James McQuarrie is a UK based Product Leader who helps teams discover, design, build and deliver digital products and services that delight their users.
I went to a Tech For Good meet-up earlier this week at Impact Hub Westminster called “OMG 2050“. The topic of discussion was predicting how the World will look in 2050 based on our understanding of technology today and where we think it will go.
It was one of the most thought provoking meet-ups I’ve been to, and one that I’m still thinking about now days later.
The presentations and subsequent panel discussion raised more questions than there were answers, but a clear theme emerged that I think we, as an industry, need to pay more attention to:
Technology, specifically digital technology, as an industry **IS now an industry and should be subject to the same cheques and balances that are applied to other World-affecting industries.**
When I first started my career in the mid-2000’s digital was something that was reasonably specialist. The BBC News website still had an “E-commerce” section that was distinct from Business and Technology. People viewed “digital” as being pretty much limited to websites and online business. Social media wasn’t yet a thing. Smart devices that fit in your pocket didn’t exist. Cheap, low powered sensors weren’t built into many consumer products. In fact, a good proportion of the UK had only recently had access to broadband.
Letting “digital” companies have free-reign to evolve and develop as they wished, and to chase every opportunity they uncovered with little governance was good. Good for the economy. Good for consumers. Good for technology. There are many, many positive advancements that have resulted from the explosive growth and influence of digital tech.
But, it’s also resulted in a World where there is a growing divide between those who “get it” and those who don’t.
Not just in the traditional sense of a “digital divide” where some have access to technology and others don’t, but also in terms of levels of understanding about how technology influences our lives.
How many people outside of the tech industry really understand how a filter bubble works? Or how their increasing digital media consumption exaggerates it?
How many people truly know how their personal data is used and their privacy is effected when they say “Yes” to a service’s Terms & Conditions?
Is it right that private companies have access to huge volumes of consumer data that governments don’t?
It is right that the people and corporations who will benefit in the future from the advantages that technology can bring are only those who have the capital, understanding and access to do so now?
How do we ensure that we stop building cultural (conscious or unconscious) biases into AI and other emerging technologies?
How do we educate children at a pace that keeps up with the technology around them, when our education systems and teachers struggle to do so themselves?
How do we help the population at large continue to learn and understand the technology around them as it evolves even after they leave formal education?
I’m sure smarter people than me have been debating and considering these questions for a long time. The meet-up really made me think about them seriously for the first time in my career. And, I think, that’s the real challenge;
How do we get the, now huge, tech industry to consider these things seriously and as a whole?
It’s rare in my experience for teams working on new projects to spent much, if any, time thinking about the consequences of what they’re working on.
If our industry is to continue enjoying the freedoms of fairly unregulated, self-governing expansion that we’ve seen to date, it’s probably time we collectively focus a bit more on thinking about the long term effects of our actions.