Much recent tech is difficult to use and intermittently available

The latest technology is posing problems for employees and consumers, with questions left unanswered by its creators, writes Kyran Fitzgerald.
Much recent tech is difficult to use and intermittently available

WHAT happened to those good old-fashioned geeks, the rather shy socially awkward characters with thick specs and whiffy tee-shirts who used to populate the world of ‘high technology’?

These days, they appear to have been replaced by slick sales executives with well-tried lines in patter and by accounting types in well-cut casual suits.

Too many of these characters are so well trained in the arts of PR and dissimulation that the amount of real thought conveyed appears to be in inverse proportion to the grandiose claims made for their products.

It is hard to say whether this year’s Dublin Web Summit is reflective of this global trend in technology. However, one has to question whether much of the media coverage of the Summit was sufficiently thoughtful.

Too many have appeared willing to give a free pass to the drivers of the new technologies which are transforming our societies – for better and worse. Reporters are not followers, their publications not intended as fanzine mags.

Do the rising stars, corporate and individual, earning increasingly lucrative livings in the sector, not themselves owe some duties to the societies which have raised them?

Should they not be called to explain the impact of many of their inventions on the wider society around them?

Creativity can produce destructive consequences. Some commentators have noted a distinct gender bias among participants at the Web Summit. Is this reflective of the broader sector despite the presence of people like Yahoo chief executive, Marissa Mayer and Meg Whitman of HP. It would be interesting to analyse the backgrounds of the group. Many, one suspects, are drawn from highly mobile, multi-ethnic, largely middle class backgrounds. A large majority, if the speakers list at the summit tells one anything, are young and male. They are thrusting, indeed pushy, but not especially reflective. This neatly fits the self description of Web Summit founder, Paddy Cosgrave, whose pronouncements are a breath of fresh air to some reeking of pomposity to others.

The Guardian newspaper, on Friday, reported findings of a report on the rise of robotics, prepared on behalf of Bank of America Merrill Lynch. This predicts a further hollowing out in the jobs market with robots set to take over the tasks of everyone from carers to burger flippers. The use of robots should produce savings of up to 90%. As the author puts it, “we are in danger of creating a large number of people who are not needed.”

The market for robotics is set to reach over $150bn by 2020. The displacement of jobs has long been underway. Fifty years ago, many thousands were employed across Ireland in factories, flour mills, bakeries and on farms as labourers, hewers of wood and drawers of water, yet the total number in employment has doubled. The problem is that many of those displaced were never re-employed and we have witnessed the spreading phenomenon of multiple generations of jobless families. Across areas such as North Africa, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and the sprawling edges of French cities, countless numbers of young people are left with little to do. In the US, too, de-industrialisation after 1960 turned many districts into powder keg ghettos.

At the same time, at the level of the consumer, too many of the products produced in the latest IT wave are either difficult to use, or intermittently available due to problems with reception. The digital divide has exacerbated both class and inter-regional divisions. The tech industry is focused on short-term financial gain, targeting a young middle class audience while neglecting groups that are harder to reach and less lucrative.

CEOs use technology to target massive job savings while frequently transferring administrative burdens on to the customer. Bank of Ireland’s latest initiative is but one of many such examples.

Leading edge companies, such as Amazon may be hoovering up most of the turnover in their industry, but they are doing so with non-union workforces who are often faced with huge demands from managers, in turn, under great pressure to perform. It seems that many of the gains achieved by trade unions since 1945 are being eroded in this new environment of technological break waves.

Of course, the great technology wave, harnessed in the right way, could yet prop up our faltering planet and it is already liberating many, including those countless Africans now harnessing the revolution in mobile communications to their benefit. John Maynard Keynes once predicted that the working week could fall to ‘15 hours by 2030.

If anything, the opposite appears to be happening, even if much back-breaking work has been eliminated. A new divide has arisen with more executives caught in a trap, bombarded with endless messages, less and less able to retreat from daily demands. This can only be having a negative impact on creativity and long-term wellbeing.

Our business leaders, particularly in the tech sector, need to address these issues which cannot be left to politicians focused on short-term survival dealing with the endless controversies that seem part and parcel of the ‘24/7’ news environment where providers cater to the appetite for sensation.

It is not good enough to dismiss such concerns as ‘Luddite’ distrust of change. Increasingly, work itself is being seen as another resource whose fair distribution is fundamental to the health of society as a whole.

At the Web Summit, this week, the CEO of the Irish artificial intelligence company, Movidius, Remi El-Ouazzane, suggested, in an interview with John Kennedy of Silicon Republic, that “A-I will have a defining impact in the decade ahead as much as the Web has had in the past two decades.”

But on the ground, great change is already occurring. The spread of the Uber online taxi service has already caused the number of people taking the famous London taxi ‘knowledge’ test to fall by almost one half in the space of barely a year. This is just one of the many ‘disruptions’ which existing businesses and workforces are coping with at present.

Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma has written of the challenges posed to organisations, such as banks and IT companies, used to incremental change who are now faced with new ‘disruptive’ technologies which are sweeping away incumbents.

Leaders in business and in society will have to learn to harness the changes or they could overwhelm them - and for that matter, many of us.

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