Mar13

SXSW 2014: Technology and Society

sxsw logoIn Part 2 of his SXSW blog series, Robert Egert recaps some of the SXSW themes that are transforming the way the world looks at technology and society.

THE GREAT MERGE
The Idea: Society and technology are now one.

Ubiquitous mobile access combined with digitization of every aspect of our lives means that what happens online is no longer a reflection of our society but it is society itself.

The implication here is that we need to look at the way we govern the Internet no differently than the way we look at governing our nation. You can’t have a free society without having a free Internet.

One example of how this can play out is apparent in the attempts by autocratic regimes to limit access to the Internet by creating firewalled, state-sponsored Internets. Iran, North Korea and Cuba are just a few countries that have major censorship programs in place, but it is also worth noting that many large nations— most notably China—have pervasive censorship mechanisms in place.

Why this is important: As society continues to migrate social behavior (commercial, interpersonal, financial, etc.) to the digital space, unrestricted access will be a political, social, and commercial issue with substantial impacts to business, human rights, education, and social stability.

SURVEILLANCE AND PRIVACY
The Idea: Big data brings with it the threat of totalitarianism.

Everything we do online leaves an indelible record. Our searches, browsing history, comments, Facebook likes, text messages, tweets, and shopping carts are all recorded, stored, and subject to analysis by companies and scrutiny by governments. Taken together, this data can paint a detailed picture of almost every aspect of our lives.

In a live streaming interview from his embassy refuge in London, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange spoke of the inherent dangers this data poses to a free society. He suggests that the extensive collection of personal data by the NSA, for example, provides the government the ability to use personal information to control elected officials and by extension is moving toward the establishment of a total surveillance society.

Why this is important: Systems are currently in place to monitor and record our online behavior in painful detail. These systems can be abused. We may be entering a world without the options of privacy or anonymity. This brings significant threats to democratic values and a free society. For those of us in the healthcare industry, we can expect privacy to continue to be a hot button topic, and initiatives that require collection of personal data will require careful consideration for protection and privacy.

ROBOTICS, DISRUPTIVE TECHNOLOGIES, AND UNEMPLOYMENT
The Idea: Technology and robotics reduce the need for workers.

When WhatsApp was purchased for $19 billion, they only had about 50 employees. Like many new social and tech businesses, WhatsApp relies on the aggregated social activities of its many users to produce value. But unlike traditional employees, users of apps and social networks are not compensated for their efforts.

Similarly, while manufacturing is on the rise in the US, many of the manufacturing operations that used to be performed by humans are now performed faster and more accurately through robotics.

Another example is self-driving cars. Though still predicted about ten years from widespread commercialization, self-driving cars promise the benefits of safety, speed, and fuel economy, but will also put every taxi, truck, and bus driver out of work forever.

Viewed at a macroeconomic scale, technology produces value and wealth but not necessarily jobs.

Why this is important: Without robust employment, the consumer economy will suffer. We may need to seriously think about implementing models of compensation for user-generated content.

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