesake Dougald Hine. I hope to meet him in person one day.

Going back through his recent work led me to a long article in Eurozine by David Graeber and David Wengrow about how we tend to frame history incorrectly.

Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian. Still, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on such questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public­ – or even scholars in other disciplines – let alone reflect on the larger political implications. As a result, those writers who are reflecting on the ‘big questions’ of human history – Jared Diamond, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Morris, and others – still take Rousseau’s question (‘what is the origin of social inequality?’) as their starting point, and assume the larger story will begin with some kind of fall from primordial innocence.

Graeber and Wengrow essentially argue that most people start from the assumption that we have a choice between a life that is ‘nasty, brutish, and short’ (i.e. most of human history) or one that is more civilised (i.e. today). If we want the latter, we have to put up with inequality.

‘Inequality’ is a way of framing social problems appropriate to technocratic reformers, the kind of people who assume from the outset that any real vision of social transformation has long since been taken off the political table. It allows one to tinker with the numbers, argue about Gini coefficients and thresholds of dysfunction, readjust tax regimes or social welfare mechanisms, even shock the public with figures showing just how bad things have become (‘can you imagine? 0.1% of the world’s population controls over 50% of the wealth!’), all without addressing any of the factors that people actually object to about such ‘unequal’ social arrangements: for instance, that some manage to turn their wealth into power over others; or that other people end up being told their needs are not important, and their lives have no intrinsic worth. The latter, we are supposed to believe, is just the inevitable effect of inequality, and inequality, the inevitable result of living in any large, complex, urban, technologically sophisticated society.

But inequality is not the inevitable result of living in a civilised society, as they point out with some in-depth examples. I haven’t got space to go through them here, but suffice to say that it seems a classic case of historians cherry-picking their evidence.

As Claude Lévi-Strauss often pointed out, early Homo sapiens were not just physically the same as modern humans, they were our intellectual peers as well. In fact, most were probably more conscious of society’s potential than people generally are today, switching back and forth between different forms of organization every year. Rather than idling in some primordial innocence, until the genie of inequality was somehow uncorked, our prehistoric ancestors seem to have successfully opened and shut the bottle on a regular basis, confining inequality to ritual costume dramas, constructing gods and kingdoms as they did their monuments, then cheerfully disassembling them once again.

If so, then the real question is not ‘what are the origins of social inequality?’, but, having lived so much of our history moving back and forth between different political systems, ‘how did we get so stuck?’

Definitely worth a read, particularly if you think that ‘anarchy’ is the opposite of ‘civilisation’.

Source: Eurozine (via Dougald Hine)


Image CC BY-NC-SA xina

The New Octopus: going beyond managerial interventions for internet giants

This article in Logic magazine was brought to my attention by a recent issue of Ian O’Byrne’s excellent TL;DR newsletter. It’s a long read, focusing on the structural power of internet giants such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google.

The author, K. Sabeel Rahman, is an assistant professor of law at Brooklyn Law School and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. He uses historical analogues to make his points, while noting how different the current state of affairs is from a century ago.

As in the Progressive Era, technological revolutions have radically transformed our social, economic, and political life. Technology platforms, big data, AI—these are the modern infrastructures for today’s economy. And yet the question of what to do about technology is fraught, for these technological systems paradoxically evoke both bigness and diffusion: firms like Amazon and Alphabet and Apple are dominant, yet the internet and big data and AI are technologies that are by their very nature diffuse.

The problem, however, is not bigness per se. Even for Brandeisians, the central concern was power: the ability to arbitrarily influence the decisions and opportunities available to others. Such unchecked power represented a threat to liberty. Therefore, just as the power of the state had to be tamed through institutional checks and balances, so too did this private power have to be contested—controlled, held to account.

This emphasis on power and contestation, rather than literal bigness, helps clarify the ways in which technology’s particular relationship to scale poses a challenge to ideals of democracy, liberty, equality—and what to do about it.

I think this is the thing that concerns me most. Just as the banks were ‘too big to fail’ during the economic crisis and had to be bailed out by the taxpayer, so huge technology companies are increasingly playing that kind of role elsewhere in our society.

The problem of scale, then, has always been a problem of power and contestability. In both our political and our economic life, arbitrary power is a threat to liberty. The remedy is the institutionalization of checks and balances. But where political checks and balances take a common set of forms—elections, the separation of powers—checks and balances for private corporate power have proven trickier to implement.

These various mechanisms—regulatory oversight, antitrust laws, corporate governance, and the countervailing power of organized labor— together helped create a relatively tame, and economically dynamic, twentieth-century economy. But today, as technology creates new kinds of power and new kinds of scale, new variations on these strategies may be needed.

“Arbitrary power is a threat to liberty.” Absolutely, no matter whether the company holding that power has been problematic in the past, has a slogan promising not to do anything wrong, or is well-liked by the public.

We need more than regulatory oversight of such organisations because of how insidious their power can be — much like the image of Luks’ octopus that accompanies this and the original post.

Rahman explains three types of power held by large internet companies:

First, there is transmission power. This is the ability of a firm to control the flow of data or goods. Take Amazon: as a shipping and logistics infrastructure, it can be seen as directly analogous to the railroads of the nineteenth century, which enjoyed monopolized mastery over the circulation of people, information, and commodities. Amazon provides the literal conduits for commerce.

[…]

A second type of power arises from what we might think of as a gatekeeping power. Here, the issue is not necessarily that the firm controls the entire infrastructure of transmission, but rather that the firm controls the gateway to an otherwise decentralized and diffuse landscape.

This is one way to understand the Facebook News Feed, or Google Search. Google Search does not literally own and control the entire internet. But it is increasingly true that for most users, access to the internet is mediated through the gateway of Google Search or YouTube’s suggested videos. By controlling the point of entry, Google exercises outsized influence on the kinds of information and commerce that users can ultimately access—a form of control without complete ownership.

[…]

A third kind of power is scoring power, exercised by ratings systems, indices, and ranking databases. Increasingly, many business and public policy decisions are based on big data-enabled scoring systems. Thus employers will screen potential applicants for the likelihood that they may quit, be a problematic employee, or participate in criminal activity. Or judges will use predictive risk assessments to inform sentencing and bail decisions.

These scoring systems may seem objective and neutral, but they are built on data and analytics that bake into them existing patterns of racial, gender, and economic bias.

[…]

Each of these forms of power is infrastructural. Their impact grows as more and more goods and services are built atop a particular platform. They are also more subtle than explicit control: each of these types of power enable a firm to exercise tremendous influence over what might otherwise look like a decentralized and diffused system.

As I quote Adam Greenfield as saying in Microcast #021 (supporters only!) this infrastructural power is less obvious because of the immateriality of the world controlled by internet giants. We need more than managerial approaches to solving the problems faced by their power.

A more radical response, then, would be to impose structural restraints: limits on the structure of technology firms, their powers, and their business models, to forestall the dynamics that lead to the most troubling forms of infrastructural power in the first place.

One solution would be to convert some of these infrastructures into “public options”—publicly managed alternatives to private provision. Run by the state, these public versions could operate on equitable, inclusive, and nondiscriminatory principles. Public provision of these infrastructures would subject them to legal requirements for equal service and due process. Furthermore, supplying a public option would put competitive pressures on private providers.

[…]

We can also introduce structural limits on technologies with the goal of precluding dangerous concentrations of power. While much of the debate over big data and privacy has tended to emphasize the concerns of individuals, we might view a robust privacy regime as a kind of structural limit: if firms are precluded from collecting or using certain types of data, that limits the kinds of power they can exercise.

Some of this is already happening, thankfully, through structural limitations such as GDPR. I hope this is the first step in a more coordinated response to internet giants who increasingly have more impact on the day-to-day lives of citizens than their governments.

Moving fast and breaking things is inevitable in moments of change. The issue is which things we are willing to break—and how broken we are willing to let them become. Moving fast may not be worth it if it means breaking the things upon which democracy depends.

It’s a difficult balance. However, just as GDPR has put in place mechanisms to prevent the over-reaching of governments and of companies, I think we could think differently about perhaps organisations with non-profit status and community ownership that could provide some of the infrastructure being built by shareholder-owned organisations.

Having just finished reading Utopia for Realists, I definitely think the left needs to think bigger than it’s currently doing, and really push that Overton window.

Source: Logic magazine (via Ian O’Byrne)

Trust and the cult of your PLN

This is a long article with a philosophical take on one of my favourite subjects: social networks and the flow of information. The author, C Thi Nguyen, is an assistant professor of philosophy at Utah Valley University and distinguishes between two things that he things have been conflated:

Let’s call them echo chambers and epistemic bubbles. Both are social structures that systematically exclude sources of information. Both exaggerate their members’ confidence in their beliefs. But they work in entirely different ways, and they require very different modes of intervention. An epistemic bubble is when you don’t hear people from the other side. An echo chamber is what happens when you don’t trust people from the other side.

Teasing things apart a bit, Nguyen gives some definitions:

Current usage has blurred this crucial distinction, so let me introduce a somewhat artificial taxonomy. An ‘epistemic bubble’ is an informational network from which relevant voices have been excluded by omission.

[…]

An ‘echo chamber’ is a social structure from which other relevant voices have been actively discredited.

[…]

In epistemic bubbles, other voices are not heard; in echo chambers, other voices are actively undermined. The way to break an echo chamber is not to wave “the facts” in the faces of its members. It is to attack the echo chamber at its root and repair that broken trust.

It feels like towards the end of my decade as an active user of Twitter there was a definite shift from it being an ‘epistemic bubble’ towards being an ‘echo chamber’. My ‘Personal Learning Network’ (or ‘PLN’) seemed to be a bit more militant in its beliefs.

Nguyen goes on to talk at length about fake news, sociological theories, and Cartesian epistemology. Where he ends up, however, is where I would: trust.

As Elijah Millgram argues in The Great Endarkenment (2015), modern knowledge depends on trusting long chains of experts. And no single person is in the position to check up on the reliability of every member of that chain. Ask yourself: could you tell a good statistician from an incompetent one? A good biologist from a bad one? A good nuclear engineer, or radiologist, or macro-economist, from a bad one? Any particular reader might, of course, be able to answer positively to one or two such questions, but nobody can really assess such a long chain for herself. Instead, we depend on a vastly complicated social structure of trust. We must trust each other, but, as the philosopher Annette Baier says, that trust makes us vulnerable. Echo chambers operate as a kind of social parasite on that vulnerability, taking advantage of our epistemic condition and social dependency.

That puts us a double-bind. We need to make ourselves vulnerable in order to participate in a society built on trust, but that very vulnerability puts us at danger of being manipulated.

I see this in fanatical evangelism of blockchain solutions to the ‘problem’ of operating in a trustless environment. To my mind, we need to be trusting people more, not less. Of course, there are obvious exceptions, but breaches of trust are near the top of the list of things we should punish most in a society.

Is there anything we can do, then, to help an echo-chamber member to reboot? We’ve already discovered that direct assault tactics – bombarding the echo-chamber member with ‘evidence’ – won’t work. Echo-chamber members are not only protected from such attacks, but their belief systems will judo such attacks into further reinforcement of the echo chamber’s worldview. Instead, we need to attack the root, the systems of discredit themselves, and restore trust in some outside voices.

So the way forward is for people to develop empathy and to show trust. Not present people with evidence that they’re wrong. That’s never worked in the past, and it won’t work now. Our problem isn’t a deficit in access to information, it’s a deficit in trust.

Source: Aeon (via Ian O’Byrne)

Alexa for Kids as babysitter?

I’m just on my way out if the house to head for Scotland to climb some mountains with my wife.

But while she does (what I call) her ‘last minute faffing’ I read Dan Hon’s newsletter. I’ll just quite the relevant section without any attempt at comment or analysis.

He includes references in his newsletter, but you’ll just have to click through for those.

Mat Honan reminded me that Amazon have made an Alexa for Kids (during the course of which Tom Simonite had a great story about Alexa diligently and non-plussedly educating a group of preschoolers about the history of FARC after misunderstanding their requests for farts) and Honan has a great article about it. There are now enough Alexa (plural?) out there that the phenomenon of “the funny things kids say to Alexa” is pretty well documented as well as the earlier “Alexa is teaching my kid to be rude” observation. This isn’t to say that Amazon haven’t done *any* work thinking about how Alexa works in a kid context (Honan’s article shows that they’ve demonstrably thought about how Alexa might work and that they’ve made changes to the product to accommodate children as a specific class of user) but the overwhelming impression I had after reading Honan’s piece was that, as a parent, I still don’t think Amazon haven’t gone far enough in making Alexa kid-friendly.

They’ve made some executive decisions like coming down hard on curation versus algorithmic selection of content (see James Bridle’s excellent earlier essay on YouTube, that something is wrong on the internet and recent coverage of YouTube Kids’ content selection method still finding ways to recommend, shall we say, videos espousing extreme views). And Amazon have addressed one of the core reported issues of having an Alexa in the house (the rudeness) by designing in support for a “magic word” Easter Egg that will reward kids for saying “please”. But that seems rather tactical and dealing with a specific issue and not, well, foundational. I think that the foundational issue is something more like this: parenting is a *very* personal subject. As I have become a parent, I have discovered (and validated through experimental data) that parents have very specific views about how to do things! Many parents do not agree with each other! Parents who agree with each other on some things do not agree on other things! In families where there are two parents there is much scope for disagreement on both desired outcome and method!

All of which is to say is that the current design, architecture and strategy of Alexa for Kids indicates one sort of one-size-fits-all method and that there’s not much room for parental customization. This isn’t to say that Amazon are actively preventing it and might not add it down the line – it’s just that it doesn’t really exist right now. Honan’s got a great point that:

“[For example,] take the magic word we mentioned earlier. There is no universal norm when it comes to what’s polite or rude. Manners vary by family, culture, and even region. While “yes, sir” may be de rigueur in Alabama, for example, it might be viewed as an element of the patriarchy in parts of California.”

Some parents may have very specific views on how they want to teach their kids to be polite. This kind of thinking leads me down the path of: well, are we imagining a world where Alexa or something like it is a sort of universal basic babysitter, with default norms and those who can get, well, customization? Or what someone else might call: attentive, individualized parenting?

When Alexa for Kids came out, I did about 10 seconds’ worth of thinking and, based on how Alexa gets used in our house (two parents, a five year old and a 19 month old) and how our preschooler is behaving, I was pretty convinced that I’m in no way ready or willing to leave him alone with an Alexa for Kids in his room. My family is, in what some might see as that tedious middle class way, pretty strict about the amount of screen time our kids get (unsupervised and supervised) and suffice it to say that there’s considerable difference of opinion between my wife and myself on what we’re both comfortable with and at what point what level of exposure or usage might be appropriate.

And here’s where I reinforce that point again: are you okay with leaving your kids with a default babysitter, or are you the kind of person who has opinions about how you want your babysitter to act with your kids? (Yes, I imagine people reading this and clutching their pearls at the mere *thought* of an Alexa “babysitting” a kid but need I remind you that books are a technological object too and the issue here is in the degree of interactivity and access). At least with a babysitter I can set some parameters and I’ve got an idea of how the babysitter might interact with the kids because, well, that’s part of the babysitter screening process.

Source: Things That Have Caught My Attention s5e11

Systems thinking and AI

Edge is an interesting website. Its aim is:

To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.

One recent article on the site is from Mary Catherine Bateson, a writer and cultural anthropologist who retired in 2004 from her position as Professor in Anthropology and English at George Mason University. She’s got some interesting insights into systems thinking and artificial intelligence.

We all think with metaphors of various sorts, and we use metaphors to deal with complexity, but the way human beings use computers and AI depends on their basic epistemologies—whether they’re accustomed to thinking in systemic terms, whether they’re mainly interested in quantitative issues, whether they’re used to using games of various sorts. A great deal of what people use AI for is to simulate some pattern outside in the world. On the other hand, people use one pattern in the world as a metaphor for another one all the time.

That’s such an interesting way of putting it, the insinuation being that some people have epistemologies (theories of knowledge) that are not really nuanced enough to deal with the world in all of its complexity. As a result, they use reductive metaphors that don’t really work that well. This is obviously problematic when dealing with AI that you want to do some work for you, hence the bias (racism, sexism) which has plagued the field.

One of the most essential elements of human wisdom at its best is humility, knowing that you don’t know everything. There’s a sense in which we haven’t learned how to build humility into our interactions with our devices. The computer doesn’t know what it doesn’t know, and it’s willing to make projections when it hasn’t been provided with everything that would be relevant to those projections. How do we get there? I don’t know. It’s important to be aware of it, to realize that there are limits to what we can do with AI. It’s great for computation and arithmetic, and it saves huge amounts of labor. It seems to me that it lacks humility, lacks imagination, and lacks humor. It doesn’t mean you can’t bring those things into your interactions with your devices, particularly, in communicating with other human beings. But it does mean that elements of intelligence and wisdom—I like the word wisdom, because it’s more multi-dimensional—are going to be lacking.

Something I always say is that technology is not neutral and that anyone who claims it to be so is a charlatan. Technologies are always designed by a person, or group of people, for a particular purpose. That person, or people, has hopes, fears, dreams, opinions, and biases. Therefore, AI has limits.

You don’t have to know a lot of technical terminology to be a systems thinker. One of the things that I’ve been realizing lately, and that I find fascinating as an anthropologist, is that if you look at belief systems and religions going way back in history, around the world, very often what you realize is that people have intuitively understood systems and used metaphors to think about them. The example that grabbed me was thinking about the pantheon of Greek gods—Zeus and Hera, Apollo and Demeter, and all of them. I suddenly realized that in the mythology they’re married, they have children, the sun and the moon are brother and sister. There are quarrels among the gods, and marriages, divorces, and so on. So you can use the Greek pantheon, because it is based on kinship, to take advantage of what people have learned from their observation of their friends and relatives.

I like the way that Bateson talks about the difference between computer science and systems theory. It’s a bit like the argument I gave about why kids need to learn to code back in 2013: it’s more about algorithmic thinking than it is about syntax.

The tragedy of the cybernetic revolution, which had two phases, the computer science side and the systems theory side, has been the neglect of the systems theory side of it. We chose marketable gadgets in preference to a deeper understanding of the world we live in.

The article is worth reading in its entirety, as Bateson goes off at tangents that make it difficult to quote sections here. It reminds me that I need to revisit the work of Donella Meadows.

Source: Edge

Automated Chinese jaywalking fines are a foretaste of so-called ‘smart cities’

Given the choice of living in a so-called ‘smart city’ and living in rural isolation, I think I’d prefer the latter. This opinion has been strengthened by reading about what’s going on in China at the moment:

Last April, the industrial capital of Shenzhen installed anti-jaywalking cameras that use facial recognition to automatically identify people crossing without a green pedestrian light; jaywalkers are shamed on a public website and their photos are displayed on large screens at the intersection,

Nearly 14,000 people were identified by the system in its first ten months of its operation. Now, Intellifusion, who created the system, is planning to send warnings by WeChat and Sina Weibo messages; repeat offenders will get their social credit scores docked.

Yes, that’s right: social credit. Much more insidious than a fine, having a low social credit rating means that you can’t travel.

Certainly something to think about when you hear people talking about ‘smart cities of the future’.

Source: BoingBoing

(related: 99% Invisible podcast on the invention of ‘jaywalking’)

Moral needs and user needs

That products should be ‘user-focused’ goes without queustion these days. At least by everyone apart from Cassie Robinson, who writes:

This has been sitting uncomfortably with me for a while now. In part that’s because when anything becomes a bit of a dogma I question it, but it’s also because I couldn’t quite marry the mantra to my own personal experiences.

Sometimes, there’s more than user stories and ‘jobs to be done’:

For example, if we are designing the new digital justice system using success measures based on how efficiently the user can complete the thing they are trying to do rather than on whether they actually receive justice, what’s at risk there? And if we prioritise that over time, are we in some way eroding the collective awareness of what “good” justice as an outcome looks like?

She makes a good point. Robinson suggests that we consider ‘moral needs’ as well as ‘user needs’:

Designing and iterating services based on current user needs and behaviours means that they are never being designed for who isn’t there. Whose voice isn’t in the data? And how will the new institutions that are needed be created unless we focus more on collective agency and collective needs?

As I continue my thinking around Project MoodleNet this is definitely something to bear in mind.

Source: Cassie Robinson

Derek Sivers has quit Facebook (hint: you should, too)

I have huge respect for Derek Sivers, and really enjoyed his book Anything You WantHis book reviews are also worth trawling through.

In this post, which made its way to the Hacker News front page, Sivers talks about his relationship with Facebook, and why he’s finally decided to quit the platform:

When people would do their “DELETE FACEBOOK!” campaigns, I didn’t bother because I wasn’t using it anyway. It was causing me no harm. I think it’s net-negative for the world, and causing many people harm, but not me, so why bother deleting it?

But today I had a new thought:

Maybe the fact that I use it to share my blog posts is a tiny tiny reason why others are still using it. It’s like I’m still visiting friends in the smoking area, even though I don’t smoke. Maybe if I quit going entirely, it will help my friends quit, too.

Last year, I wrote a post entitled Friends don’t let friends use Facebook. The problem is, it’s difficult. Despite efforts to suggest alternatives, most of the clubs our children are part of (for activities such as swimming and karate) use Facebook. I don’t have an account, but my wife has to if we’re to keep up-to-date. It’s a vicious circle.

Like Sivers, I’ve considered just being on Facebook to promote my blog posts. But I don’t want to be part of the problem:

I had a selfish business reason to keep it. I’m going to be publishing three different books over the next year, and plan to launch a new business, too. But I’m willing to take that small loss in promotion, because it’s the right thing to do. It always feels good to get rid of things I’m not using.

So if you’ve got a Facebook account and reading the Cambridge Analytica revelations concerns you, then try to wean yourself of Facebook. It’s literally for the good of democracy.

Ultimately, as Sivers notes, Facebook will go away because of the adoption lifecycle of platforms and products. It’s difficult to think of that, but I’ll leave the last word to the late, great Ursula Le Guin:

We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

Source: Sivers.org

Tech will eat itself

Mike Murphy has been travelling to tech conferences: CES, MWC, and SXSW. He hasn’t been overly-impressed by what he’s seen:

The role of technology should be to improve the quality of our lives in some meaningful way, or at least change our behavior. In years past, these conferences have seen the launch of technologies that have indeed impacted our lives to varying degrees, from the launch of Twitter to car stereos and video games.

However, it’s all been a little underwhelming:

People always ask me what trends I see at these events. There are the usual words I can throw out—VR, AR, blockchain, AI, big data, autonomy, automation, voice assistants, 3D-printing, drones—the list is endless, and invariably someone will write some piece on each of these at every event. But it’s rare to see something truly novel, impressive, or even more than mildly interesting at these events anymore. The blockchain has not revolutionized society, no matter what some bros would have you believe, nor has 3D-printing. Self-driving cars are still years away, AI is still mainly theoretical, and no one buys VR headsets. But these are the terms you’ll find associated with these events if you Google them.

There’s nothing of any real substance being launched at this big shiny events:

The biggest thing people will remember from this year’s CES is that it rained the first few days and then the power went out. From MWC, it’ll be that it snowed for the first time in years in Barcelona, and from SXSW, it’ll be the Westworld in the desert (which was pretty cool). Quickly forgotten are the second-tier phones, dating apps, and robots that do absolutely nothing useful. I saw a few things of note that point toward the future—a 3D-printed house that could actually better lives in developing nations; robots that could crush us at Scrabble—but obviously, the opportunity for a nascent startup to get its name in front of thousands of techies, influential people, and potential investors can be huge. Even if it’s just an app for threesomes.

As Murphy points out, the more important the destination (i.e. where the event is held) the less important the content (i.e. what is being announced):

When real technology is involved, the destinations aren’t as important as the substance of the events. But in the case of many of these conferences, the substance is the destinations themselves.

However, that shouldn’t necessarily be cause for concern: There is still much to be excited about in technology. You just won’t find much of it at the biggest conferences of the year, which are basically spring breaks for nerds. But there is value in bringing so many similarly interested people together.

[…]

Just don’t expect the world of tomorrow to look like the marketing stunts of today.

I see these events as a way to catch up the mainstream with what’s been happening in pockets of innovation over the past year or so. Unfortunately, this is increasingly being covered in a layer of marketing spin and hype so that it’s difficult to separate the useful from the trite.

Source: Quartz