Global Inequality in Tech: Part Two

Earlier this year, I wrote what turned out to be a fairly depressing post on how jobs around the world and across many industries are slowly becoming automated, resulting in massive job losses and a resultant ever-increasing gaps in equality.

Much of the focus so far has tended to be on manual jobs, being replaced by robots, and causing a gap between those with digital skills and those without. Yet, while that’s absolutely true, a lot of digital and office jobs are slowly being replaced too. Front-line customer service is being replaced by chatbots. Last time, I mentioned an insurance firm using computers to automate customer quotes. There have been a lot of other examples in the past few months – it feels like we’re finally starting to reach that long-predicted AI point.

There are advantages to the rise of the computer.

This was my first reaction to the Venturebeat article linked above – that systems that can do calculations for me, sort emails, take notes etc. could potentially massive increase my productivity. In fact, in my current job much of the technology to do that certainly already exists, though not necessarily widely or cheaply (so we know that it soon will be.) This article from Digital Trends predicts that:

AI alone could double annual economic growth rates for some countries by 2035

However, the new technology simply doesn’t translate into new jobs. So not only will there be massive job loss, I wonder what will happen to the entry-level and graduate jobs of many positions. If there is no more need for the Marketing Assistant level-type roles, where is the traditional stepping stones, in my career area, at least, and many others? If people can’t gain  work experience in those low level roles, they may have to spend a lot longer in higher education to gain the skills necessary to actually advance, and even in the most developed nations that is a path increasingly only open to those with money and supportive families.

 

 

Global Inequality in Tech

After my last blogpost, I started reading up more on technology and global inequality. How much of a divide is there in the world? Is it such a serious social issue?

It turns out that the answers are ‘A very big one’ and ‘yes.’

Many of the issues stem from lack of internet access for a large proportion of the world’s population, which denies them access to education and training needed to socially advance or improve their communities. This is an issue that is being worked on through many angles (including the wifi drones that I wrote about last year) although there are plenty of other problems than just the hardware – including fair access under corrupt administration, and cultural issues or actually using it.

But in high and middle-income countries, lack of access is less of a problem, but technology is actually making equality worse over time. This article from the World Economic Forum explains it best, basically as jobs have become more automated, the world starts to become divided into those who still have marketable skills and those who don’t. Those who do can afford more personal technology, more education to develop those skills (and their children’s skills) and so the divide grows. Even with programmes to bridge that divide and ensure that everyone has access to useful job skills, countries are reaching a point where productivity can be high but there simply aren’t enough jobs for everyone to have one. I remember being amazed at this video of robots moving stock around an Amazon warehouse (exciting futuristic stuff!) and then quickly realising that this is a job that used to be done by people… and it isn’t just factory jobs either. Recently a Japanese Insurance firm began using a computer system that calculates customer payouts for them, making 34 employees redundant.

The scary thing is that the WEF article above (which it should be noted was written a year ago) both calls for a quick response to the issue but is unable to provide clear answers, only ‘innovative thinking’ to solve the problem. Clearly, we didn’t start solving it in 2016, and I have to wonder how many more robots will enter the workforce before we do.

Is tech about to hit a slowdown point?

Is tech about to hit a slowdown point? And possibly the more important question, does technology need to have a slowdown point?

This is something I began thinking about after reading an article from TechCrunch: “Consider ethics when designing new technologies“. This article explained that as technology becomes an integral part of almost every aspect of our lives, ethical issues will result in lack of consumer confidence and therefore a lack of early adopters for new types of tech.

Technology has been progressing at an almost exponential rate in the past few decades. But if it hits a point where not enough people trust the tech to make it worthwhile to produce, will the curve of progress finally start to level off?

If it does, this might be a much needed change of pace for the world as a whole, if not for the tech industry itself. The gap in global equality is already huge, and not only do we have countries unable to compete economically, but there’s a massive social gap too. Technology has brought us together in global communities, but it risks dividing us again with a loss of level communication.

Blogpril April 9th – Wifi Drones and the World  Part Two: Facebook’s Experiments

http://fortune.com/2015/07/30/facebooks-solar-power-drone-internet-earth/ – Article from fortune.com.

After yesterday’s ramblings, I decided that I should do a bit of reading and discover whether anyone has actually looked into the kind of technology that I was thinking about (drones powering global wifi coverage) and it turns out that Facebook is working on exactly that! – Using larger scale drones, operating at a higher altitude than air traffic, to ‘beam down’ a wifi signal that will cover a large area in parts of the world where it’s difficult to provide standard Internet.

While this is clearly a way off being properly implemented, it’s an amazing project and the fact that it’s already in a testing stage suggests that not too far into the distant future, we could see a truly connected global network. The political implications of that are something that I’m going to consider in tomorrow’s blog.

Blaugust Day 24 – Technological Confusion

Today – A meandering blog post that didn’t really go anywhere or have a point. I apologise.

Technology has moved on at ridiculous speeds over the last few years, and it seems like it’s getting faster all the time. I hear a lot of people bemoaning how hard it is to keep up with new tech, to get their head around new ways of thinking and doing. This is something I’ve never had a problem with – yet! I’ve always felt pretty comfortable embracing different little bits of machinery into my life.

What I never anticipated though, was how quickly I would forget stuff as soon as something new came along.

Here’s an example, at my current job, I have a work phone I use for contacting teams of casual staff who do promotional work for us. It’s a Nokia, but it’s basically like a Blackberry, little and square-ish with a horizontal screen and a querty keypad.

When I was first given it, I had absolutely no idea how to unlock the keypad, and this worried me. I used phones far older than this in my teens, how did I not remember this? (centre top button – left bottom button incidentally) I had a standard nine-buttoned fat rectangle of a Nokia until I was twenty-one, but somehow as soon as I got a touch screen, my brain just ejected any info on older phones. I occasionally found myself picking up the phone and tapping the screen without thinking. I also discovered that I’ve developed a totally different way of texting on iphones, where I approximate where the right letters are, and somehow predictive text has adapted to knowing what I meant to say. It’s funny how quickly the habits form. Working without predictive text actually felt right relearning an old skill.

There are certainly older computer skills that I’ve lost – when I was a little kid I had a PC with Windows 3.1, but if you asked me to navigate to the C drive in DOS now – well, I’d have to have a few goes at it, at least, even though it would have been so under my fingers back then I wouldn’t even have had to think about it, the same way I barely have to think about typing in my computer password.

It’s the cutest thing… – Littleprinter Review

I accidentally acquired a Bergcloud Littleprinter about a year and a half ago, after it had been passed between a number of friends who weren’t sure what to do with it. I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know what it did, so it languished in it’s packaging in the corner of my room until I really really needed a small box to send my camera off to the repair shop (yep, my beloved 60D is poorly, but it appears to be a fixable issue) so I decided to remove the contents and figure things out.

The picture shows the actual printer itself – a dinky little cube with a roll of shop receipt – type paper covered in stylised smiley faces. However, the printer is controlled by a larger box rather like a router, which plugs into your actual router. It’s got an almost 1960s TV sci-fi feel, with blocky font labels and large white LEDs in plastic.

 

My Little Printer prints it’s first ever item, actually it’s activation code. Each strip prints with the smiley face at the bottom, which the website claims can change features (hair style etc.) over time.

The actual set up is the most interesting thing. The printer is designed to be connected to mobile devices, though it can be connected to any computer – anything with internet as far as I can tell. I needed to create an account using my phone, and then things started to get strange….

Little printers are designed to do two things. They can print messages and photos from any device with account access to them – they don’t have to be on the same network. Here’s a Vine of my printer reproducing an Instagram photo of me. I can see how this might be great in an office situation where people can print messages to each other, though with it’s smiley faces and general cutesy-ness, it’s as much designed for home use – their website suggests that families and children would love using this to keep in touch.

The other big feature is publications. Little Printer has almost two hundred publications, almost like apps for a printer. These can send you the new headlines of the day, or a summary of your website use, or a picture for your kids to colour in. I was initially confused by this, but eventually opted for a sample of existential aid publication ‘why’, which twenty seconds later gave me this.

 

 

While a part of me cynically feels that this is an executive toy of the digital age, grown from a gimmicky start-up of the kind I hear about constantly on TechCrunch and similar, most of me really likes this idea. I wish it had more social media related publications: for example it can give you daily engagement stats on Flickr and some for Twitter, I would like to see more like that as the idea is really sound, especially if you were running a site or company that needed to keep track of those details and pass them on easily as something similar to a post-it note. At the moment it’s still very developer driven, a place for people to test their ideas (the creators, Bergcloud, seem to have quite close links with Github.)

At the moment I don’t massively have a use for it but I feel like I might in the future. Plus, it’s cute and a bit silly. I’m really glad I have one of these.

Anonymous Internet: The Good and the Bad

Recently I’ve been researching online identity a great deal as part of my Master’s Dissertation – I’m studying mobile phone film making, but more specifically how mobile film and video is heavily tied to social media nowadays. In the early days of the internet, it seemed to be pretty much typical to have an anonymous identity according to the studies I have read.

Many early studies of internet culture revolved around MUDs (Multi-user Dungeons) – role playing games which were in many ways precursors to the culture of MMORPG games (such as World of Warcraft) where an anonymous name and persona were a critical part of the game, you had to create your character and embody them completely. (Online role play using email, chat rooms or forums is still very much a thing, in fact it was pretty much my entry into online culture as a teenager.) Likewise, in many of the transcriptions of use-net groups (mass email groups for various topics) that i have seen in works on online culture in the 1990s, people almost inevitably have anonymous names.

However, in this day and age of the internet, many social media platforms do have an increasing focus on real life identities. I’m already written about how Google+ and YouTube are keen for users to provide their real names, in an attempt to prevent trolling and harassment. Meanwhile, social media sites such as Facebook led the way in expecting people to use real identities to communicate with friends –  causing the online and offline worlds are becoming increasingly entwined, and not always under the privacy protections the such platforms can provide. Indeed, it’s now beneficial for me to have a recognisable online presence for the apparently inevitable ‘when your prospective employers decide to Google you‘.

Google search rankings for me. Obviously this is biased due to the fact that I’m searching myself, but no blog post is worth the hassle incurred by deleting my browser history!

 

Not to mention, it ensures that when someone Googles you (other search engines are available) the you that the person finds really is ‘you’. This actually happened to me over the summer and at the time I didn’t record it. Someone registered a twitter account as @clareisonline_ (as opposed to mine – @clareisonline) using my profile blurb and picture, and used it to spam people for a short while before being deleted. If I didn’t have a very active account of my own, carefully linked with a number of other social media accounts personally branded with the same/similar profile picture and blurb, it’s possible this could have been mistaken for the real me. The friend who searched my twitter handle and found this was certainly confused.

 

But back to the point of this blog, with the need for clear digital identity, the push of the social media giants and the increased media furor around trolling and bullying I wonder if there will there ever be a time where it is frowned upon to use a anonymous persona? After all, if there is ever a majority of online users who’s online and offline identities are pretty much the same, wouldn’t it make the anonymous minority look suspicious?

 

Personally, I hope this doesn’t happen, especially in those parts of the internet where people want to be open about certain things without their entire social network knowing (the role of internet self-help and peer support groups has been extremely well researched) but it is an intriguing thought, as internet social media becomes more carefully moderated and policed.

 

Note: That sounded like I disagree with careful moderating on social media. I don’t, I have seen plenty of cases of harassment on Facebook/Twitter where the companies pretty much washed their hands of things when they should have intervened. But there needs to be a balance between ensuring security of open identities whilst respecting the privacy of others. We tend to forget that internet culture is still so new, the ground rules aren’t laid down and with the constant changes in technology they might never be laid down completely in stone. We can’t really predict anything about the future of digital culture, but it is important to try and understand it as much as possible, especially remembering that every account on every site is a person who needs protecting.

 

Apart from the spambots, of course.