A Future for Tech

Digital technology has the ability to disrupt and to change the future, but it has to do it by actually challenging the past. Disruption doesn’t happen when one institution is simply replaced by another, which is what we are seeing today. Disruption only occurs by offering a viable and sustainable alternative to the system in place. It requires a rewriting of the current underlying power structures and to do this it needs to put forward a model that’s not built on the exploitation of others rather than creating another middleman or simply rent seeking.

We need a new narrative for digital technology, one that seeks to empower communities and individuals and achieves that by engaging with them, rather than selling crap at scale. At the moment we have reached a point where you can’t distinguish the signal from the noise. Where technology is increasingly used for inhumane purposes rather than empowering and enriching our lives.

If you create something which only increases the display of ads to people, then what good is it? How is this actually helping?

We have to step back and realise that this isn’t about technology – its about people. The decisions we make aren’t just about money or the next big thing to investment in, the next trend or item on the hype cycle.

The whole tech sector needs to realise that technology has real power and influence. The field that we are working in affects people’s lives. Their livelihoods. Their futures and their family’s.

Whatever you take out, whatever data you collect, whatever profit you make – you take from those individuals. So make sure it matters. Make sure it does no harm. Make sure it benefits them. Make sure it enriches them. Make sure it brings a smile to their face. Make sure you recognise them as people.

The Re-Concentration of Power

Given the most recent global events and trends, I’d posit that what is happening today is a great re-concentration of power into the hands of a new aristocracy.

Over the last few decades the neo-liberalism ideology has created the great undoing of the social changes won and shared from the ashes of WWII. A fairer and more equal society began to emerge and as Thomas Piketty’s work suggests we achieved this by the 1970s, but recent decades have seen that re-distribution of wealth and greater equality whittled away. The institutions that stood for the people and those that we owned by the people have been sold off and bought by the rich who have gone on to shape a system that benefits their extraction of wealth across the globe. Wealth has become more and more centralised in the hands of fewer and fewer people and what can only be described as a new aristocracy has emerged. An aristocracy who’s lifestyle is so distant from the everyday – the single parent, the minimum wage earner, the student – that they might as well be living in literal ivory towers amongst us.

Wealth is still subject to entropy as is everything in the universe and soon enough it will seek a way to find equilibrium. Some may steal the wealth others may move it, but it is never stable. It is inevitable that wealth will move, but we can create a circumstance where it happens more quickly. Education provides an opportunity to attack the ideas behind inequality, the methodology to create it and the system that allows it to happen.

I think that digital technology is part of that change too. The ability for digital technology to enhance the emergence of distributed network that enable individuals to connect provides a new medium for change. It’s what enabled the Arab Spring to occur because the technology removed the barriers that traditional institutions and culture has had put in place. It shifted the point of control in a way that changed and undermined the traditional power structures.

At Human Scale

I’ve spoken before about the idea of human scale, and I think that’s where we need to be focussed. Digital technology has really suffered from it’s obsession with massification, but for me the future is about restoring the human scale. It’s about ensuring intimate human relationships and connections can occur, and occur without the need for proximity or being in the same locale or the same school, but that we can connect more wholly online. That we use the power of digital technology to shrink the physical distance but also the distance between the physical and what we now call the “virtual”. That we can do this in a way that ensures it’s accessible and you don’t need vast sums of money for devices and infrastructure.

What I hope is that we create new ways to find the others and that we can connect in deep in meaningful ways online through dialogue and conversation more nuanced and respectful than what’s possible today. That’s the future of technology for me.

We need to take a step back and rediscover ourselves within the tangle mess of wires, lies, hate and bullshit. We need to push back on what we have and reestablish the humane nature of technology. At the moment it is so foreign and used in ways that are truly inhumane, which seems entirely at odds with the aims of technology and quest for progress.

A New Space

I feel I was lucky enough to go through rise of social media and experience many positives along the way. As a white educated male I’ve not had to endure any of the negatives that so many do. When I step away and think that experience can’t be shared by the 50% of the population because they’re female, there’s some something not right here. For people coming into social media in the last three to four years, it must have been a hell of a ride, and I don’t think they would have got any of the same opportunities that I got. When the networks weren’t so full of noise, when they weren’t so full of corporate ambition they really could connect and reconnect people.

I spent a year in Sweden on a student exchange and had lost contact with most of my friends there, but through Facebook was able to reconnect with many of them and watch their lives over the last decade or so. I was able to bridge the tyranny of distance and language and complicated technology to stay in touch. I knew I couldn’t be part of their lives, but there is something to be said about being able to keep track of what’s been happening in our lives without the luxury of proximity because I genuinely care about those friends.

Twitter was initially a way to vent and to put stuff out there. It was very much a tool of self expression. But it quickly developed into a way of connecting to other people. Twitter has became an important network that now spans the globe. It’s been built up virtually over time but opportunities have come along to meet people and connect face-to-face and there’s something magical about meeting someone you’ve known for so long online. Like running into Alan Levine in the main street in Davidson, a stroll through the Stanford grounds with Laura Gogia, a meal with the irrepressible Jim Groom or finally getting to meet Kate Bowles in California rather than somewhere closer to home. Working in this industry with my skill set was initially quite isolating. Where I am in the world tends to be far away from where their action is, let alone where I am in relation to the rest of the world. If Australia is the the arse end of world, then I’m somewhere near the arse end of that. But Twitter reduced that distance down to zero. Twitter allow me to communicate with other like minded people and to find the others as Timothy Leary said. What was refreshing was that there were out there people that thought like I did, or thought differently to me and challenged my ideas and my beliefs.

I feel bad that many people didn’t get to have those kinds of experiences. They didn’t get to see that side of social media, what they got was the shitty commercial bit, the trolling and the hate. They didn’t get to experience those kinds of connections, the kinds that can change your life.

The Unrealised Potential of Online

One of the things that makes me stick with digital technology is how little of it’s potential I think we’ve realised so far. We don’t seem to have got our head around the ability to reduce the infrastructure required to connect, communicate and share and the internets ability to reduce distance down to zero. We have the ability to send digital signals around the globe today at such an astounding speed that it essentially removes the distance. We are all in a way proximal to everyone on the planet. We can speak and listen to each other from around the other side of the world. We can tune in and watch live events as they unfold and we no longer need a traditional broadcast infrastructure. No towers or wires or cameras or relays – just a smart phone and a connection to the internet. The world is no longer out of our reach.

These connections however have led to an abundance of information that we are really struggling to understand. We are struggling at the moment to understand how we adapt to it because this explosion of information has exponentially increased the level of noise. As individuals what we need is more signal. But how do we go about that? The latest trend is with a digital detox – turning off our devices and the social networks. I understand that is one way of dealing with things, it doesn’t seem to deal with the problem. This is not a failure of the individual but a failure of the technology itself. It’s a failure of the massification of technology being driven by a profit. Put simply, more users equal more profit. It has never been the aim of digital technologies to improve our lives, it’s been to sell us more stuff, create new markets, new consumers, new ways of profiteering and fuck the consequences. Social Media is a prime example. Rather than work on ways to connect and enrich peoples lives, the focus of all the platforms has been about how to monetise and make profits. It’s led to the development of the biggest surveillance and intelligence tool ever developed and the dumpster fire we see today filled with hatred, bigotry and propaganda. This is Troll Country.

These platforms have scaled up without any care for their users. They have become places where we dwell and spend enormous amounts of time doing meaningless and trivial tasks. Often not because we choose, but because we are being manipulated. Actively and constantly experimented on, not for our benefit but in order to make more money. The “news” is unmediated and unedited and this total free for all doesn’t actually work. The reality is that as humans we actually require customs and rules, because that’s how you function as a species that is by necessity social. We have evolved not to be solitary, that we cannot exist in a solitary way, so we need each other. We need to work together, so we need some kind of order. We need order to actually communicate to each other – without them we just talk past each other or simply yell and scream. Sound familiar? As a species we actually need to have dialogue and to do so we need conventions, and that’s what is missing from digital technology.

In many ways this seems odd because conventions are just procedures, and the thing we build our digital technologies with is code, which is procedural. What are the the conventions and the procedures that would allow us to communicate and filter out the signal from the noise? This isn’t a people problem, I think there is a technical solution, but we don’t need another platform or application, we need another business model too. The investment driven business models utilised by the big tech companies have bought us to this point. Profit is now the driving force of success. They’ve written code and applications that simply aim to increase profit with very little thought of their effect on individuals and society.

When Twitter and Facebook claimed an active role in the Arab Spring, in effect a revolution that they helped facilitate, it must have caused huge ripples in espionage and intelligence circles. If social media can help a band of unorganised, unfunded and oppressed people facilitate a revolution, just imagine what an organised, state supported and well funded agency could achieve! The tech world seems to have been oblivious and naive to what has been going on within their midst and on their platforms. While they’ve sort to automate more and more of their operations in order to increase profits, forces have been hard at work gaming and manipulating the algorithms for their own ends. As the tech world has sort to dehumanise their operations state organisations have been using these platforms to interact directly (and indirectly) with those humans. Rather than platforms for collective improvement they’ve become tools of propaganda, surveillance and foreign influence. By removing the human elements and actively ignoring the conventions that allow us to socialise and have dialogue, the system has been corrupted. And dare I say, irreparably.

I think what is needed is for technology to comes back to information theory itself, that idea of being able to divine the signal from the noise. We need our tools to be capable of communicating effectively the message. At the moment we don’t have that and Trump is a great example of just how broken things are. There is inability for the signal to actually penetrate the noise at the moment. Social Media has become a set of Noise Systems and there is a dire need of tools that create spaces for real dialogue and conversation. Necessity is the mother of invention, and there is no time where there is a greater need for more civic and civil technologies.

Not the Next Uber

If I read another “Its like Uber for ….” headline I will scream. For one, it’s usually not and two, Uber is the worst model you can possibly imagine to replicate. Their whole business is improved user experience through absolute and desperate exploitation of their workforce. And that’s while they have a workforce – because the long term plan is to remove them as they are an unwanted cost burden. That’s right – the workers who do the actual driving bit, the actual service you use – they’re the burden. Wouldn’t it be better to get rid of the middle man that gouges out a cut from every fare? But I digress.

Netflix is to me the champion of user centred design and something that more businesses should be seeking to emulate. Netflix demonstrates clearly the power of the Aggregation model (suggested above) in the digital age. By utilising the power of the internet to eliminate distance and the need for seperate infrastructure Netflix with it’s subscription business model points to a way where there is viability in an ad free environment. Netflix was also able to do what most companies that sold analogue products were never able to do and migrate their business into a digital age. In many ways it’s a clear demonstration of the path that broadcast television should have followed, but it was too entrenched in it’s ad driven income to gracefully make the transition. This ties into my point – that there’s real potential for disruption, but its in the changing those underlying models not what you can do within the current one.

Netflix’s ad free subscription and aggregation based model shows a viable way of operating that could be transitioned into other areas like education. Even the user behaviour and features that Netflix encourages – the binge watching, user informed recommendations, long tail content, always available collections – are all features that could be adapted to education or a future model for it. They reflect the contemporary reality where carving out time into our schedules is difficult and our schedules are often fluid, insecure and need to adapt to changes in work and life. The “take a vacation from life” model of residential higher education seems at odds with this reality. Sure it has appeal for certain groups of students, but it leaves many under served. And how does that work exactly for “lifelong learning”? Do I need to schedule in study sabbaticals or leave? How can anyone actually afford that in this day and age?

The Business of Ed-Tech

For anyone starting off in the world Ed-Tech one of the biggest pieces of advice I can offer you is to learn how the company makes its money. Don’t focus on the technology itself or the feature list that comes with it, find out how it makes money as the first port of call.

The reason for this is that is simple – it allows you to understand what it is you’re going to be paying for and what kind of culture you’re buying into. There are a bunch of different ways to make money from technology – you sell a product, a service, access to a community, infrastructure, support or, as is often the case with “free” technology, sell user data and information to another business (or government, spy agency, advertising agency). Understanding the business model is key to understanding how those companies operate, what they prioritise and care about.

In many cases companies will go out of their way to confuse and obscure how it is they actually make money. They’ll hide behind a feature list and a carefully worded press release but these are just opaque windows that hide the inner workings. If you’re going to work in this field part of your job is to dig in, to investigate and ask the right questions in order to find out that information.

If you want to understand ed-tech, really understand it – follow the money.

Changing Business Models

Another challenge for those in the Ed-Tech world is that the business models are changing. For a long time Ed-Tech meant software, a simple product that you bought off the shelf, installed and ran. That’s no longer the case with most offerings. Now there are a plethora of models available – most centre on a subscription model that locks you in to making a yearly payment rather than the one off purchase of yesteryear. On face value it’s great, and the marketing material will certainly tell you now you can have a solution customised to your exact needs. It’s more agile so that features and improvements can roll out much faster.

These selling points also have a number downsides.

  1. Vendor Lock In – Once your a paid up subscriber your more than likely a captive to that vendor. The cost of changing or moving systems goes up considerably, to the point where making that change hardly seems worth the effort.
  2. Top Tier Services – While the documentation clearly shows the various tiers of service, the reality is that most people will end up on the top tier. Why? Because these businesses know that by locking away core services behind the top tier it will force users into paying more. The reality is the lower tiers aren’t for the business, they’re for you to make the justification to your boss that “it’s only X dollars more than the next level down”.
  3. Changing Goal Posts – That new agile model sounds great, until the company decides it wants to pivot, update its terms and conditions, security process or core code because then your stuck. Stuck with a depreciated product that you’ll be forced off in the future you’ll be faced with two options – move or suck it up. (See above for likely outcome)
  4. Faster Bugs– Another “great” thing about this new agile model is that bugs are introduced with a greater frequency and more devastating effect than ever before. No one is safe either, software that works to day can be rendered unusable the next day by an overnight “patch”.

Then there’s the “freemium” model. Up front users actually pay nothing, or very little, for the full product. The catch? Your data is hoovered up and sold as an asset of the company. That’s right all your data, and that of every single student, is assimilated in a Borg like fashion and is then monetised. Sure, there may be privacy provisions in place but the reality is that everything that goes in becomes a resource for the company to exploit – from data mining, research data for 3rd parties, sales database or just plain old surveillance – you are no longer in control. Free sounds like a great thing, but the costs are just hidden by the future – you just can’t see the consequences.

The other model I want to make mention of is the Candy Bar model. Just like the cinema the profit isn’t in the obvious ticket sales, the money is made in at the Candy Bar. Those massively inflated prices for popped grains and sugar water are where the real money is, but they’re hidden in the experience of the cinema. Any why to we pay $15 for popped grains and sugar water? Why don’t we question it? Part of it is that we are a captive audience, drawn there by what on face value seems like an exclusive experience. Big screen, lots of speakers, big names – we seem to forget that the same thing will be out in 3 months to watch at home. The Candy Bar is a model where the “associated costs” are actually the viable part, the rest is just hype and manipulation.

Welcome to 2017

I’m starting this year off with a rant, or more truthfully a series of rants. I’m back at work after a month of leave that was both necessary and welcome. It’s given me a chance to re-centre myself and begin the process of putting my life back together. It’s been more than a year of upheaval and stress, a period of time that’s taken its toll on both my mental and physical wellbeing. It’s something that I’ve begun to remedy over the break. Sun, surf, family and plenty of good food and exercise have already started the healing process and I’m now about ready to face up to 2017.

This series of post is the equivalent of me clearing my throat, getting a few things off my chest in order to start the year afresh. To clear the air and my head to face what will be an incredibly challenging year (but one I’m looking forward to). They are connected but I decided to publish them separately – they are mostly stand alone seperate commentary so it makes them easier to read and share.

Hello 2017!

I’m not sure if there’s an “order” to these posts – I’ve listed them as they poured out. Feel free to offer any suggestions.

New Possibilities

While it’s a bit of a cliche, I do believe we are living in different times. It’s hard to dispute that there have been radical shifts in technology and geopolitics in the last decade which call into question many long held institutions and traditions.

The stability and centrality that education used to have in our society and political landscape no longer exists. Education is under threat from diminishing funding and money being syphoned off by for-profit institutions who are driven by a dollar value, not a civic service. The education sector is ripe for change, and dare I say it – disruption. What I’d like to point out is that it’s not the nice easy disruption we’re so used to reading about – you know plugging an app into a vaguely defined problem and spouting how it will change lives with little to know evidence and the falling over in just over 20 months. No, I’m talking about the hard stuff – rethinking the actual underlying models of education. It needs to adapt to a changed environment or it will die out. Education needs to re-establish itself, define its core values and find new ways to deliver them.

There are a variety of ways this could be done – but one area I am particularly interested in is Time. At the moment education, and higher education in particular, is built on a transaction based on a set unit of time. Degrees at every institution around the world are based on this model – explicitly or masked by more “appropriate” terminology. Learning is structured around time and broken into units to make studying and teaching more manageable. But when you throw a concept like Lifelong Learning into this model how does it work? Well for starters it’s completely unsustainable, the cost to get just one degree can take a lifetime to pay off. How can that work if the time unit went from 3 to 30 years? 4 to 40? So what if we rethought those units of time? What if we adjusted the measurements and assessment of learning beyond a single transaction or unit? What if we looked at learning over the longer term and structured learning around that? What if we moved away from the transactional method and focussed on building, developing and maintaining relationships instead? There’s also the notion of timeliness – how accessible is the course at the times when I want to study? When it comes to degrees – they’re not. You study at the times that are determined by the institution. Now there is already work being done in these areas – but it’s still at the fringes and nowhere near the mainstream. There’s huge potential in this space and more broadly when you consider that the underlying technologies, assessment practices and support systems would all need to change and adapt too. (If someone wants to pay me to do the research around this, outline and build a prototype – get in touch!)

One other area of possibility is in Aggregation and Cooperation. There are potential money savings and efficiencies on offer in online education, they just haven’t been explored yet. The focus of online learning so far has been on automation – of removing the teacher and social interactions to focus on content delivery and coded responses. All this fluff about Personalised & Adaptive Learning is just trying to replicate the role of the teacher by removing the teacher, and all without evidence that this is actually a good thing. It seems built on this premise that we actually want robots and not humans to inform our Learning. Where there is real efficiency is to move to a model that decreases the amount of replication across institutions. Unfortunately the corporatisation of public services has forced universities into a faux state of competition – when what is actually required is greater cooperation. If there was one way to guarantee significant and ongoing cost savings it would be to allow, demand and support educational institutions to provide aggregated offerings, to share and reuse resources – not just content, but teachers, support staff and resources. The elitism that has surrounded higher education will surely rear it’s head, but I think that’s one structure that is worth disrupting. Universities have to stop being nostalgic for ideal like Collegiality and Scholarship and started creating new ways to embed them. When you think about it, publishers have capitalised on the divisions in higher education to make a huge profit by in essence doing just this. I think to reclaim that money and invest it where it’s needed – in supporting students and not burdening them with the cost and debt.

The disruption required in a education won’t be found in an app, a technology or shifting control from one institution to another (sorry MOOCs). It will come from rediscovering our purpose and redeveloping the models to suit this new age.

Masters of The Entitled

Politics is the only place where the Age of Entitlement is alive and well, not with Millennials or whatever new word we’ve invented for the younger generation. Over the past month more and more examples of deep structural problems have shown the growing disengagement of the political class from democratic and civic ethics, policy, practice and behaviour. I thought this may have been a uniquely Australian phenomenon, but events in the UK and the rolling side show of the Trump presidency suggests it much more widespread.

Rather than acting with the dignity that should befit anyone elected into office, politicians seem to have more in common with spoilt and petulant toddlers, unwilling and unable to excercise restraint, responsibility or foresight. Trump and his teams vindictive and hateful policies will be implemented because we are operating in a political environment devoid of accountability and responsibility. The latest “entitlement” scandals and rorting of the travel system clearly demonstrate that for the Age of Entitlement is alive and well in Canberra, but Trump clear demonstrates that democracy itself is what’s at stake.

I’ve been secretly bemoaning the phenonomenon of Twitter threads of late – just put the damn thing in a blog post! – but I also see how powerful they are at promoting out a message. I decided to construct the Tweet Storm below, but I’m tossing up actually posting it on Twitter. Maybe if there’s another scandal this week – in the meantime, feel free to post yourself at your leisure!

Entitlement = over privileged, underqualified & underperforming politicians who seem to think responsibility doesn’t apply to them.

Entitled to claim exorbitant travel and expenses from the people’s purse while at the same time slashing the budgets of the public service.

Entitled to pursue social & party business at our expense. When was attending sporting event ever required for representative government?

Entitled to use the media a a megaphone for their hateful, divisive and corrosive ideology and policy.

Entitled to appeal to our egalitarianism while implementing financial policy that’s increasing inequality and creating new class divisions.

Entitled to deceive the public that they operate for the public good, when it’s obvious they operate purely for the corporate class.

Entitled to use ideas like the “public good” & then ignore great swathes of the public. When did they engaged with any indigenous issues?

Entitled to ignore their duty to their constituents and represent the people, not a Party, personal belief or paycheck.