La tecnología en su encrucijada


Technology at a crossroads



05 July 2018

In the last decade, technology, especially markedly digital technology, has experienced accelerated change in its use and social activities. As an example Facebook, with over 2 billion users, is the most populated “nation” in the world; in fact, if it were a country, almost a quarter of human beings would live there. Often, we don't fully understand the implications these figures have when it comes to properly profiled and stored information on how millions of people interact. This is an unprecedented milestone that has fostered what is known as “data science”. 

With regard to our everyday actions in cities (let’s not forget that, according to the UN, most of humanity has been living in urban nuclei since 2014 and this is expected to reach 2/3 of the population by 2050) it has become commonplace to use alternative services such as taxis to get around; such as Uber, where you don't have to “flag down” a tax, or Cabify in Spain and some Latin American cities. In the same way, the messenger business or take-away delivery services have become more popular with platforms such as Glovo and Deliveroo. In each case, there is a common denominator: the concept of a platform. These companies operate systems that put people looking earn some extra money distributing, driving or delivering, in contact with huge communities of users who access said platforms from their mobile phones. All of this revolves around enormous amounts of data which flow and are, supposedly, processed with care. They are the logical result of exploiting what the information society so allows.

To bring this recap to a close, it's worth highlighting how this collaboration economy has changed the face of tourism. Nowadays, going to a travel agent seems like something straight out of the Jurassic era, or at least that's the feeling you get when you tell young people how you used to plan holidays just a few years ago. The concept of platforms is the in thing, both when it comes to booking management services such as Expedia, Booking, etc. and apartment booking, such as Airbnb.

This far, this is nothing new to us, and it all forms part of our techno-optimistic vision of technology and its impact on society. In other words, we have more friends because we're on Facebook, we travel more because booking is easier, we find better accommodation thanks to homeowners who want to make some extra cash, and getting around is cheaper, to the detriment of taxis, etc. This is the positive side, but nothing comes for free in this life. All changes that have an effect on socio-economic dynamics come with externalities or poorly distributed costs.

If we focus on these less positive aspects, there have been a few examples over the last few months which warrant at least some reflection. For example, Deliveroo “riders” went on strike last July and, more recently, Spanish newspaper El País echoed this with an article on the precariousness of the collaborative economy, wherein employees have no rights because these companies do not consider them employees: they are simply agents of their “platform”. Something similar is happening with a highly regulated sector such as that of the taxi. Taxi drivers pay numerous taxes and use this as an argument against Uber, Cabify and similar services. There’s no denying our well-being, which we all want to preserve, is sustained thanks to progressive – perhaps relentless – taxation of individuals and companies. Can this new collaborative economy reverse our rights and social achievements? Honestly, what these new companies are offering is not employment as we know it, and we should carefully consider whether these changes represent a step forward or a step back.

In line with this techo-pessimistic vision, we should ask ourselves: what happens with our data? Until now, economists said the world needed money and energy to function. Money was “made” by highly regulated bodies: central banks. Energy, as we all know, is a source of instability and a driver for geopolitical tension. But now, a new factor has burst onto the scene: data. Once again, worrying headlines hit the front pages, such as the ABC article in January, titled: “Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple have absolute power over digital information” (in Spanish). To quote Baron Acton, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. We should think twice: monetary fluctuations ruin countries and create uncertainty, but now we are armed with organisations such as the International Monetary Fund. In the energy sector, which is far from harmonious – with the OPEC on the one hand, and Russia and its pressure on gas prices and disputes between Iran and Saudi Arabia on the other – honestly, we all but forget about data.

Data are key: in the near future, I believe we will be paid for them. Without data – or huge quantities of it, to be more precise – machine learning won't work and, as we know, this is the key to more or less limited artificial intelligence, which is all the rage nowadays. In fact, various analysts point towards China as the future leader in this field. This is due to, amongst other factors, a higher level of digitalisation in vast segments of the population which results in access to an avalanche of information. 

These uncertainties mean some are calling for regulation, control and, as with all pendulum swings, it seems we should all stay at home and flush our diabolical smartphones down the toilet. An interesting example is the United States bill for the Secretary of Commerce to establish a committee on the issue, as a preliminary step to a regulator. Ultimately, the Facebook data misuse scandal involving the consultant Cambridge Analytica and its implications on campaigns such as Brexit and Donald Trump's election shook our very foundations. We cannot allow the innocent sharing of information when using services offered by social media giants to play into the hands of the bad guys (remember the “fake news”  avalanche from Russian hackers) and undermine our democracies. 

So, the question is: how do we strike the balance?  Honestly, I don't know. I think it’s gone too far and we have been too trusting. Political development over the last few years alone can be explained by mass manipulation, where we saw the real dark side of social media. Certain regulations and common sense are required to ensure the future of technology is not built on unravelling the values we have spent centuries earning and applying in democratic societies. Now is not the time for fear, but rather exercise caution and reflect on an era of history wherein mass data has become an asset with the ability to overthrow governments. 

Digital technology as a driver for collaboration is at a crossroads. It cannot continue as it has done so far, without certain controls and supervision. But one thing we should not do is put limits on innovation. We should focus more on what we have to gain by learning from responsible use of the possibilities made available to us. And yes, I’m a techno-optimist.


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