Here is an interview I did for Canvas8, to discuss our constantly changing, sometimes troubled relationship with technology and the impact it has upon our lives. I explain why we already use the technologies of the future every day but barely notice them.
What are the biggest cultural shifts/drivers influencing technological innovation at the moment?
I think people themselves are making the most impact on technologies. It has been quite a shift, one that took a lot of time to happen. Back in the early days, technologies would show up without much effort being put into their usability. As users we simply had to adapt to them, and because technologies were mastered by a small elite, there was barely any feedback coming from the bottom to the top. Technologies provided such a leap from the past ways of doing things – the leap from the typewriter to the word processor, for example – that the general attitude would be “it’s good enough, I can live with the unfriendly interface and limitations”.
Then users started to be more savvy, to feel better about their own capacity to have an idea that could make a particular technology better. Many technologies became the work of teams open to feedback, and some projects even turned completely transparent and open source (not only in software, but also in hardware). Today, innovation is really driven by users, in all their diversity, with all their specific needs, and they are changing technology more than the technologists themselves, creating new uses for a specific tool by translating it into their own languages, contributing bug reports and new ideas, and hacking commercial devices to make them better suited to their needs. For example, Twitter has developed into its own self-perpetuating ecosystem through the input of ordinary users.
What were the hot topics at Lift ’11 – the ideas that particularly resonated with people?
Two ideas really struck me: one speaker, Kevin Slavin, talked about the importance of algorithms. I heard again a couple of days ago an expert on financial markets explaining how the recent movements in the markets were “driven by computers” who “probably lacked some form of human supervision because of the August vacations”. Machines are playing a huge role in our society, to an extent that I was not aware of, and this raises a lot of questions. For example, who will be responsible when an accident happens involving an automated car?
The second idea which I found fascinating emerged from the talk of Hasan Elahi. He showed how technologies can be turned back, and provide a form of privacy through over-sharing. He basically games the system of surveillance, and gives us a nice hint for the future. We might not be losing our privacy; privacy is simply not something you are granted at birth as in the past. Now you have to build a smokescreen around your identity.
Why do technologies fail? Is it enough to create something that’s relevant or useful – and how do you define those terms?
Because we mostly think about technologies, rarely about their usage. For a long time, innovation was in the hands of people who could not necessarily show the appropriate level of empathy. What I mean is that it takes a certain mindset, and some distance, to be able to say “this is how people will use my product”. Most of the time, we fall in love with the technology we create, and we forget to take that love out of the equation when evaluating whether our work will be used by people or not. It is a basic mistake, very true in video games for example. People get fascinated by their own creation, only to find out that it has no appeal to the general public. The truth is, users determine whether a technology is successful. They don’t care about the technical achievement, or the beauty of a particular solution. They want answers to their problems, and some technologies provide that, while others bring more complications than solutions.
To what extent does adoption of technology play into social dynamics?
Adoption mirrors social dynamics. Think of Facebook or Google+: if you are the only user, these technologies have no interest at all. Just like in social dynamics, we need groups to achieve certain things, and technologies do not allow us to escape life’s fundamental rules. We are connected, but still talking about views, attention, feedback, likes, visits. Technology mirrors ‘real life’ most of the time.
There’s been lots of discussion and development but, beyond science fiction, why are robots relevant to us now?
Robots are not science fiction. They are part of our daily life, but we barely notice them. Movies brought the dream of having an humanoid helper in every home – and the bestselling robot in 2011 is an autonomous vacuum cleaner. This revolution is happening, but most people (and the media) are missing it for two reasons: it has been promised to us for such a long time it is hardly at the front of many people’s minds, and what we expected is not what is happening, hence a false sense of inertia while it is one of the most active fields today.They are relevant to us because their logic is increasingly part of our lives. Robots are basically a way to automate tasks we don’t want to do, or that can be done better by computers. And when we look around us we see more and more automation, more and more self-controlled devices.
There’s an emerging trend for quantifying the self and others, driven by a desire for self-improvement. How might this evolve?
We are not just using machines to do what we do not want to do, but rather to do supplementary things, to augment our lives. This opens new possibilities that I find interesting, because we could become more aware of how we live. At the same time, this quantification is scary. I believe all the technology in the world will never replace a good discussion between a patient and a doctor, and this computerisation of our lives also disconnects us from more natural processes. It’s like talking to a friend to know that you are not doing enough sport, rather than having your watch remind you your body fat just went up.
What, to you, is the most significant technological development of the last five years and how do you see it evolving in the next five?
I think open and free-for-all collaboration was massive. The evolution of Wikipedia is interesting. At first, it made sense to open contributions to all, as there was no structure inside the community. There were no experts, nobody had a track record of providing consistently good information, nobody wanted to vandalise the pages because a Wikipedia page was meaningless. That was the first step, when we discovered the potential of opening things up, and letting people collaborate.
But then success came in, and brought with it a number of side effects: a link from Wikipedia was worth a lot, so people started to pollute articles with links to their own sites. Vandals defaced some pages and many debates opened up on controversial topics. Rules had to be put in place to limit openness, and several fundamentals had to be reinvented. People were not equal any more, and super users began to appear.
I find it fascinating how collective intelligence will evolve under the attacks of ‘massification’ and success, how those processes of open collaboration and trust will scale to millions of people and projects around the world. That’s a very, very hard problem and I believe a new order will emerge in the next five years.
How do you see technology use shifting in the near future, and what’s driving it?
I believe one of the things that will happen is that we will push back technology. An increasing number of people are worried about the effect of technologies on their life. For example, the more we connect on Facebook, the more we seem to disconnect from the things that matter to us (real friends). Or the time it takes to deal with email, which at this pace will soon become an ‘unproductivity’ tool.
The next evolution I see happening with some early adopters is that technology is put back in its place: as a tool, not an end in itself. People control how many networks they participate in, choose to shut down their phones more often, declare some ‘no-email days’, and decide to delete all emails that came during their vacations. More and more signs point to us reclaiming a bit of space from those technologies that have invaded our lives to an extent that was barely imaginable 15 years ago.
Interview conducted by Debbi Evans