“I think with one exception, I’ve never changed an opening sentence of a book after it was completed.” – William Gibson
Alberta is the pre-eminent resource economy in Canada. While natural resources remain the driving force behind the economy, technology has the potential to unlock similar potential in two other key resources – land and people – the resources that form the greatest assets to every government and society. Technology is often seen as a hyper-competitive field for market domination; and key to higher efficiency and profitability. However, purposeful and collaborative technology innovation has the potential to stimulate new economic opportunities, attract new investment and create new employment opportunities.
How can emerging technologies drive sustainable and equitable economic development by leveraging key resources that any government and society has at its disposal? And, how can people, governments and technologists come together to ensure technology finally serves all of humankind?
“There is not a fiercer hell than the failure in a great object.”
– John Keats
We are in the early stages of a new economic system that fundamentally thrives on the sharing and open distribution of physical, intellectual and artistic resources. The proliferation of closed and privately held intellectual property no longer provides the greatest value to any conceivable group of stakeholders. Political and economic power is rapidly shifting from century old centralized entities to more agile, adaptable and distributed socio-economic frameworks. And, yet these innovative frameworks are rapidly acquired by the same century old entities and further entrenched in oligarchic incumbencies.
Will the utopia of democratized technologies drive equality and opportunity, or will it merely be the case of a one ruling class replacing another precisely as George Orwell once predicted?
“History shows that where ethics and economics come into conflict, victory is always with economics. Vested interests have never been known to willingly divest themselves unless there was sufficient force to compel them.”
– B.R. Ambedkar
Our laws and ethical practices have evolved over centuries. Today, technology is on an exponential curve and is touching practically everyone—everywhere. Changes of a magnitude that once took centuries now happen in decades, sometimes in years. Not long ago, Facebook was a dorm-room dating site, mobile phones were for the ultra-rich, drones were multimillion-dollar war machines, and supercomputers were for secret government research. Today, hobbyists can build drones and poor villagers in India access Facebook accounts on smartphones that have more computing power than the Cray 2—a supercomputer that in 1985 cost $17.5 million and weighed 2,500 kilograms. A full human genome sequence, which cost $100 million in 2002, today can be done for $1,000—and might cost less than a cup of coffee by 2020.
We haven’t come to grips with what is ethical, let alone with what the laws should be. Consider the question of privacy. There is a public outcry today—as there should be—about NSA surveillance, but the breadth of that surveillance pales in comparison to the data that Google, Apple, Facebook, and legions of app developers are collecting. Our smartphones track our movements and habits. Our Web searches reveal our thoughts. With the wearable devices and medical sensors that are being connected to our smartphones, information about our physiology and health is also coming into the public domain. Where do we draw the line on what is legal—and ethical – and ultimately more important to the future of the human race than exponential profiteering?
“As a matter of historical analysis, the relationship between secrecy and privacy can be stated in an axiom; the defense of privacy follows and never proceeds the emergence of technologies for the exposure of secrets.”
– Jill Lepore
Progress is knowledge running ahead and waiting for understanding to catch up and correct it. That is immutable and cannot be any other way. The essence of a capitalist commercial market is to satisfy need: fulfill desire or ease pain—at a profit. Thus, capitalism must have desires and pains, with the easing of a pain being more valuable than fulfillment of a desire. So, it makes sense that clever capitalists in want of a pain… create one. It’s an axiomatic cycle: (a) progress to satisfy a want; (b) create a problem; (c) solve the problem with some new progress; (d) create a new problem [Pass Go, collect $2billion]; and so on ad infinitum.
Intractable, genuine problems are too big, too hard and take too long in a world where the race to zero is a sprint. Much easier and lucrative to generate dubious progress for clever MBAs to “monetize.” (Like capturing, analyzing, and selling user data.) When knowledge ran ahead of understanding in the past, guinea pigs and the earliest of adopters were caught in and affected by the gap. Today, progress gets put to market at light speed. So, fallout is instantly broader. And, since what Silicon Valley is now toying with is personal property: private, personal information, the impact is not only fast and wide, it’s deep. It’s also irreversible. An exploration of the axiom between privacy, security and the evolution of capitalism. The casualties of the privacy problem that technology are creating are looking to technology for a solution. Wash, rinse, repeat. Are the victims looking at the wrong place? Does Silicon Valley need to have their axiom pulled out of the fire?
“Intellectual property is an important legal and cultural issue. Society as a whole has complex issues to face here; private ownership versus open source. It is a moral dilemma.”
– Tim Berners Lee
In 2018, from Global Climate Change to Free Speech issues in France, we are finally waking up to what economists call “externalities” and social scientists call “the law of unintended consequences”—what most of us would call side effects.
Ordinary business has two primary stakeholders – the people you pay and the people who pay you. Everyone else who is impacted by your business is thought of as unimportant.
In many modern organizations, however, deliberate thought is given to this third group—generally called the “community”. They may include users, who take advantage of a business but don’t actually pay for it. They may also include contributors who help to develop or support a product, even though the company doesn’t pay them. At least, not directly.
Most companies are not well structured to operate as part of a larger community. As a brief look at any typical organizational chart will show you, we arrange roles and responsibilities and titles around our two classic stakeholders – the people we pay, and the people we get paid by. But if today’s enterprise is not able to radically transform its operating structure to serve a greater purpose than serving two traditional group of shareholders, what are the unintended consequences to the global community?
Are truly innovative advancements in science and technology being commercially road blocked in order to continue to serve and benefit an oligarchic few? Should the use of open source technology and adoption of community based business practices become a moral, measured and fiduciary obligation of the modern enterprise?
“The fear of death increases in exact proportion to an increase in wealth.”
– Ernest Hemingway
The generation born between 1945 and 1964 has been at the forefront of most major events that have shaped western civilization in the last five decades. Never has a single generation defined and shaped its environment as the Baby Boomers have. Faced with the reality of accelerating obsolescence, exacerbated by the prospect of prolonged and perilous retirements, Baby Boomers are responding by leveraging their unprecedented incumbency in positions of power to delay generational change. This vicious cycle threatens the pace and direction of innovation in our societies and economies, and presents an urgent challenge to human evolution. How we respond to this challenge will define what type of society we will be in the Digital Age.
“A functioning police state requires no police.”
– William S. Burroughs
Anthropocentrism has become our center of ethical gravity. It is dying a painful and protracted death, but it is most certainly dying. Our cosmos harbours abundant life, and given the statistics, this includes intelligent life. Yet here we are on board Apollo 13, drifting through the void with no mission or destination. We’re exhausting our fuel and provisions, and our atmosphere is a growing threat to our existence. Most of us still have no substantive sense of a present or pending peril, never mind a clear and meaningful sense of purpose.
Our emerging generation of business leaders are hungering for a clear and common sense of purpose, but can we offer them one? If we humans aren’t the purpose of everything, what purpose do we serve? What purpose can we serve?
Most of us would agree that the human experience is worth preserving and worth improving. Can technology be decoded to serve the future of all humanity as opposed to the future of a very select few?