Archive for the ‘Arrogance of the Present’ Category

Hockey Night in Banbury – How global, granular choice changes everything

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

Those of you that know me will, at some point in the past, have been bored witless by me regaling stories that are essentially thinly veiled excuses for me to brag about the fact that a long time ago, I managed to wangle living in Canada for a few years.  One of the cultural highlights of my time out there was ice hockey, a sport I’ve always been intrigued by and one that is obviously pretty much right at the heart of Canadian culture much in the same way as football and rugby is here.

When you’re in Canada, there really is no escape from hockey, it’s on in every bar, played in every back yard and driveway and is a celebrated part of the national psyche.  However, outside of Canada, (a few US states and several Nordic countries) it barely exists.  If you’re lucky, you might catch a brief write up in a UK newspaper, watch a grainy highlight clip on the web or if you’re really sad, read Canadian newspapers on your favourite tablet device just to keep your hand in.  I developed a love of the sport that has long lay unrequited thanks to the dearth of coverage that exists outside of Canada, but in the last few days, everything has changed.

Last Friday, Microsoft launched NHL GameCentre on the Xbox (access is also available on other platforms and for other sports), a hub for all of the NHL activity, a single destination for every team and every game.  I’m not here to talk to you about the technology of this implementation (although it’s very impressive) but what I want you to think about is the mechanics and the principle at work.

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For an annual subscription of just $50 US dollars, I can enjoy HD broadcasts both live (albeit at stupid o’clock in the morning) and replays at a much more sensible time, so I can host my own “Hockey Night in Banbury”.  Take a step back and just think about what’s happened here.  I haven’t signed up to a local broadcast provider, I’m not selecting a package of channels, I’m picking a single, specific sport, from another continent and I’m having it curated and delivered in HD to my living room in the North Oxfordshire wilderness.

This is not just the future of entertainment, but it is also the future of pretty much every service we’ll consume and what’s crucial to understand is not just the shrinking of the globe, but also the increasingly granular nature of the choice I have.  Keeping with the entertainment theme, in the future, I’ll be able to pay for access to specific channels from _anywhere in the world_, or even just make micro payments just for the shows I want to see.  Imagine if your license fee (or cable/satellite subscription) was just an account balance that you agree to pay, but you then have the choice to use it as a pay as you go basis.  You only pay for the programmes you watch.  I’m not saying this is exactly the answer, but why shouldn’t I have this level of choice?  Even as a consumer of free TV, I still end up with a bunch of channels I’ll never watch.  It’s also pretty incredible for the content providers too.  Think about what’s just happened to the NHL, they’ve opened up their market from North America and a few Nordic countries, to the world.  That’s not a bad approach to scale.

Increasingly, this level of global and granular choice is going to come to us across all aspects of our lives, on a local, national and global level.  We’re seeing it begin to happen in education with institutions offering access to their courses regardless of the student’s location, citizens are increasingly comparing the services they receive from local governments – what happens when I can choose which local authority provides which services I consume?  For those that are less reliant on location it could make a lot of sense (both financial and common).  Equally, what does it mean for employers and employees?  For some jobs, it means I should be able to live in another country and still do the work I need to do – I know that feels like a bit of a stretch today, but I’m telling you now it’s already starting to happen – “snowbirds” have been living between Florida and Canada for years and now, we’re beginning to see “inter-annual migration” where, unlike my 5 year stay as an ex-pat in Canada, it’s just for a few months of the year, every year.  Just yesterday I was talking to someone who has decided to live throughout the year in whichever place is the most appropriate for the work he is doing at that point in time.  So just as I, on a micro level, choose to work in the library to complete a report or work in the office so I can meet colleagues, he, at a macro level chooses to live in London for the summer and LA for the Winter – understand this is a fluid arrangement, it’s not about a permanent migration.

We will continue to see more and more of this happen, everyone really needs to understand how it can work for everyone’s advantage.  But locked up in all of this is a really interesting paradox where location is becoming less relevant in one sense, and in another it’s becoming crucial.    Getting the balance right for this is going to challenge brands, advertisers and service providers (not to mention governments) for some time to come.

As for me, the wings are ready for the BBQ, the beers are in the fridge, its game on tonight!

Voice Recognition: NUI’s Unsung Hero

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

I recently got asked to provide an opinion on “voice recognition”, in particular around our philosophy towards it and how we’ve implemented it across the stack.  If you can stomach it, you can see how it turned out (let’s put it this way, it opens with a comparison to the Hoff’s “Knight Rider”) and it kind of goes downhill from there but regardless, in doing the research, I learnt some really interesting things along the way that I thought I’d share here.

soundwave2First off, let’s start by asking how many of you know how speech recognition works these days?  Well I thought I did, but it turns out I didn’t.  Unlike the early approach, where you used to have to “train” the computer to understand you by spending hours and hours reading to your computer (which always kind of defeated the object to me), today, speech recognition works pretty much the same way they teach kids to speak/read, using phonemes, digraphs and trigraphs. The computer simply tries to recognise the shapes and patterns of the words being spoken, then using some clever logic and obviously an algorithm or two, performs some contextual analysis (makes a guess) on what is the most probable sentence or command you might be saying.

In the early days of speech recognition, the heavy lifting required was all about the listening and conversion from analogue to digital, today it’s in the algorithmic analysis on what it is most likely that you are saying.  This subtle shift has opened up probably the most significant advance in voice recognition in the last twenty years, the concept of voice recognition as a “cloud” service.

A year or so ago, I opened a CIO event for Steve Ballmer, given I was on stage first, I got a front row seat at the event and watched Ballmer up close and personal as he proceeded to tell me, and the amassed CIO’s from our 200 largest customers, that the Kinect was in fact a “cloud device”.  At the time I remember thinking, “bloody hell Steve, even for you that’s a bit of a stretch isn’t it?”.  I filed it away under “Things CEO’s say when there’s no real news” and forgot about it, until now that is when I finally realised what he meant.

Basically, because with a connected device (like Kinect), the analysis of your movements and the processing for voice recognition can now also be done in the cloud. We now have the option (with the consumer’s appropriate permission) to use those events to provide a service that continuously learns and improves.  This ultimately means that the voice recognition service you use today is actually different (and minutely inferior) to the same service that you’ll use tomorrow.   This is incredibly powerful and also shows you that the “final mile” of getting voice recognition right lies more now with the algorithm that figures out what you’re mostly likely to be saying than it does with the actual recognition of the sounds.  MSR have a number of projects underway around this (my current favourite being the MSR’s Sentence Completion Challenge), not to mention our own development around how this might apply within search.

Those of you that have been following these ramblings in the past will know I’m slightly sceptical of voice recognition, thinking that it is technology’s consistent wayward child, full of potential, yet unruly, unpredictable and relentlessly under-achieved.  I’m not saying my view has changed overnight on this, but am certainly more inclined to think it will happen, based on this single, crucial point.

Kinect too provides its own clue that we’re a lot closer than we previously thought to making voice recognition a reality, not just in the fact that it uses voice recognition as a primary mode of (natural) interaction but more in how it tries to deal with the other end of the voice recognition problem – just how do you hear _anything_ when you are sat on top of the loudest source of noise in the room (the TV) when someone 10 feet away is trying to talk to you in the middle of a movie (or the final level on Sonic Generations, sat next to a screaming 6 year old who’s entire opinion of your success as a father rests on your ability to defeat the final “boss” ).  If you have a few minutes and are interested, this is a wonderful article that talks specifically about that challenge and how we employ the use of an array of 4 microphones to try and solve the problem.  There’s still more work to be done here, but it’s a great start in what is actually an incredibly complex problem  – think about it, if I can’t even hear my wife in the middle of a game of Halo or an episode of Star Trek (original series of course) how the hell is Kinect going to hear? (Oh, I’ve just been informed by her that apparently that particular issue is actually not a technical problem… #awkward).

So these two subtle technological differences in our approach are going to make all the difference in voice recognition becoming a reality as part of a much more natural way of interacting with technology.  Once that happens, we move into the really interesting part of the problem – our expectations of what we can do with it.

expectOur kids are a great way of understanding just how much of Pandora’s box getting into voice recognition (and other more natural forms of interaction) will be and I suspect that ultimately, our greatest challenge will be living up to the expectation of what is possible across all the forms of technical interaction we have, NUI parity across devices if you like.  My son’s expectation (quite reasonably) is that if he can talk to his xBox, then he should be able to talk to any other device and furthermore, if he can ask it to play movies and navigate to games why can’t it do other things?  I was sitting doing my research with him the night before my interview on all of this, and we were playing together at getting the voice recognition to work.  He asked the xBox play his movie, he told Sonic which level to play on Kinect FreeRiders then he paused, looked at me and then back at the TV, cracked a cheeky smile and said, “Xbox, do my homework…”.

Parliament and Internet – Visions for the Internet and Social

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

This morning, I had the enviable honour of joining Facebook, Google, and RIM on a panel discussion in front of the 6th annual Parliament and Internet conference (I had my poshest frock on and everything).

Although the guys on security stopped me from bringing my soapbox into Portcullis House with me, I did get an opportunity to talk about rural broadband, the humanisation of the web, and the arrogance of the present, I also managed to squeeze a tenuous Spiderman joke in and overall I had a lot of fun. Here’s my speech in full:

“I’d like to start by trying to confuse you with a contradiction – the technology revolution is both over and just beginning. It’s over because we’ve spent a long time getting used to technology being around and becoming part of our everyday lives and it’s just beginning because, only now that technology is so engrained in how we live, are the real opportunities being presented.

Slide25We know from our own studies and anecdotal research that in general, most people go home to better technology (faster, more recent) than they are provided with at work. People generally enjoy a rich technological experience in their personal lives, shopping on-line, enjoying entertainment, playing games and communicating with friends, but unfortunately this experience is not always mirrored in the workplace with the constraints imposed by corporate budgets, security concerns and in some cases, over-zealous IT management. To call this a missed opportunity is like saying Facebook is marginally successful.

Please understand that all of this does not discount the challenge we continue to face in this country around closing the digital divide, but it is an acknowledgement that the gap is closing thanks in no small part to the continued efforts of champions like Martha Lane Fox and her team with Race Online 2012.

Slide28That being said, we know people use technology effectively for many aspects of their lives and those of you with children will see just how pervasive technology has become. From my own experience, I watch my son with great interest as he just adapts and integrates technology and the internet into his world. For him, technology (the web, the Xbox, the mobile phone) are no different to him than the TV, books or traditional toys and he integrates all of them into his everyday life with equal enthusiasm and interest. But I want to stop short with that example, because I fear it runs the risk of reinforcing one of the great myths that actually I would rather dispel than support and that is that these technologies are perceived to only be accessible or useful to younger generations and those of us who find ourselves, well, let’s just say, on the wrong side of youth are left behind or left out. But, time and time again our research shows this to be a stupid assumption to make. Stupid because the statistics show the biggest growth of the use of new tools like social networking are actually in older generations and stupid again because we know in our own anecdotal experiences these technologies have made a big difference on how we live our lives every day. My favourite example can actually be found once a week on a Thursday evening during Question Time. If you were to open up Twitter and follow the Question Time hashtag you will witness a quiet revolution of normal everyday people getting engaged in democratic discussion about how our country is run and the current affairs that affect us all. Thanks to the wonders of the internet and social networks, that experience has been transformed from a one-way “transmission” (or as it was in my house, just me shouting at the telly) to a totally collaborative experience that engages the audience and the panel in a way only dreamed of previously.

The rise of social networking and it’s fundamental importance to the future of how a modern society can benefit from technology is a topic that is not yet well understood. We probably have ourselves to blame, but let me tell you now that social networking is not about providing an endless commentary of trivial anecdotes about my life as an individual, you know the ones I mean “just had the world’s best latte! LOL” or “overslept again, don’t tell the boss” but in many ways actually represents as big a revolution to our use of the internet as the web did when it first became mainstream. This may be a revelation to many of you, but the real value of social networking lies not just in the communications themselves, but also in the connections that are made in order for the communications to flow. With social networking, we are finally able to move from a network of machines, a cold, logical place governed by the ones and zeros of binary code to a network of people, where human intent and instinct combines with the power that the digital world has to offer.

Slide-32Social networking offers us the potential to “humanise the web”, augmenting the power that the internet’s connection and collaboration provides with a human signal that provides citizens, organisations and governments with the ability to connect and effect change on a scale never before imaginable. This year the world has witnessed incredible scenes, some good, some bad of how citizens have grabbed the power that social networks have to offer in order to effect massive change in the way in which they are governed. This year we have seen how citizens can use Facebook to organise a revolution, Twitter to orchestrate it on the day and YouTube to tell the world. Detractors may point to the ugly scenes in London and across the UK from back in the summer but the truth is that social media played as big a part in the clean up as it did on the temporary disruption in our nation’s morality.

It is said, that “on the internet, no-one knows you’re a dog” – well the truth is, today on the internet, no-one knows you’re in Dolgellau – the internet is a geographic leveller, it offers incredible opportunities that transcend geographical location, enabling global companies to be borne out of local, rural locations, where the only real constraints are those of the entrepreneurs imagination and, oh yes, available bandwidth. This is both our opportunity and our curse, we have in our midst incredible rural communities rich in talent, expertise and experience, who throughout the UK, have long been the industrial heartbeat of our nation but increasingly are struggling to remain competitive or even operative in the midst of a global marketplace in recession. If we are able to correctly crack the problem of providing sufficient connectivity to these locations, there is almost nothing to stop the next global success stories coming from places like North Wales, Cumbria or deepest, darkest Dorset.

In the future I am convinced our descendants will look at our work practices with pity, failing to comprehend why we all felt compelled to travel long distances just so we could be in the same place, at the same time as our colleagues. In these days of predominantly service and knowledge industries this feels somewhat out of sync with the capabilities of technology. What if we used these technologies more and changed our work practices creating local hubs across communities throughout the country? Not only would this have a massive economic impact in terms of reclaiming lost time, it also would have significant positive upside on both the environment and more importantly the local economies of these areas enabling small and medium businesses to flourish in support of the local workforce.

Throughout the history of our civilisation it is has often been remarked that we have sufficient technology to achieve our goals and this is actually one of the most dangerous views we face. If we had heeded that advice would we have harnessed fire, the industrial revolution, electricity, the car? Possibly not. History provides us with great examples of where this “arrogance of the present” clouds our judgement “the world will only ever need 3 or 4 computers” or even our own Bill Gates claiming “no-one will need more than 640Kb of RAM” but the truth is, it is incredibly difficult to judge the future value of any given innovation when it can only be judged by a current mindset, the current norm so to speak.

The internet and social networks offer a modern society opportunities and advances far beyond the reach of simple social connections and communication, used properly, they truly offer the potential for the combination of man and machine to become greater than the sum of their parts.

But, this development will require some effective stewardship and will present our society with complex issues that we must all face and work our way through and with that, in closing, I am reminded of that famous quote from the cultural classic that is “Spiderman, the movie” – “with great power comes great responsibility” – the internet, social networks and other associated technologies offer our society incredible opportunity and advantages and both we as technology providers and you as policy makers and legislators have a duty of care to ensure that we can live up to the opportunity – the question really is – are we up to that challenge?

Local is the new Global

Monday, June 13th, 2011

“Think Global, Act Local” or so the cliché goes. Thing is, this is about to become more possible and more accurate than ever before.  What this means for us as individuals in a modern society is a classic case for "arrogance of the present", _we just don’t know_, because most of us find it hard to imagine a world of such hyper-connectivity where the world takes on a very different viewpoint where most things become available within local reach but offering global supply.

For most of us, things like Foursquare and Gowalla are amusing distractions used primarily by the authorities to help identify and track the location and movement of geeks, but in fact they (and the infrastructural elements they rely on) will ultimately become the very fabric of how we access, consume and pay for services in the very near future.

batcaveI’m OK with the fact that most people think the above is a bit of a stretch, however, I’m actually more worried about the fact that because we can’t really imagine how all this stuff will come together, I don’t think we’ve properly figured out the true potential of what a powerful, connected, _local_ view on our world means yet and as such, I think we risk being derailed (at worst) or delayed (at best) in our ability to deliver an incredibly transformative change to the way in which technology enhances our lives.

Assuming we buy the current trajectory of smartphone sales  (n.b. when do we stop calling them smart? When everybody is smart, is _anybody_ smart anymore?).  We know that pretty soon, there will be more smartphones than dumb ones and new sales of slates and phones will outstrip PC’s – the mobile device revolution is finally here El Presidente, so let’s move on and think about the really important stuff before Apple ships another iPhone and everyone gets distracted again.

There are three key areas we need to figure out and triangulate if we are to achieve the vision, these are:

  1. Location (where am I?, where are you? and what else is near?)
  2. Geographic Meta data (POI at a macro and micro level)
  3. Connectivity (people, networks and devices)

I’m not going to get everything on the table on all 3 of these in one post alone, so for now, let’s just start with a broad definition, ready for deeper exploration in the future.

Location
There are three dimensions of location that we need to supply:  Where am I? Where is the "target"? What else is nearby? And of these three it is the first that should concern us most.  We currently rely on a brilliant but outdated and vulnerable service to locate ourselves which is also extremely flawed in its ability to provide accurate and timely location information to us in our localised existence or rather, should I more simply say, indoors or in the city…

Controversy aside, we desperately need _a range_ of mechanisms to identify our location and to be able to do so in a way that is fast, battery friendly and works indoors.  Funnily enough, it actually doesn’t need to be that precise, it just needs to be within 5m, we can figure out the rest for ourselves.  Good news is, (if you read behind the headlines) we are well on the way to solving this, externally at least, we need a much better (standard?) approach for how this might be achieved cost effectively indoors.

Geographic Meta-data
We need to think about location meta data (points of information etc) at both a macro and micro level.  At a micro level this is about a taxonomy of stores, services, opening times and other ancillaries like street furniture (e.g. post boxes, gritting bins etc) , at a micro level this needs to be really extended down to a very near field level providing a much more granular view of the environment around you.  This level of detail is crucial, for example, it’s no longer enough to know that the train station has disabled access facilities, you need to know which _exact_ door is the one that has zero lip for disabled access, or which end of the train should you stand to be nearest to the exit for your particular stop etc.

North America seems to do quite well at a macro level whereas in the UK we don’t with retailers and service providers (public and private) being rather slow (myopically so) in signing up and advertising in the established platforms.  We all suck however at the micro level, and it is this information we really need to figure out how to easily acquire and on-board.

Connectivity
This is about remembering we live in an "occasionally disconnected" world.  We may have pervasive mobile broadband but this doesn’t mean that it’s always available.  As application designers however, we seem to have forgotten that.  Most mobile apps these days will only function if a connection is present – this is a bad approach.  I live in the most populous country in Europe and work in the most populous city in the world yet I still experience several occasions _every day_ when I am without signal.  This probably adds up to about 2-3 hours _a day_ when I can’t use my smart device because the app designer has not thought about local caching (and before you start dusting off that fanboy attitude you’ve been saving, I’m packing multiple devices and they’re all the same).  This is not going to change anytime soon because we lack the funds and science (we’re dealing with the laws of physics here too ya know) so we need to get over it. Design apps and mobile platforms for the "occasionally disconnected" world and we’ll be fine.  (BTW – the historians among you will remember, this is what we used to do before we got fat, dumb and lazy with the promise of mobile broadband. When patchy mobile data was the best that was available, you were grateful for it and respectful of its use, 4G connection you say?, all we had was the thin end of a damp bit of string – Luxury…).

Connectivity is also about connecting individuals (When you’re walking down the street and pass a café that your best mate is sitting in, you want to know right? Or do you?)  and it’s also about connecting devices, the whole peer to peer network thing, but played out on mobile. (Man if I was smart I’d be buying shares in Groove and Ray Ozzie now, no wait, been there, missed out on that.)  Both of these we’ll cover in detail some other time.

So you will have figured out by now, there are no answers this week, just big questions.  Great for me as it gives me more room for what I think is the most important of the 127 "big bets" we’re undoubtedly going to have for months ahead and great for you because maybe, you’re sitting out there with some of the answer, come on now, don’t be shy.

Inside Google’s Big Tent

Friday, May 20th, 2011

I spent a day this week inside Google’s “Big Tent” – essentially a high profile event on privacy, hosted by Google, Privacy International and Index on Censorship, with an audience of the very cream of the British digital elite (and me).

I learnt a lot of things of which I’ll share the detail in the moment, but first I thought you should know the headlines:

  1. Eric Schmidt likes Chrome – he says it’s safe and fast.
  2. The Right Honourable Jeremy Hunt, UK Minister for Culture, Media and Sport (and responsible for this country’s legislation around internet use) says the government’s priorities for the internet are speed and mobile.
  3. In other news, the Pope  _is_ catholic and bears _do_ defecate in the woods.

DonkeyI mean seriously, is that the best we can do when it comes to pushing the boundaries of thought leadership around privacy in the digital society?  Thankfully, the audience was mostly cynical hacks and privacy activists – you can imagine how well those points were received.  

Anyhow, with that out of the way, there was in fact an incredible discussion throughout the day on a wide range of local and global topics around privacy and free speech, what follows below are the (admittedly blinkered) takeaways from the discussion that I want to explore further.

  1. It is clear that the law cannot keep pace with changes in technology. If I had a buck for every time someone on a panel said “technology has made an ass of the law” I would have precisely $16.73c.  Although this point was universally agreed, there seemed to be no clear way forward to address this.  Simon Davies from Privacy International had a particularly pragmatic solution – do nothing – effectively let it happen and let them learn. (The context for that point was the discussion around super-injunctions and Twitter in the UK).
  2. Organisation vs the individual. The focus remains to be on what can the “organisation” do to make an individual’s privacy better. Despite pushing from the audience (advocates from Mydex et al in particular) there was little interest in a discussion around what it would mean to put the individual in full control of their information.
  3. Collation vs Publication. There was still a desire to focus on the search engine’s role in collating the content (i.e. the index) vs the actual publisher of the content. I’m wondering why this point is so hard for people outside the industry to grasp.  (see 4 below).
  4. Search is not the internet. Google’s Drummond put this well, “It’s a search engine, not the internet” but the conversation never followed suit. We should have been pushing Jeremy Hunt on the legal changes and leadership required from government i.e. you tell us which is the content we should remove and we’ll do it, the best example being religious extremist content – you want us to remove it, but you won’t tell us what is and what isn’t? Go fish. (My words).
  5. The “Right to be Forgotten” is a jingoistic phrase that not many understand.  Common (mis)perception means that this should allow me to have control about anything about me on the internet.  They forget of course that this conflicts with free speech.  Where we need to move on this discussion is an understanding that individuals should have the right to remove data _they_ have posted about themselves, but not data that _others_ have posted about them.
  6. Privacy Boundaries.  We established at least three clear boundaries around privacy that need to be explored further: Privacy vs Innovation (consensus was that privacy has _never_ impeded innovation), Privacy vs Free Speech (what’s private to you, may be free speech to me – who decides?), and Privacy vs Public Interest (are super-injunctions an expensive waste of time in a digital age).

Like Max Boyce, always said, “I know ‘cause I was there” – but what did _you_ think?

Teens that Tweet – I can haz privacy

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

As we speak more and more about how social networks and associated media affect the lives of our children and younger generations in general, we often make the assumption that younger people care less about their privacy than older generations. What I think is interesting about this is the presumption that their different view on personal privacy is _worse_ than the standard established by ourselves. (Arrogance of the present anyone?)

tweetersNow I don’t doubt that we have to do much more to help people (young and old) to better understand the consequences of public communication – this is usually the point where someone will bring up the inevitable friendly warning about prospective employers screening candidates via their Facebook escapades, but that notwithstanding, it’s important to dig a little deeper around this issue as the reality is much more interesting.

This article from Danah Boyd and Alice Marwick, starts to show that the reality of how younger people think about and deal with their individual privacy is more about having your cake _and_ eating it.

My theory is that younger generations are much more binary about elements of their personal lives that they share versus keep private or within a very close circle of friends.

They may have a broader list of personal data “elements” they are willing to share with the world, but they maintain fierce control over a smaller subset of their personal identity that they will only share with their inner circle of their closest friends.

The truth is, younger people are very adept about managing what stays inside the private circle and what gets broadcast outside, often using complicated obfuscation techniques, encrypting private messages in public conversations using language that no parent could ever penetrate.

The other thing to remember is that there’s really nothing new about the view that younger generations have a looser definition of what they are willing to broadcast to the world. Since the beginning of time, young people have been more public about their personal likes and dislikes as a means of establishing their identity in their society. As we become more confident in our identities we lose the desire to be so promiscuous with the elements of our identity and settle into the shoes we were destined to wear.

For my own example, having reached a certain age, I no longer feel compelled to tell the world I am The Men They Couldn’t Hang’s biggest fan by wearing t-shirts and other paraphernalia emblazoned with their logo or boring people in the pub with how much I know about BMW motorbikes and beer (OK, scratch that last one), frankly, my identity is established and I am free to live in my size 12’s and worry more about other things (like life, death and taxes).

So understanding this, what do we need to do? Well as technology providers, we need to provide an open and transparent means of letting individuals (young and old) establish and maintain a firm boundary between public and private, with the understanding that the line will be different for every single individual, and will change based on the context of what they are doing at any given point in time. Failure to do that will only result in more embarrassing headlines about unintended personal data breaches and a continued lack of trust in how we use technology effectively in our personal and professional lives.

Oh, and by the way, if you really are worried about prospective employers judging you on your Facebook feed, worry not, these days you can probably turn the tables by looking them up first…

Back to the Arrogance of the Present

Friday, March 18th, 2011

One of my favourite books is Jonathan Margolis’A Brief History of Tomorrow”, (if you’re into thinking about the future like we are here, then you should really give it a read).  One of my favourite concepts from the book is something Jonathan refers to as “the Arrogance of the Present” – essentially identifying that it is hard to measure the future potential of new technology when all you have is a mind-set from the “present” from which to make the judgement.

In many ways it’s like the situation Henry Ford found himself in way back in 1903, asking for funding for his new project only to be told by the President of the Bank of Michigan that “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad”. Now with hindsight, it’s easy to sit here and make fun of that poor bank president and how stupid he must have been, but in reality, at the time that he made that statement, he was actually probably _right_.  His judgement on the future potential of Mr Ford’s ideas was coloured by his own understanding of the society at the time and his ability to understand how it may change.

Obviously we do not possess the ability to predict the future, but more importantly, we simply cannot comprehend the complex series of changes that society makes as it continues to evolve and therein lies our challenge.

We see examples of this kind of problem every day – many new technologies are misunderstood, dismissed and downright despised because we struggle to comprehend their role in a society that is significantly evolved from the one we experience today.

Camera phones are a great example of this – when they were introduced, I don’t know anyone that was inspired with excitement about the prospect of carrying around a poor quality, low resolution camera on their phone of all things.  Fast forward to today, when that functionality is poised to change the way society works whether it’s through citizens interacting with their local council on anti-social behaviour or augmented reality solutions that make a tangible difference to the way people are able to live their lives.

There are many more examples to illustrate the point but I’ll pick just two more – social networking and street level imagery – both of which are much maligned and misunderstood. That’s not to say they aren’t with their problems, but when we think about their potential it’s crucial that we do so not in the context of our understanding of today’s society, but instead by thinking about how they might work with the society of tomorrow. 

Of course, that’s not to say we should blindly accept any new technological principle, but instead of constraining our perception of value and relevance, we must use our experience from the past to help inform the right way of getting the most from the future potential innovation by implementing it in a way that is respectful and cognisant of all we have learned along the way.

The Paradox of IT’s Future

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

I know that as technologists, we live, eat and breathe technology. It’s important to us, we care about it. Hell, some of you even understand it. But in a world that increasingly relies on its use, across all aspects of our lives this presents us with somewhat of a paradox.

itinvsmYou see, for us, our success is making this critical resource absolutely invisible to those that use it. That’s not to say it’s not important, far from it, it’s just that like we mentioned before it’s critical that we focus on the tasks and outcomes not the tools.

As IT professionals we have to find a way to strike the right balance between showing enough visibility that people understand the importance (or even limitations and risks) and getting out of the way to enable others to be successful based on all that we have established from them.

For me, the future of IT lies not in the IT department, but out there, in your businesses, in your communities and with your people and that is where we have to go.

The “Dumb User” at Work

Monday, October 18th, 2010

We’ve spent so long worrying about how to make technology simpler, safer, more secure and efficient at work that we’ve forgotten that people too are evolving in their needs and understanding about what technology can do for them at work.

Many organisations block these tools at the firewall, I understand some of the reasoning for this, especially around security concerns, but far too often it is used to hide issues around poor management. “People will waste their time on these things” is the answer I hear all too often.

dumbsersmYou see, what you are saying to me as an individual is that you simply don’t trust me to be professional and productive in the way in which I carry out my work for you. It’s the wrong argument and one I find inconsistent. If you are really worried about my productivity, then either you shouldn’t have hired me (or you should have provided me with more support to become productive) or actually, you should also ban telephones newspapers, Sudoku books and water coolers as these too can be exploited to drain resource away.

It’s a bit like when the internet first arrived – do you remember when there was just one guy/terminal in the office with internet access? What do you think would happen to your business today if that was still the case? Social media will be no different just a few years from now.

The other side of this is that increasingly, these tools are where your customers exist. Blocking access to them is just cutting yourself off from an increasingly significant portion of your audience. Remember, over half of people connected to the internet are on Facebook – it just makes no sense to me that you would chose to ignore the portion of your customers that chose to communicate in this way.

Finally, we’ve got to deal with this concept of the “dumb user” once and for all. This out-dated concept is increasingly irrelevant in how we think about managing change within our organisations.

Now before you get all upset, I’m not saying you can ignore the issues around IT literacy, it’s just that they’re no longer as acceptable (or believable) as they were even a few years ago.

Those of you with kids will likely understand what I say, where increasingly it is just unacceptable as Dave Briggs puts it – to wear your IT ignorance “as a badge of honour” – in a modern society, that’s almost like being proud of the fact that you can’t read.

Our success will come from empowering the individual within the context of the organisation – give your people the power to work the way that works best for them, measure outcomes not process.

Is technology always good?

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

I just read an interesting piece of research about the future of work life balance and our work habits in general. As I was reading I wondered what work must have been like 30-40 years ago, without all the technology we have today. As I have grown up in a world where computers and the internet is pervasive I really couldn’t imagine what it must have been like to write reports and documents with pen and paper. The thought of not being able to communicate through IM, mobile phones, email and even Facebook is just unthinkable.

These thoughts entered my brain again a few days ago but from a different angle. It was 11 o’clock at night and I was responding to a bunch of urgent emails when I suddenly thought that if I didn’t have the technology I wouldn’t feel the need to write emails late at night. The ability to “always be connected” has increased our expectations around work but also socially. I often feel that my friends expect me to respond (rapidly) to their messages, comments, tweets and pictures online. If you don’t respond online people will try your mobile phone. Too often I feel like there isn’t enough time to manage it all but I guess that it all becomes part of a routine that you don’t think much about.

computer-hooked8The amount of unpaid work hours has soared over the past decade and the amount of time we spend with our families has decreased. It is clear that technology  has imposed new burdens on families and individuals and there aren’t many signs of improvement. The big winners are of course the companies we work for, as we can now work from anywhere at any time. Work and private life are becoming increasingly integrated but it seems like work is eating away at life at a rapid pace.

I not right to put all the blame on technological advancements but it is of course part of the problem. It is also important for us to remind ourselves that no matter how much technology moves forward, human beings still have rationale and ability to make their own decision on what is right or wrong, that is something technology can’t replace. Employees and employers will need to take more responsibility to ensure that this doesn’t spiral out of control because that is where we are heading. A glance at government statistics shows that “over-work” is one of the primary causes of growing ill health, both physically and mentally.

These thoughts made me think a bit differently about technology and maybe technological advancements aren’t always positive. The ability to “always be connected” has definitely eaten in to the amount of time people spend together but does the buck stop with us or is technology the one to blame?  Or maybe it’s just that our economy has become more demanding?