The next 10 years of the digital revolution?

I will be speaking on November 13 at the EPFL, speculating with some Swiss luminaries and entrepreneurial heroes (happy to finally meet Daniel Borel!) about the next ten years of the digital revolution.

Les participants à la Table ronde “Dessine-moi les 10 prochaines années de la révolution numérique” tenteront de répondre aux questions suivantesle 13 novembre dès 16h30 à l’EPFL.

  • Quelle forme va prendre le futur numérique ?
  • Quelles améliorations technologiques se dessinent ?
  • Quelles menaces guettent ?
  • La révolution numérique n’est-elle qu’à ses débuts, et si oui, quel sera l’avenir ?
  • Quelles sont les conséquences de la “Longue traîne” ?

Cet événement organisé par le GRI et Rezonance s’inscrit dans le cadre de la Journée de l’Innovation de l’EPFL et de la clôture d’Informatica08, en présence de la Conseillère fédérale Doris Leuthard et de Patrick Aebischer, Président de l’EPFL.

Table ronde réunie et animée par Christophe Andreae, Président du GRI, avec:

  • Marc Bürki, Directeur général Swissquote
  • Daniel Borel, CEO Logitech
  • Stefan Arn, Président ICT Switzerland
  • Daniel Gorostidi, CEO ELCA
  • Laurent Haug, Concepteur et organisateur conférences LIFT
  • Dr. Willy Zwaenepoel, Professeur et doyen faculté IC, EPFL

More info on Rezonance.ch

New technologies driving health costs up

As I was researching more information on Neo-Luddism, this article popped up, citing an American senator who explained in January 2008 that technological progress is the major source of growth for medical spending. At what point is technological advance becoming a social problem? Should progress be slowed? How (and who) to explain a patient that the technology that could save his life is available but too expensive?

“Most analysts agree that the most important factor driving the long-term growth of health care costs has been the emergence, adoption, and widespread diffusion of new medical technologies and services by the U.S. health care system.

Other factors, including rising personal income, a growing share of health care costs borne by third-party payers, and the aging of the population […] appear to explain less than half of long-term spending growth.

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Technological advances are likely to yield new, desired medical services in the future, fueling further spending growth and imposing difficult choices between health care and other priorities.

Link

Death of a dream industry

Sitting in yet another late plane – this time thanks to the repeated incompetencies of Asiana – a company trying hard to drive me nuts after canceling another flight I was supposed to be on three days ago – I realized how bad things have gone in the airline business in a few years. My friends tell me I’m lucky because I travel a lot. And usually my answer to that is “you obviously say that because you don’t travel much”.

From a dream industry, for which almost every little boy wanted to work a few decades ago, it is now an uncomfortable, dehumanized, struggling and aging industry. Passengers are treated as “self loading cargo units” as industry insiders call them.

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Asiana mechanical problem = 2 hours delay, missed connections, and a replacement plane not used since 1980 in bonus!?

Seems nobody is proud to work for an airline anymore. And how could you be proud? When processes have completely taken personal initiative out of the picture (anything you ask at a check in counter now results in “you have to ask someone else”). When you work with tools from the stone age that make every single little tweak a nightmare. When clients are treated like cows, and end up interacting with you only in case of problem. When the magical moments that used to be involved in air travel (bringing your kids to visit the cockpit, getting a surprise upgrade once in a while, drinking a glass of wine while 11km above the ground) have been removed for security or economic reasons.

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“Food” at the Lufthansa business lounge. The dream life of frequent travelers.

The bottom line of this industry is to move people, and it certainly does that with a record efficiency and reliability. But how long can a company stay afloat when it treats its clients and workers like crap? Where should the balance between efficiency and humanity be established? Is this another one of these domains where market economy dictated an unbalanced consensus, like the one that just exploded on the financial markets?

One thing is sure: after this latest incident (part of a long list of flights canceled or delayed, of lost luggage, and even a spat with a drunk passenger on a Lufthansa flight that resulted in zero excuse or compensation from the company), it’s probably time for me to stop traveling a bit and focus on what is happening around my city. Globalization is making me sedentary after all, how ironic 😉

WWF 2008: The Role of Women in the Military World of the Future

Quite an unexpected start to the second day of the World Women’s Forum with a presentation by Robert Kaplan, National Correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly. Robert explained why and how women will play a greater role in a military world transitioning from a physical, old boys club world focused on fighting, to a de-materialized, more diverse, more technological force focused on relief efforts. Running notes from the session:

The Iraq war will fast forward the arrival of Asia on the global war scene. European budgets are starved. In a few months India will have the third largest navy in the world (after USA and China, 4 times the size of the British Army). The pacific ocean won’t be an American lake anymore, the US navy has 279 ships (down from 600).

India and China will show their power through air and sea. Sea is crucial because 90% of all commerce travels on the oceans. China is trying hard to avoid too much transportation (by building pipelines and deep sea ports around the globe, in Pakistan or Cambodia for example) but sea transport remains an issue (see the growing problems with pirates).

So we have a big political shift underway, and the nature of armies is changing. Navy and air force are taking the center stage. War has also changed on the ground. There is no such thing as a front line anymore. You are as exposed in the front or in the back, and therefore women – traditionally more involved in the rear lines – are as exposed as men.

Navy and air force are, at least in the western world, the two sectors where we have the largest number of women. A fair percentage of drone pilots are women. War is becoming increasingly electronic, less and less physical (“de-physicalization of war”), and therefore more and more women are getting involved. One fifth of submarine crews are women in the US. One third of the crew of some destroyers (which are combat platforms!) are women. Even the American elite troops – the green berets – are seriously considering incorporating women in their ranks.

Does that mean armies are getting more human, more prone to discussion and compromise? Not necessarily. “The women that I have met in combat positions tend to be the same than men, coming from military families, with conservative backgrounds, married to a soldier. Don’t forget that armies are no longer representative of society. Soldiers are now a semi-isolated, self selected elite inside a nation“.

The 21st century will be the first century where it will be common to have women generals and admirals. And women prisoners. As they get more exposed to combat this is something we have to expect and prepare for.

The mission of the armies is evolving. One key word: fluidity. A crisis merges into another one, with huge humanitarian impact. As the population moves to cities disasters will have a greater and more dramatic impact than ever. And relief efforts will be militarized. Armies will be deeply involved in humanitarian work, and therefore require more women.

So despite the fact they are super conservative organizations, armies will follow the evolution of civil society and change. Slowly but they will change. It took 40 years to incorporate women in the American army.

Question from the audience: Are armies recruiting more women because they don’t have enough men signing up?
Answer: Enlistments are going great in the US. It’s terrible to say but the economic turmoil has a positive effect on recruitment, forcing some people to sign up to make a living.

Q:  One of the impact of the presence of women in armies is a strong increase in the number of sex scandals!
A: Yes. There will be scandals. The army has to transition away from a locker room ambiance, from an old boys club to a more diverse and open organization. Scandals are part of the solution as they will force the change.

At the World Women’s Forum

World Women's ForumI am at MBC’s World Women’s Forum, a partner conference of Lift gathering women from around the world in the Korean capital around the theme of “Women as agents of change: building a diverse and sustainable future“. The event is attended by 95% of women, a refreshing change from the usually male dominated Korean society.

I gave a short talk about the changing landscape of the ICT industry that I see become less and less about technology and more and more about branding, content, empathy and design. This evolution creates unique opportunities for women who are “innately better suited than men to navigate the new global economy” and should, now more than ever, consider careers in fields like web, gaming, mobile, ubiquitous computing or urban technologies.

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Women conferences are very different from what I am used to. One of the most striking thing is that presentations are much more personal and emotionally charged. Like when Moses Farrow told the story of a disabled Korean child being adopted by an american family. He is the son of an amazing lady who had 4 childs, adopted another 11, and remained deeply human and accessible though hard times and celebrity. Rory Kennedy also who moved the audience by showing the suffering of women and families around the globe.

The first day ended with a presentation by Daniel Altman, the Global Economics Columnist of the International Herald Tribune. He talked about the place of women in the global economy. When asked by a participant whether the current financial crises would have happened if the banks had been directed by women, he grinned and answered that “in terms of raw competencies, women rank higher than men. But the risk taking behaviors are the same across genders. But it certainly wouldn’t have been worse…” An idea for a more stable world?

As We May Think, predicting the web in 1945

I might be the last one to read the 1945 article from Vannevar Bush (then Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development) titles “As We May Think” where he envisions a solution to better share knowledge among scientists. This is one of the most visionary text I have ever read, published 43 years before the World Wide Web popped-up in Tim Berners-Lee’s mind.

Vannevar BushIt’s 1945. The war has just ended. Men of science, and most specially the physicists who were deeply involved in creating new weapons, go back to their offices and wonder what to do next. Research has been galvanized by the global effort to overcome Hitler, and the scientific community runs into a new problem: “publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record“. Overload is looming (already! the oldest record is 1613 so nothing’s new), bringing it’s usual lot of negative consequences, among which the most dramatic is that research does not “reach the few who were capable of grasping and extending it; […] truly significant attainments become lost in the mass of the inconsequential.” Google already had clients in 1945…

Vannevar Bush imagines a solution with the technologies that surround him, and dreams of a Memex, an “intimate supplement to memory […], a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility.

Meet the Memex:

If the user wishes to consult a certain book, he taps its code on the keyboard, and the title page of the book promptly appears before him, projected onto one of his viewing positions. […]  he has supplemental levers. On deflecting one of these levers to the right he runs through the book before him, each page in turn being projected at a speed which just allows a recognizing glance at each. If he deflects it further to the right, he steps through the book 10 pages at a time; still further at 100 pages at a time. […] Any given book of his library can thus be called up and consulted with far greater facility than if it were taken from a shelf.

Annevar Bush's Memex

He can add marginal notes and comments, taking advantage of one possible type of dry photography, and it could even be arranged so that he can do this by a stylus scheme […] just as though he had the physical page before him.

[[[Bush was dreaming of a browser, and of a personal Google to store his data. But he also wanted tagging, commenting, sharing and hyperlinking.]]]

The owner of the memex, let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow. […] First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. […]

And his trails do not fade. Several years later, his talk with a friend turns to the queer ways in which a people resist innovations, even of vital interest. In fact he has a trail on it. A touch brings up the code book. Tapping a few keys projects the head of the trail. A lever runs through it at will, stopping at interesting items, going off on side excursions. It is an interesting trail, pertinent to the discussion. So he sets a reproducer in action, photographs the whole trail out, and passes it to his friend for insertion in his own memex, there to be linked into the more general trail.

[[[And we thought web 2.0 was a new idea? No No. Even Wikipedia was evoked in the article.]]]

Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified.

And what’s the most amazing feat of Bush? To come up with all these ideas in a mechanical world, with good old wheels and cameras to make this work. Hats off.

Vannevar Bush: As We May Think (The Atlantic)

Free to become a clone

Taking a break from my usual tech focus, I am preparing a speech about all the weak signals that show our current social organization is not sustainable. Beyond the obvious and well publicized facts (financial crisis, global warming) there are more subtle and discrete things happening that indicate western countries are, in some aspects, working hard to shoot themselves in the foot.

It seems like our system contains an invisible balancing mechanism, levelling the differences between the developed and developing countries. Obesity, inequalities, loss of knowledge, wars against imaginary enemies, incivilities, countries are very similar to corporations in the fact that they become more and more stupid as their success grows.

One of these weak signals I am interested in is what could be called the “depersonalization”, happening right now in a street near you. We have an increasingly limited number of products we rely on to build our identity (and I won’t even talk about the sadness of having to rely on products to forge your identity). Global brands are more dominant than ever, and TV offers easy to consume models.

As diversity is diminishing, we end up with what Rotterdam-based photographer Ari Versluis and stylist Ellie Uyttenbroek have captured in their work Exactitudes (contraction of exact and attitude), “an almost scientific, anthropological record of people’s attempts to distinguish themselves from others by assuming a group identity“. These pictures are fascinating, disturbing, eye opening, familiar but strange. They show that we have reached a point where the more different you try to be, the more similar to others you become. What was true in niches a while ago (think punks, tektonik, black turtle-neck creative directors, etc) is now becoming mainstream.

Les filles du 7èmeThe Neighbours