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At the Guardian, Douglas Rushkoff says our technology is now an entire environment. We live there. We’ve spent the decade letting our tech define us. It’s out of control

He says:

“We may come to remember this decade as the one when human beings finally realized we are up against something. We’re just not quite sure what it is.

“More of us have come to understand that our digital technologies are not always bringing out our best natures. People woke up to the fact that our digital platforms are being coded by people who don’t have our best interests at heart. This is the decade when, finally, the “tech backlash” began.

But it’s a little late.”

It is a long essay and not easy reading, especially at a time of year when most New Zealanders and Australians have switched off their work brains.

Yet, if you have the time, it is worth reading it all.

Rushkoff knows his stuff and offers some powerful insights. In the essay he runs through the key issues.

Issues are not new

To cut it short, he starts out by saying surveillance capitalism and manipulation are not new. They have long been part our online activity and in our apps for ages. It’s being going on for 20 years now.

He says while these ideas are getting all the attention today, things have moved on. Surveillance capitalism and manipulation may no longer be relevant concerns.

Rushkoff argues we now spend most of how waking hours bathing in the waters of Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Google. In other words: “We have been shaped into who the data says we are”.

Join the party

Until now, the common response has been about joining in. There is pressure for young people to learn to code. I’m all for motivated, interested youngsters learning to code, it remains a good career choice.

We don’t have enough people tackling these issues from a social science or art point of view. (Rushkoff talks about liberal arts).

Writers, journalists, movie makers, artists and others have an important role to play. We can communicate and understanding what is going on from a non-engineering or financial perspective.

It’s a complex, deep essay. You may find it too much to absorb in a single reading. I’ve come back to it a few times.

A disappointing omission is that Rushkoff fails to make a connection between this and evidence that our digital lives make us less happy.

Take back control

One thing we can do to mitigate the problems is to take back control of our online experience. If you like to spend less time bathing in what is, if not a toxic soup, certainly something less than ideal.

How to fight back? First, do all the obvious hygiene things. Quit Facebook, choose apps and operating systems where there is room for privacy. Use alternatives to Google.

Embrace openness in all its aspects, not only Open Source software. Be wary of products like Android which are surveillance tools with a little usefulness thrown in.

Be especially wary of ‘free’ services. The price you pay may be far higher than you think.

You don’t have to learn to code. Indeed, unless you have an aptitude or an urge to do so, I recommend you don’t. People like you can read more printed books instead. But when you do, write and talk about your experiences and ideas.

Declare independence

Try to develop an independent online presence. One that isn’t part of a commercial data collection operation.

Learn how to use WordPress. Write a blog instead of posting articles on Facebook or Linkedin. Share things. Investigated ideas like the IndieWeb or Microblogging, both are refreshing. Build links with humans, not corporations or bots.

Rushkoff’s optimistic finishing points echo those broad ideas, even he dresses them in different language. The key here is to seize back as much control as you can.

You’ll be happier.

As education minister, Hekia Parata upset New Zealand’s tech sector by not elevating digital technology teaching to the level they asked for.

The debate hasn’t stopped.

It may never stop. The technology industry is wealthy and powerful. It knows how to lobby. It is a master of using the media. Its voice will be heard.

It has a good point.

Digital curriculum

There’s a strong case for giving digital technology a greater share of the curriculum.

Digital technology doesn’t belong in a vocational ghetto alongside woodwork and other non-academic subjects.

While there is a case for non-academic digital education, technology also needs to be taught to a higher standard.

But let’s not carried away. Whether you call it digital literacy or technology it should not be on a par with language or maths teaching.

They are fundamental.

Although you might argue the same about technology’s role in the modern world, that’s not quite true.

Literacy and digital, different aspects of the same thing

You can’t do digital well without being able to read and communicate.

Without reading skills a young person’s digital experience can’t advance far beyond taking selfies, playing games and watching streamed video.

Most digital devices are, one way or another, communications tools.

Even if the tools evolve to the point where an ability to write or type is no longer essential, people still need basic communications skills.

If the goal is to encourage more young New Zealanders into technology careers, they need to be articulate and numerate to cope with the work.

At a pinch you can train a literate, articulate adult to work in almost every tech industry role. Although it may not be impossible to find meaningful work for those without those skills, it will be harder.

Education bigger picture

Education has be about more than preparing people for the workplace. Digital skills are important for every other aspect of life.

Which brings us to the most important aspect of technology education: the digital divide.

We often think the digital divide is only about access to devices, tools and networks. It is usually framed as something that affects poorer or more remote New Zealanders.

Yet there’s another divide that’s just as bad.

People who feel unable to perform even basic digital tasks because they lack the skills are as disadvantaged as those who can’t get online.

The same goes for people who can’t read, write or otherwise communicate. We don’t call that a digital divide, but it amounts to something similar. Let’s call it the literacy divide.

It’s great that we devote money, time and energy to helping people get across the digital divide. More power to those working in this area.

Yet we also need to use the same vigour to deal with the basic literacy divide because those people are in the same dark place.

So, by all means ramp up digital education, but not at the expense of something that’s more fundemental.

I’m not an early adopter.

Early adopters must own the latest devices. They run ahead of the pack. They upgrade devices and software before everyone else.

Early adopters use the latest phones. They buy cars with weird features. They queue up in the wee small hours for iPhones, iPads or games consoles. Back in the day they’d go to midnight store openings to get the newest version of Microsoft Windows a few hours earlier.

Their computers never work because they are awash in beta and alpha versions of software screwing things up.

And some of their kit is, well, unfinished.

Computer makers depend on early adopters. They use them as guinea pigs.

Early adopters first to benefit

Marketing types will tell you early adopters will buy a product first to steal a march over the rest of humanity. They claim they will be the first to reap the benefits of the new product. It will make them more productive or live more enjoyable lives.

This can be true. Yet early adopters often face the trauma of getting unfinished, unpolished products to work. Often before manufacturer support teams have learnt the wrinkles of their new products.

There’s another reason computer makers love early adopters — they pay more for.

New products usually hit the market with a premium price. Once a product matures, the bugs eliminated and competition appears, profit margins are slimmer.

Companies use high-paying early adopters to fund their product development.

Being an early adopter is fine if you enjoy playing with digital toys. If productivity isn’t as important to you as being cool. If you have the time and money to waste making them work.

I don’t. I prefer to let others try things first. Let computer makers and software developers iron out the wrinkles while the product proves its worth. Then I’ll turn up with my money.

In technology the early bird pays the bill.

NZ cities innovation

London, New York and Tokyo top the 2017 Innovation Cities index. Auckland limps in at a feeble 89. Wellington rates at 108.

An organisation called 2thinknow released the index. No, I’ve never heard of it either. It describes itself as a “global innovation agency”, whatever that means.

According to 2thinknow the index scores 500 cities using 162 indicators for measuring conditions conducive to creating innovation in a city.

It says the top 50 cities, which includes Sydney and Melbourne – 2thinknow’s home, are nexus cities. Auckland and Wellington sit in the second, hub, band. Below that are node cities. 

Yes. You’ve guessed it. The 2thinknow survey is meaningless. There is no need to take it seriously, but no doubt someone will see it and worry.