Society (not) catching up with digital technology

The following text is a report from last week's Blok expertů, a traditional series of guest lectures hosted by the Department of information and library science and delivered by experts from various fields, mainly from technology, information, libraries, media, education and related of course.

On Thursday November 6th (2014) we had the pleasure of spending one hour and half with Daniel Franc who is a Community Manager at Google. His lecture's official topic was 'Communities instead of institutions' but what we really and intentionally focused on was more about how digital technology changes society, for better and for worse.

 

 

Mr. Franc says it's naturally not black and white, in contrast to what the majority of Silicon Valley thinks where potential negative impact of technology isn't discussed much. [Intermezzo: Throughout the lecture we'll use an excellent online tool called sli.do for asking questions to make the session more interactive.] His main thesis is that society is not catching up with technology. Mr. Franc asks one half of the audience to play the devil's advocate and come up with reasons for why digital technology is bad for us and asks the other half to do the opposite.Temporary technopessimists mention issues such as depersonalization, our bodies' physical degeneration, annoyance with constant reachability, information overload and cyber crime and temporary angel's advocates mention advantages like long-distance communication, better healthcare, freedom to express oneself publicly or fast emergency warning systems. To help the technooptimists I'd add for instance personal organization – think Google Calendar and Google KeepEvernote or the ability to go look up something online outside with your mobile phone – to have all the world's knowledge in your pocket so to say. But we could go on a on.

The first time when Mr. Franc felt firsthand that society is not catching up with technology was when he met with primary and later secondary school teachers and directors approximately 10 years ago. They prefered passive students, one-to-many kind of lectures (frontal lectures), no change in curricula for as long as possible and supporting memorization of facts in students. [Right side of the picture.]

 

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 17.15.10

 

But left side sorf of young people kept coming to their schools. Uneducable and always connected to Facebook. The disconnect between the teachers and this Generation Y is caused by acknowledging different sets of principles. The Generation Y values equivalence, freedom, sharing, metadata, personal brand, fun. The same scenario takes place in companies as well. Hereby, we got to the first identified trend: Arrival of Millennials.

And right after that we go into the second powerful trend which is the arrival of new kinds of businesses. Take Uber or Airbnb which have become disruptive. Or Coursera. These companies are disturbing the status quo in a similar way Generation Y is. They even get prohibited because states or cities have no idea how to handle the changes these businesses are causing. On the other hand these new companies attract incredible amounts of money. Mr. Franc gives an extreme example of a silly messaging app called Yo "whose sole purpose is to let people send text messages saying 'Yo'” which is valued at $10 Million. The reason for this, according to Mr. Franc, is the fact there is excess capital available around Silicon Valley at the moment.

 

Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 Billion. They could have bought Ferrari. Three times.
Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 Billion. They could have bought Ferrari. Three times.

Trend number three: New professions attract resources which is causing gentrification – a process where real estate prices increase faster than average salary. For instance in San Francisco, land and house owners, landlords know people from Ebay or Facebook can afford to pay more. The result of this is original tenants get moved out. The fourth, related trend is old professions disappear – usually get automated. Which makes the last two trends quite a dangerous combo.

 

--

[#1 swift Q&A session via sli.do, interesting bits]

Q: About people losing jobs due to automation – How do we manage they don't end up on the street?
A: That's exactly what I want to get to, so I'm keeping this one aside.

Q: What is the value and future of Google+?
A: I don't know the answer to any of the two. Google thinks of Google+ more in terms of a platform not a social network. It's rather a binder between all the Google services.

Q: Has there ever been a time in history with so many unallocated resources?
A: Some economists actually claim no it hasn't. I'm not a historian so I can't comment much, but some say a similar situation occured during the onset of overseas trade.

--

 

Generation Y, disruptive businesses, vanishing professions. What's the society's reaction? Google bus protestsBanning Uber in Belgium and BerlinMaking Airbnb illegal in New YorkGoogle Glass bans. What about companies?

Companies with an old mindset don't know how to use new technologies and are utterly surprised when they're put out of business because of some startup companies they never heard of before. So, cities don't react to new technologies well, companies neither, maybe universities?

"Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won't survive. It's as large a change as when we first got the printed book."
– Peter Drucker, management guru and educator, twenty years ago

The debate about university level education has been very hot in recent years. In most cases technical programmes are not able to keep up with the speed the industry is moving.

We have a term for the phenomenon causing the problems mentioned above. It is called cultural lag. The society, culture is lagging behind where the technology is pushing it, which is not at all unique to our recent times. There was the industrial revolution, there are sociological opinions we can connect unreadiness of society for new technologies with WWI and II. Well, is Mr. Franc implying we're heading direction revolution or war? Apparently not. He goes on to discuss technooptimism and the idea of life without work.

 

--

[#2 swift Q&A session via sli.do, interesting bits]

Q: Who and how does evaluate startups like YouTube was? The sums seem perverse.
A: I had a lecture at VŠE, The University of Economics in Prague, where they have a whole specialization called Evaluation of companies. One can count the real value of a company by multiplying one year's profit by four. But that's a traditional conception. For years, Twitter was in red numbers, so how do you evaluate that? With these new kinds of businesses evaluators look at potential future growth. And it's sorcery. The final amount is decided by investors. [...] But it's still sort of like a theatre play.

Q: What would an alternative to university look like?
A: I'll show you in a minute.

Q: Would you please tell us a little bit more about the renaissance in the field of artificial intelligence?
A: I'd love to but I don't have as much information yet as I'd like to have. What I recommend are video lectures done by my colleague Filip Hráček he has on YouTube. Nevertheless, one of the main principles of AI are distributed adaptive systems which is a principle one can build communities on. That's what I'd like to talk about before we finish.

Q: How are you satisfied with your smartwatch?
A: Someone's very observant :) Good thing is that when I go to a café in Prague I don't pull my smartphone like everyone else. Google found out (had it measured) that a person, on average, pulls her smartphone 120 times a day. If you hear a notification you take your phone, check it, then you notice another one on Facebook and another one... until one notification becomes a whole procrastination session. One would think that smartwatch connects you permanently but paradoxically people rather feel disconnection in a sense that you take your phone only in case you really need to do something.

Q: Is slowing down progress burrying one's head in sand?
A: Great, thank you for these kinds of challenging questions. It can but doesn't have to be. You want to slow down progress sometimes. For example at Google, we have a following motto "release often, release fast and fail often, fail fast". You want to know as soon as possible when there is something what leads nowhere.

--

 

In the final part, Mr. Franc shares with us a little bit more about his actual job and its role in the context of what we've covered so far. "Google communities indirectly help our society to catch up with technology." There are 3 types of communities: business ones – Google Business Groups for new kinds of companies (GBG), developer ones – Google (you guessed it) Developer Groups for creators of new technologies (GDG) and 'user' ones – Google Experience Groups for Google products enthusiasts (GXG) and Google Educator Groups (GEG). Their primary purpose is to organize topical events and network. Why are they called communities? They are organized locally, with no bosses and voluntarily. When Google started the project they had no idea it would take off like it did. The GDG meetings for instance supplement the higher tech education by providing Android programming workshops. For you to imagine the scope a little, there are 20 events taking place in the Czech Republic in November, which makes it probably the largest community in CZ considering the amount of activities carried out. The GEG events aim to connect open-minded teachers and teach them how to use new technologies in a meaningful way. Because just giving out tablets to kids is not enough and prohibiting it is not right as well. So these are just few examples Google (Communities or Groups) tries to help people to avoid becoming laggards and being controlled by technology but rather to be in control.

 

A picture from 1905: What firemen were expected to look like in 2000.
A picture from 1905: What firemen were expected to look like in 2000.

Mr. Franc concludes with a relativization of the whole lecture.

 

My feeling is that in case these Google Groups desire to be 100% true to their intention of helping society to catch up with technology proclaimed earlier, they should reach a wider audience. Not just taking care of those already interested in the topic but proactively seeking to educate completely different social groups such as seniors, prisoners, low income citizens, orphan kids and teenagers from children's homes and people working in public services like municipalities, hospitals, schools (✔), nonprofits and people from the art sphere. I would gladly help as part of my work at CIDES if I was staying at KISK.

And this is not a criticism, it's an enthusiastic call to action.

 

--

You can watch Franc's talk in czech right here:

Source: The official YouTube channel of KISK, the Department of information and library science at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic.

---

Author: David Smehlik

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