Never Say Never

You don’t have to read “Free” by Chris Anderson to have a healthy scepticism about the way in which Google and Facebook make money. There again, you don’t have to stop using Google or Facebook either, face it they offer a very good service and a billion plus people can’t be wrong can they?

The business model is a simple one; you are offered services you can’t refuse: excellent web search and fully featured sharing and communicating services. These you can have for free. In return you agree that the service provider can have, for their own purposes, your data. Taken  on its own your data has very little value but when taken with the data of over a billion individuals worldwide then it becomes very valuable indeed and the success of these companies and others like them is that they have successfully monetised that data. The old adage that Facebook knows what you like, Google knows what you want and Amazon knows what everybody like you bought was never truer. These companies have grown to be mega successful and the people who created them have become mega rich; a just reward you might think.

Do we ever ask ourselves is it really worth it? Is the privacy we sacrifice, our wants and whims our location data, our quantified selves is it worth what we get in return?

We could say the same thing about The Cloud. The power that we are able to carry in our pockets because The Cloud looks after all of the computation and storage means that we can not only be constantly connected we can be truly mobile in both our working and our personal lives. Given the eye watering investment in cloud services: the hardware, the infrastructure, the energy and the software development required to make it all work it has become the icon of the information age.

Will it always be so? I have written before about the natural tendency for technology to make its way to the edge. While our smart phones are relatively simple devices now (see what use they are when they aren’t connected) I don’t see why that should be the case forever and ever. It was with this in mind I was interested by an announcement from NVIDIA for its Tesla K-series GPU Accelerators which can carry out 1.3 teraflops. One of the key markets for this technology is smart cars – because it’s inconvenient when your phone isn’t connected but it could be downright lethal if your car was dependent on the cloud for all of its functionality. More recently Hilary Mason CEO of Fast Forward Labs talked about algorithms, currently in the lab, that will compare two sets of data with a million items in each set with just a few processor cycles. Admittedly the process is probability based so there is a margin of error but the point is that this function can be carried out on a personal device without recourse to the processing capacity of the cloud.

So am I speaking up for paranoia in the smart connected world with a view that we should be looking forward to carrying super computers in our pockets? Not a bit of it but I am sounding a note of caution. Right now we cannot imagine a scenario where the computational and storage capacity of the cloud could be ceded to a personal mobile device; there again, there was a time when the industry believed that there would be no reason for people to have a personal computer.

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home” Ken Olsen, president, chairman and founder of DEC

One of my favourite all time movies is Dr Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. If you weren’t around in the 60’s trust me, you had to be there. Check it out it’s a tour de force from Peter Sellers who plays three roles in the movie not to mention George C Scott as Buck Turgidson and see if you can spot James Earl Jones as Lothar Zogg as well as the unlikely named Slim Pickens as Maj King Kong and the not to be missed Col Bat Guano played by Keenan Wynn. In the movie the paranoid Gen Jack D Ripper says:

“I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” Gen Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden).

It would be equally paranoid to accuse Facebook and Google of misappropriating our personal data – I’m not suggesting that we need a nuclear option. What I am suggesting is that we should never say never; we should never say that we will always need the cloud and we should never say that we can’t reclaim ownership of our personal information. The technology isn’t there yet but someday it can be. Which raises the potential for an interesting tension for while the capability may yet come to be within our reach will the industries that have grown up around free access to our data and centralised processing and storage be willing to give it up?

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Where next for a digital champion.

When the RSA undertook its recent survey of digital champions in January I must confess to being somewhat down and not very positive. This may be the result of living on the periphery of a large, sparse county and being dependent on a satellite for connectivity who knows. Being in this sort of a situation does equip you for all kinds of other things because you know what the limitations are: I cannot, for example, easily join in Google Hangouts because of latency inbuilt into the satellite service. Unless something is happening in Market Drayton then everything requires a minimum thirty minute car journey and if you’re in the South of the County then it can be one and a half to two hours. Yes, I know, I chose to live here and the benefits outweigh the dis-benefits; it’s a good life Jim just not as most people know it.

Access is a big issue round here and there is a daily tussle between the incumbent supplier of broadband and local people. Years of under investment and people making do with what’s available has led to an environment of poor service delivery and angry customers. It is into that environment that the local authority sponsored Superfast Broadband scheme was launched in 2013 with much publicity and while the excitement lasted all was well and then the stark reality of what the current State Aided scheme really offered came home and battle resumed. Here in the far north of the county we appear to be in line for an up to 27Mb download service by 2016 but that is far from guaranteed. Information is vague, the maps released are worse than useless and should it be that parts of the Parish are not included then implementing a scheme based on acquiring additional funding (not yet identified) could take another two years meaning that some or all of the parish might not get a Superfast service until 2018 at the earliest. Those people who know about such things also complain that the fibre service is really a copper service from the cabinet and that it’s contended and the speed downgrades with distance.

It’s interesting to see the impact of this on the psyche of people in the village: they lose interest in the digital world, they perceive the village as being undervalued, you hear the phrase them and us and a sense of growing apartheid. This is not just about technology it’s about the role of digital in sustaining communities. Which brings me back to the role of a digital champion: at first sight a digital champion might be seen as offering those skills that facilitate participation; a digital surgeon offering social media surgeries for instance. I can subscribe to that model for a lot of good comes out of such activity, but might not a digital champion stand up for the community cause as well? I have been approached to participate in a consultation exercise with the local authority to try and better inform the remainder of the current roll out programme. The invitation is as a result of both my engagement with a disability network in Shropshire and my title of digital champion within the RSA. In putting my name forward my unsolicited sponsor has used by RSA profile. Why? Because it says that I have experience and that I am passionate about the potential of digital to empower people.

Initially seen as a conduit to enable Fellows to communicate and share, surely this raises questions about the role of digital champions as perceived by the RSA. Digital technology has already impacted on Arts; not just how the arts are created but how they are distributed and how they are consumed; digital is the medium of promotion, information and education as well as distribution. Digital technology continues to impact on Manufacturing from concept through design to implementation and beyond and with the steady growth of technologies like additive manufacture the impact will continue to influence the peripheral manufacturing environment in areas such as storage and logistics. We are starting to see changes in ideas about value in the digital economy and the role of data in personalising experiences and goods.

Learning communities build social capital and social capital leads to innovation; innovative communities are sustainable communities. The role of the digital champion within the RSA is capable of evolving and it should be allowed so to do because that wider role contributes to the aims and objectives of the RSA itself.