Reflections on what might have been
George Carlin, the American stand up comedian said: “Never disagree with an idiot. He will bring you down to his level and then beat you with experience”. He came to mind this week when I was reading the reports of Apple CEO, Tim Cook’s response to criticism of Apple’s aggressive tax avoidance tactics. It’s not our tax avoidance that’s the problem he said it’s your tax regime (I’ve paraphrased but you get the gist). That same “bubble” mentality was evident in an Observer piece on Sunday: “How Silicon Valley tech elite’s wealth created a world apart” by Rory Caroll. This was very much a populist piece, by which I mean it wasn’t world shattering investigative journalism, but it highlighted a way of thinking. In summary this was a description of how employees from companies like Google, Apple, EA and Twitter are setting themselves apart from the people who live in the same geographical location. They travel in their own buses, they create their own gated communities and they create a sense of taking much and giving back little. They deny it, of course, with statements which reflect a view of San Francisco as a dirty city with poor schools to which the elite come to create wealth regardless. One reflects that they can’t understand people’s criticism; after all they are helping people to share.
Of course, as an outsider looking in, you can see that from Tim Cook to the unnamed developer they’re missing the point. We can apply Apple’s logic to any number of laws that we don’t happen to like; it’s not that I broke the speed limit, it’s just that you set the limit too low; likewise the tech employee community cannot see the difference between doing for and doing with.
Was any technology truly disruptive that didn’t move things closer to the edge? For example, the personal computer, the private car, the smart phone, Mpeg compression or the internet? Surely the disruption comes because the means of consumption or production becomes increasingly divorced from the core and choice is placed in the hands of the individual. We can see a cycle in which a new development triggers a market change, the old core responds first with negative publicity and then with attempts at regulation; then there is adaptation, new market models arise and it starts again. Old companies disappear or change and new ones grow up to replace them, better suited to the new environment.
This begs a question: what is the role of the Cloud? Think before you answer! On the one hand the cloud (let’s not get into the argument about what the cloud physically is; I know it isn’t a “the” but as a concept it’s out there, it’s working and like it or not most of us use it. We can think of it as a great facilitator, no cloud no smart phone for instance. We can see it as a great benefit; the Internet of Things is unlikely to function without the Cloud, there is going to be no Drop Box, Netflix will struggle and the low cost, fast running start up will, well it will not start up!
What of the cloud as an aggregator, a consumer of very big data, about us? Where does the wealth on which all of those unpaid taxes accrue get created? Isn’t it based on the analysis of that eye watering collection of data about us? Up to a point I accept the argument that nothing in this world is free; I don’t get to use my smart phone for all of those personalised services for nothing. In return I give up data about me, my contacts and my life. At what point do I, or any of us for that matter, decide that the cost is too high?
I am a great admirer of Jarond Lanier; not just because of his achievements but because of his ability to set out the world from his point of view. While he is great at identifying trends he’s not so hot on the solutions and his latest book “Who owns the future” is a case in point. His argument for humanistic economics sounds okay but it’s based on an old idea of value; that of value in ownership. The economics of the digital realm comes from value in use. Without the cloud my smart phone may be an aging design icon but it’s also just a lump of useless alloy and glass. The value lies not in ownership but in use. Right now that value is created for me in time I will need that value to be created with me – and the digital network will allow that process of co-creation to happen. If it doesn’t then the price I am currently paying to realise that value will be deemed too high (I believe I will not be alone) and I will go elsewhere and do things other ways. Two things flow from this, firstly the developers that are setting up their world apart in the dirty city will have to start to do things with their neighbouring community and not exist in the belief that they are doing things for otherwise things will fall apart very quickly. Secondly that data of mine that you are taking in payment for services is generating a lot of money – much more than I think the services are worth – so give something back Mr Cook, pay your damn taxes.
As a final thought I firmly believe that cloud technology will eventually move to the edge where it will become truly disruptive. This will be because of resource demands and as every network architect knows the closer to the edge the less resource dependent it is; where we are now is unsustainable. I predict a period of negativity, followed by regulation (presumably in return for paid taxes) and then adaptation and a new business model – it will take time, but it will happen.