Post by Zilvinas Bareisis
As industry analysts, we often comment on the impact emerging technologies and innovations have on our clients’ business. How can a financial institution become more “digital?” Will Apple Pay be successful and how quickly? How can a bank deploy data analysis tools to its advantage? These are questions we and our clients are dealing with on a daily basis.
Many of us have also seen presentations by futurists painting their visions of an increasingly digital future, where everything is connected and always on, where machines have reached human levels of intelligence, and so on. Given the relentless progress of technology, it is probably only a matter of time until such visions become reality.
However, I would argue that what many of us don’t do often enough is pause and reflect on the impact of technology on us as individuals and on the society as a whole, especially in the long term. I recently read a book that made me pause and think: The Circle by Dave Eggers. If you haven’t read it yet, Circle is a fictional internet technology company, sort of an imaginary amalgam of Apple, Facebook, Google, and Twitter. The best and brightest work there bringing to market their latest inventions, such as TruYou, “one account, one identity, one password, one payment system, per person.” Of course, that also means no more anonymity, so, for example, customer satisfaction survey scores are always close to a 100, and any lower ones are chased by the reps until they are re-scored. Tiny camera devices that can be left anywhere unnoticed and stream high quality video are introduced as an innocuous way for the surfers to check the waves at the remote beaches, but soon turn into a “Big Brother”-type ever-present eye. Some of the characters opt to go for “transparency” and start wearing always-on cameras, with unsurprisingly chilling implications for privacy.
What made the book particularly scary for me is that it is not an outlandish vision. Most of these things already happen today, albeit at a smaller scale. Anybody with a smart phone has a camera ready to shoot and post online, whether you like it or not (just ask Prince Harry!), and of course, we do need a better approach to digital identity, but hopefully not the kind that destroys any right to privacy and anonimity.
It’s not “just” the loss of privacy. If, as predicted, robots take over many of our activities, what are the implications for our societies built around work and jobs creation? And if you are not familiar with the work of Nicholas Carr, take a look at this essay, which warns against dangers of our brains being re-wired as a result of constant exposure to hyperlinks, tickers of “breaking news” and zings announcing a new email. We become easily distracted, always looking for the “next thing”; reading a longer piece or a book becomes a challenge.
Now, I don’t want to sound like a Luddite raging against technology. First, it’s not very original – Socrates warned us about the dangers of writing back in ancient Greece. Second, the progress of technology has brought and will continue to bring wonderful benefits. And I genuinely get excited about new technologies and amazing innovations. Overall, I am also excited and positive about the future. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t be critical, and have to succumb to every new hype or lose sight of what makes us human.
With summer holidays approaching, I will try and disconnect from gadgets. I look forward to spending time with my family and hopefully immerse myself in a book or two. If you are also heading for the beach, you could do worse than taking a copy of The Circle with you. Happy summer!