Technology and Change in the 21st Cent

Today, the world is already into its second decade of the 21st century.  At this very early point in time, it is now safe to say that the 21st Century will be defined as the Digital century, so pervasive is telecommunication technology in the modern world.

Just look at mobile phone technology for example.  About twenty years ago, the cell-phone as we know it had arrived on the scene.  Ever since the telephone had been invented, mobile based technology was its natural progression.  Much of the research and development that led to the modern telecommunications infrastructure was carried out from the beginning of the 20th century itself. Automated and mobile services were introduced commercially from the 1930s and 1940s onwards, but these were primarily confined to Trains and automobiles.  It was only in the 1970s that the hand held device that we all know and love was finally introduced. Motorola released the first commercial hand held mobile phone in 1973. The devices were large, cumbersome and very unwieldy and had to be often carried in a briefcase because of their very short battery life.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_mobile_phones).

(Image courtesy of http://www.wikipedia.org)

By the 1990s the devices had finally evolved to the current basic design principle as is in use today. They were easy to use, had a better battery life and because of their small size were extremely portable.  More crucially the widespread adoption of mobile technology came at a very critical juncture in the Western world. By the 1990s, Communism had collapsed and the West itself was moving into its post industrialised phase where the engines of economic growth would be derived from technology and the services sectors. Modern mobile telephony couldn’t have arrived at a more timely moment and unsurprisingly it took off worldwide.  It was the culmination of predictions made by notable scientists and philosophers many decades previously, such as Arthur C. Clarke and Leonid Kupriyanovich, both had foreseen the rise of mobile telecommunications as the future.  You can now find mobile phones even among some of the most remote tribes on earth, so ubiquitous have they become within the space of two decades.

   

(Images courtesy of http://www.youtube.com)

But yet here is the main irony. The very thing that defines us now, is based on technology that had its roots in the past 150 years. The phone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell in the 1870s and now 140 years later, the one thing that can be agreed on is that whatever point in the telephony life cycle humanity is now at, we are nowhere near the zenith. Not by a long shot.

Just look at the Twentieth Century. The developments in technology, transport, science, media and theoretical physics all had their origins in the 19th century.  The development and the ultimate designation of the last century as the nuclear century was born in the roots of 19th century atomic physics and towards its end the discovery of the electron (http://www.deutsches-museum.de/en/exhibitions/natural-sciences/physics/atomic-physics/). The invention of the modern airplane in 1903 would not have been possible without the internal combustion engine which was developed over the previous century.

The same principle for 19th century technology can all be traced back to the 18th century and so backwards to the renaissance and the beginning of modernity with its increasing emphasis on rational scientific thought and research. Since then technology has leapt forwards in leaps and bounds, each succeeding century being transformed to a much greater degree to the preceding one.  A person from the year 1750 could easily be able to relate to a person of 1850, but of 1950? So much had changed by then that they would find it very hard to be able to communicate easily with a person, although still human, were now from a world that would be so remote and alien to their own. The same can be said for the 1850 individual and the 2050. The person from 2050 on the other hand may have little difficulty with a person from 2250 because of lives spent in technological immersion. It might take a little while to get used to the changes, but they wouldn’t suffer the same shell-shock as their more agrarian ancestors simply because they would have been ingrained from birth to accept the reality of major technological change and its possible evolution.

So what now will be the direction of the 21st century? Digitisation of society will still continue unabated. Children born over the last twenty years have now acquired the sobriquet of ‘Digital Natives’.  This is because they have grown up totally immersed in digital technology and unlike the Millenials and Generation X, are unable to imagine life without easy access to smartphones, the computer and the internet.

(Image courtesy of http://www.toondoo.com)

But could there be longer term effects of digital technology on humans? Digital technology only really went mainstream about 35 years ago and since the invention of Web 2.0, become pervasive. In the last several years there has been a growing body of scientific literature and research investigating the digital phenomenon and the results to date are rather mixed with some worrying discoveries being made.

One major issue is the impact of technology on business itself. KPMG (2007), in its analysis of technological changes, highlighted the fact that in the areas of media generation and publication, the costs of producing media content had fallen considerably over a number of years. Think, producing and distributing a women’s magazine is now far cheaper than it would have been in 1990, when desktop technology was more rudimentary and far more expensive. Physical publication and distribution logistics would have added to the overall costs.

The other major problem that they identified, and one that is increasingly coming to the forefront of public consciousness is the issue of copyright law. Modern technology by its very nature makes it far easier to distribute images and material than it would have been prior to the introduction of Web 2.0 and social networking platforms. There have been several incidents in recent years with Facebook. According to their terms and conditions, any copyright of images and material uploaded by users belongs to them to do with as they want and not the subscribers. Clearly for the average person, who posts an image that is meant to be shared with close acquaintances, losing control over material, especially private material that they never intended to use in a wider commercial context is clearly unacceptable and a gross invasion of their privacy and personal copyrights.

They are the victims of loopholes in international copyright law and KPMG(2007) rightly acknowledges through the work of Larry Lessig, a Stanford Law Professor, that contemporary international copyright law is fundamentally flawed and requires a massive overhaul if it is to protect small scale media producers from being at the mercy of larger corporate giants, who would seek to use their content in a manner that the original creator never intended and without their permission.

The same problems can be found in other technology such as 3-D printing. What is going to happen when 3-D printing finally goes mainstream and it is possible to print whatever object that you want? Especially when many of those easily replicable items are also copyrighted and patented. Unlike with virtual content, the end product of 3-d printing is most definitely physical and not just simply a stream of 0s and 1s. A global rethink of copyright law and intellectual property is urgently needed and before the inevitable lawsuits come tumbling into courts in a tsunami of litigation that the world so far has never and will likely never see again.

( Image courtesy of http://www.extremetech.com)

However the most important concern about the impact of technology, is in the area of employment.  Heath (2014) discussed this issue with Erik Brynjolfsson on how employment patterns may change in the future. One key finding was that unlike the Industrial Revolution, there is a very real likelihood that the digital revolution will cause a massive permanent global unemployment catastrophe, compounding current global inequalities by several factors. Already, here in Ireland, we have witnessed directly the impact of globalisation and technology on job creation.  Remember the 1990s? This was a decade that was marked by serious job losses as multinational corporations sought to exploit the cost reductive benefits of globalisation. People who had worked for these companies since the 70s were suddenly unemployed overnight.

(Image courtesy of http://www.bigdatainsightgroup.com)

To make matters even worse, the Governments of the day and to the present failed to fully grasp the bigger implications. Namely that these jobs were gone and were gone for good. It didn’t matter how much the IDA or the ministers waxed lyrical about being a hub for international investment, the fact was, this was employment which had helped during the dark days of the eighties sustained local towns and communities, was never coming back. This trend accelerated from the onset of the GFC. What was the first thing that banks worldwide did when they were bailed out by national governments? They embarked on an orgy of restructuring, moving towards more automated computer based services and laying off hundreds of thousands across the globe.

While the political elite continue to bury their heads in the sands, there is substantial research to support the argument. According to Sizemore (2013) an Oxford Study showed that as late as 2013, approximately 45% of US jobs were are risk of computerisation over the next twenty years. In plain English half the current American workforce are in jobs that don’t have a viable long term future! Of that number a certain percentage will face permanent unemployment. Others will migrate to as yet non-existent jobs. But of course things don’t have to be that way, but however we are at point where the worst case scenarios don’t have to happen.  Unfortunately it does mean that we will collectively have to abandon many of our current religiously adhered to models of economics and economic theories and to devise a new way of thinking moving forward. We need to fully realise that the new technology can and has the potential to deliver an enormous wealth of prosperity and benefit to ordinary people, giving them benefits and freedoms in a way that was previously impossible. It is however only possible if we find a way to make the technology work for our collective benefit and not the shareholder’s value.

Perhaps Erik Brynjolfsson is wrong and a world similar to Star Trek with its emphasis on greater equitability and not the dystopian nightmare of Weland-Yutani as envisaged in the Alien move franchise, might be much nearer at hand than we imagine.

References:

Heath, N (2014) ‘Why AI Could Destroy More Jobs than it Creates and How to Save Them’, Tech Republic, (Available at: http://www.techrepublic.com/article/ai-is-destroying-more-jobs-than-it-creates-what-it-means-and-how-we-can-stop-it/)

KPMG (2007) The Impact of Digitisation – a Generation Apart; Information, Communications and Entertainment, KPMG International (Available at: https://www.kpmg.com/US/en/IssuesAndInsights/ArticlesPublications/Documents/impact-of-digitization.pdf)

Sizemore, C. (2013) ‘Will Technology Make Us All Jobless?’, Forbes, October 11th, (Available at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/moneybuilder/2013/10/11/will-technology-make-us-all-jobless/)

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