From the printing press of the 15th century through to driver less cars, there’s been a breath-taking amount of change in technology in the past few hundred years. It can be a challenge just trying to keep up.
There’s no set metric for visually showing the pace of technological change. In order for there to be one, there’d have to have been some sort of agreed format being used for the past 500 years or so.
These days, we can compare the speed of a processor, or the quality of a screen, the spread of broadband or the rate that new device categories come about – but even still, these only relate to sections of technological change, not the whole thing itself. And yet, somehow, we can all recognise that the world is moving faster than ever before.
Here’s one attempt to show these changes visually:
The next leaps we see will be in the areas of 5G technology, which promises faster download and upload speeds, the IoT (Internet of Things), which will allows for dumb devices to become smart and create a new wave of data to evaluate, plan and improve with. and Artificial Intelligence (AI), which uses machine learning to spot patterns in data and make decisions without following the typical logic associated with computers.
It can be scary to think about how fast these new technologies are moving, what they mean for society, democracy and individual liberty. But have we been in similar situations before and what can the past teach us about the present and what it might mean for the future?
What technology does this sound like to you?
It is distracting children at home
Prevents family conversations taking place as attention is elsewhere
Disrupts family life, making family members less focused on each other
Acts as an outside influence that parents have little control over, and they often do not agree with the content
It puts ideas and concepts in people’s minds that influence their behaviour and can be destructive
Did you guess social media? If so, get ½ a point – but the technology I’m talking about here is none other than the radio. Yes, that’s right – the controversy that the radio caused on its arrival was incredible. Radio shook the status quo to its limits, created inter-generational tensions as younger people adopted it more willingly and older people worried about the implications on family life and social behaviour.
Did it change society and individual behaviour?
Of course, over time the radio become mainstream and normalised. Did it change society and individual behaviour? Sure, but in the end that new behaviour became the norm, society didn’t crumble, and we all carried on.
The introduction of the car had a similar impact – families, particularly rural ones had their lives changed forever. Automobiles took people away from those they loved, created new relationships, changed the face of work, increased productivity and increased deaths and danger all at the same time. And of course, if you go back long enough, one had the right to drive a car by virtue of the fact they had enough money to buy one. There were no tests in place. No Government regulation to control the use of the technology. These days of course, an individual interacting with the Government regulation in the form of a driving test is a rite of passage and universally accepted as being the sensible way to handle the balance between individual freedom and collective safety.
It is here that we can identify the first of the major cycles that exist between technology and society. The tech always seems to move faster than the rules can keep up. After all, new tech trail blazes, whilst laws and regulation are typically in response to events that have already occurred. At the point the rules of society begin to catch up, there is additional complexity in creating the right rules for the society we want to live in.
Let me frame this with the following thought experiment:
A tech company has invented a new device called a ‘hammer’. The hammer can be used to either build you a home or it can be used to attack and injure you. The state must decide which of the applications of the technology should be permitted, and if it’s going to allow both, when are they appropriate?
Which would you pick? Should the hammer be used to build homes, or should it be used to attack and injure you? I’m guessing you’ve picked the new home, rather than being assaulted.
Now, pose yourself the following: A group of people are going around the place smashing up people’s homes with sticks. In the process they are hurting innocent people, in fact, leaving some for dead. At this point, would the state be justified in using our new hammer on the perpetrators in order to keep the public safe and to keep society cohesive? Again, I believe most will agree this is a legitimate use.
So now, we have a mild contradiction. We don’t want the technology to be used to control our own civil liberties. But recognise and accept that there may be situations in which technology needs to be used in undesirable ways to achieve a desirable outcome.
The split between how much house building, and how much injuring occurs with our hammer, goes to the root of the type of country we are living in, and aspire to be a part of in the future. Countries such as China, readily take technology such as facial recognition and place a far greater emphasis on the ‘collective safety’ (injuring) side of the argument as opposed to countries like the UK, which (despite its many issues) places a greater importance of individual freedoms.
‘Technology has no intent’
Technology has no intent. It is the philosophy that sits behind the technology that matters. And through this, cutting edge technological advances have found themselves at the epicentre of social, political and democratic struggles globally, between free and oppressed people. The struggles may not be new, but the new tools which are being used to advance the causes are.
The tech life balance
At the heart of this – the balance between individual freedom, collective security, state power over the individual, and the philosophical use of modern technology, is a debate around privacy, access to data and who has permission to read and analyse what you create.
Take a look at the staggering rise in data creation globally and see how it is expected to continue over the next few years. Measured in zettabytes, which is 1 trillion gigabytes (your phone probably has between 64 – 512 gigabytes), you can see from the graph below that we are creating more data than ever, and the speed at which it is being created is also increasing. This trend will continue – as the newer forms of tech I outlined at the top of the article become mainstream. Far more data points will be generated, from your fridge to the lamp posts on your street, to new 5G cell towers, smart cities and more. Typically, these new data sets reside in the ‘cloud’, where sophisticated artificial intelligence applications will help a small number of humans make sense of the data and make decisions that reshape our towns, cities, behaviours, politics, society and future.
To take one example – driver-less cars. There are clearly going to be many upsides to living in a society of driver-less cars. There will be less human created accidents, less traffic jams, reduced need for car parks, a huge boost in productivity, greater capacity to travel long distances, to name but a few. But in the end the decisions of ‘who is being driven where’ will be surrendered in exchange for the new benefits and advantages on offer.
However, without proper oversight, it is not a leap to see how authoritarian states and ‘command and control’ leaders could harness the proliferation of data as a means of control and suppression of people. The same technology that might allow you to live further away from your office, as you can work happily in your car for 3 hours each day before arriving refreshed, may well be used to keep people of a particular religion, ethnicity or background from driving (and therefore entering) particular geographic areas of a country. China is already adopting a social credit score system that will reward behaviour the state deems a positive and punish behaviour that they deem unacceptable. Car rights, or the privilege or being able to use a car seems a likely form of control that has a big impact on personal freedom.
John Wilks’ Historic Case
But the tussle between the privacy rights of the individual and the ability of the state to use private data to control a society is not new either. We are fortunate that we have a long-standing tradition of limited state power of the individual. Go back long enough and you’ll find an interesting chap called John Wilks, who was an MP in the 18th Century. John was no fan of the Government or of the Crown to put it mildly. In the 18th century, he wrote an anonymous article that was hugely disparaging of crown and the government.
Whilst his name was not directly associated with it, there was a strong feeling within the executive that he was responsible. A universal search warrant was issued allowing for houses to be searched that had anything to do with John, places were ransacked until the Government found the evidence it needed, and John was sent to prison. However, Mr Wilks was a man of certain means himself and he took the Government of the day to Court. To everyone’s astonishment, he won the case against the crown and the Government! The findings being that there had to be a probable cause for Governments to search a property – giving rise to the expression that an English Man’s home is his castle.
This legal precedent formed the basis for the 4th amendment of the United States of America which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. It also states that warrants must be approved by a judge, be justified and have probable cause. Modern privacy laws in Western countries can be traced back to these events hundreds of years ago.
We see the careful balancing act between how much to use the hammer to build houses, and how much to injure people with it for the greater good, in action.
Cut to modern day, and much of the debate around privacy is focused around data that is stored in large data centres. Whilst people store their data on the phone, or home PC, the chances are super high that at least some of the data that underpins your life is stored on servers managed by other people.
These data centres and the big tech companies that administer them have found themselves as the linchpins between the individual desire to be free, with the Government responsibility to ensure collective safety.
The future, in many respects looks a little bleak. There are plenty of Governments out there who would happily use the wonderful world of modern technology and the mass of data it produces to retain power, suppress dissent and to stifle political discussion. Using information to sway, influence and control public opinion is not new either, with examples going back to before the Roman times. In the west there is an assumption that the state has limited control of its people, however, in China, all companies are required to cooperate with the communist party when ordered to do so. This means there is no right to privacy for the individual. Within their model of the World, the collective safety of the people is the absolute, with no macro consideration for the individual rights of the individual.
I am not optimistic for the short term (next 50 – 60 years) in terms of how technology will be used to progress these two opposing views of the World. Countries that are not accountable to their people, and who do not face genuine election cycles, have the whip hand in terms of making fast decisions and easy access to private data to progress state control.
However, in the longer run, technology, like water, will find a way to flow down to the people. People naturally have a wish for freedom, privacy and the absence of tyranny. These are not Western or Eastern values; they are universal values. In Hong Kong, protesters are making use of new messaging technology that uses a ‘mesh’ to send messages without committing the data via an internet connection. It works by the data ‘hopping’ in encrypted form from one phone to another until it reaches its intended recipient. This allows for individual coordination without the fear of state retribution, or at least reduces the risk of it.
For those states that do not start with the premise of delivering individual freedom, and only using technology for state control when required, and via socially agreed norms (judges, warrants etc), then the away games are coming. Controlling masses of people is fine the whole time you have the tech stack to do so. But as we have seen, the pace of technological change is increasing and the day will come when individual liberty is enshrined not just through political agreement, but through the overwhelming power of technology to deliver it.
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