By Richard Copland

Clients often ask which technologies to watch out for over the next few years.  The typical ask centres around the medium term, a time frame of the next two to three years and not the immediate near term.  Previous conventions and arrangements that constitute businesses sense of management time frames no longer evolve at any traditional rate, but at the far faster rate of digital innovation. We’re forced to accommodate some degree of change in the way we do things every time the newest version of a device, operating system or application is released.

The rationale for the ‘medium term’ timeframe being that anything that was felt to be impacting in the next year or two the organisation should be in an implementation and delivery phase as opposed to a test and learn phase of a proof of concept. Clearly, this is very much an ideal state of affairs, but a key part of the challenge was to work with clients to push out their innovation timeframes to a place on the horizon so they can pick and choose the best things to be involved in and to mitigate the challenge of being battered by the continuing waves of disruption. No easy task and you could point to the whole technology analyst community and their offerings as trying in some way to contribute to solve this challenge.

Picking the right wave to ride

Much like a surfer looking to catch his wave the intent was to identify the swell and movements on the horizon to pick the best wave for you to ride. The ethos of this thinking is brought to life in the California Designing Freedom exhibition about how the Golden state has and is changing our lives, businesses and organisations.

Soren Kierkegaard famously pointed out that the only way we can understand life is backwards – we are compelled to live moving forwards, but attempt understanding by looking at what has happened.  Reflecting on what happened is perhaps the most influential technology development and is a useful place to start.

The positive glow of the golden state

We might think the capital of design is Milan or Paris, perhaps London. But that’s the old stuff: furniture, fashion, physical things.  The new world of design, of user interfaces and social networks, of the way we interact, is based firmly in Silicon Valley.  California has according to the exhibition, the densest concentration of designers in the world today. The show aims to reveal how design has made us all consumers and creators of our own identities, and how an idea of freedom changed from ultimate hippy dream into vast corporate wealth.

The Golden State has long been a place where people go to reinvent themselves, where fantasies are created and sold. From Hollywood via hippies to high-tech industries, it has been about designing and manufacturing future worlds of desire since the Gold Rush.  But the exhibition takes as its point of departure The Whole Earth Catalog launched by Stewart Brand in 1968. This was the longhairs’ equivalent of the frontiersmen’s mail-order catalogues; its strapline was “access to tools”. Here Californian culture means access to the tools that have transformed the way we see the world. When you go around and explore the archives and images you are struck by strength of faith in the potential for Californians to remake the world. “We are as gods,” Brand wrote in the The Whole Earth Catalog,” and might as well get good at it”.

On the cover of the catalogue was a previously unpublished 1966 Nasa Satellite image of Earth from space. In its ideals, in this mix of techno-hedonism, sci-fi fetishism, environmentalism, arrogance and happyish turning-on and dropping-out are the roots of the world California has made us.

The central premise is that California has pioneered tools of personal liberation, from LSD to surfboards and iPhones. The exhibition brings together political posters and portable devices, but also looks beyond hardware to explore how user interface designers in the San Francisco Bay Area are shaping some of our most common daily experiences. These simultaneously empowering, addictive and troubling Californian products have affected our lives to such an extent that in some ways we are all now Californians.

Not everything that glitters is gold

In support of the show are a range of related talks that delve deeper into an aspect or theme of the exhibition. The talk by Adam Greenfield on radical technologies and their influence on our everyday lives called out a subset of the parts in his new book “Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life”.  Adam gave us his view on, the Internet of Things, Digital Fabrication, the Blockchain, Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence and how they are changing our cities, societies and even our way of thinking at a bewildering speed.

He has produced what is essentially a field manual to the technologies that are transforming our lives.  Essential reading for an Innovation or Digital Director covering all the main themes you’d need to explore in an innovation workshop with your business technology provider. Think less Gartner and more dystopian and paranoiac outcome. His call to action and note of urgent timing hits the mark with its challenging questions on who is setting the agenda and who are the ultimate beneficiaries.

Adam reflected on Alan Kay, an American computer scientist best known for his pioneering work on object-oriented programming and windowing graphical user interface design at Xerox Parc who is reported as saying “The best way to predict the future is to invent it”, and the seminal impact this centre and ethos had on Silicon Valley. Incidentally, it is possible to see an example of Xerox’s Star PC from 1981 that can be thought of as a kick-starter of the modern PC movement that we know today.

In Greenfield’s telling, our privacy is invaded, our opinions are manipulated, and algorithms track every keypad stroke, tweet and swipe, recording our ambitions, dreams, and twitches of desire. Rather than smashing Big Brother, Big Tech now seems to embody it.

Much as they would hate to admit it, the anti-establishment has in many ways morphed into the establishment. Corporate power has migrated to the West Coast of the US and Apple, Google, Facebook are among the most valuable companies in the world.  But as we carry on buying and consuming their remarkable products and services, it seems people are no longer in the market for what Silicon Valley is selling ideologically.

According to Tony Fadell, CEO of Nest and seen as one of the fathers of the iPod for his work on the first generations of Apple’s music player, that ethos recognising liberation, freedom and community appeared to change in the 1990s.

The vision on the radical technologies offered by Greenfield is more aligned to that of Dave Eggers in his novel, The Circle. In the Circle, the heroine Mae Holland goes to work at a West Coast internet company, the equivalent of Google or Facebook. Whilst fiction you can certainly see the crossover to fact when we think that Apple is currently in the process of opening its new $5bn Californian head-quarters in the design of a giant circle.  Apple Park, designed by the British firm Foster and Partners, is a circular building that encloses a park. Resembling a perfect piece of product design, it also reflects a corporate ethos that is private and protective.

In the book the Circle’s guiding mission, which appears to have been extrapolated from Google’s, is that information should always be accessible, shareable, and free. Happily, that high-minded public mission also results in enormous private power and profit. As the company shining the most powerful spotlight in our digital world, The Circle becomes virtually omniscient and omnipotent. Greenfield echoed other tech visionary’s view that the industry has a starkly capitalist philosophy that “Whoever owns discovery, owns the margin.” We’ve seen in very recent days the European Commission response to such abuses of this monopolistic position with their recent 2.1 billion pounds fine.

Why all the doom and gloom?

Greenfield and Eggers from their very different, yet well researched, views determine that new technologies often produce unsettling and unintended results when they collide with human needs and emotions. Other works have focused on the existential threats of machine intelligence superseding our own. I recently explored this in my thought piece Robots and Artificial Intelligence in the shape of us. This thinking is supported by the work of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a DC-based think tank, who studied coverage of the industry over the past three decades. Analysing a sample of tech articles, it noted in their snappily titled Why So Sad? A Look at the Change in Tone of Technology Reporting From 1986 to 2013 report a marked shift in tone.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the study found that tech coverage was largely favourable, emphasising the economic and military advantages. However, since then the tone of coverage has shifted with more articles focusing on technology’s ill effects: the displacement of face-to-face interaction, its role in environmental degradation, its threat to employment, and its failure to live up to some of its extravagant promises.

It also found that the champions were likely to hail from the private sector while the pessimists tended to come from civil society and government.  The ITIF explored why this might be so. Are todays technologies fundamentally more threatening than previous technologies? It concluded not. “There does not appear to be anything about today’s technologies that is on balance, more problematic than prior technologies were.” It emphasised how debates about the impact of technology on ethics, culture, freedom, and the privacy had been recurrent themes throughout history in relation to the printing press, gas lighting, railroads, the telegraph, vaccinations and contraception.

Instead it suggested that the notable rise in critical coverage had been driven by two broader trends. There has been a marked increase in civil society organisations over the past two decades “dedicated to identifying potential harms that may be associated with technology” and well-practised at rallying opposition through the media. Also, it proposed that journalists and the media had less time to understand the technology, in part driven by the increasingly digital media that the very technology had enabled.

These explanations seem a little too expedient, letting the tech industry off very lightly. Perhaps when you consider that the ITIF biggest sponsors are the very companies that are brought into question one shouldn’t be surprised. However, it is fair to say that the importance of values and wider consideration shows signs of swinging back the other way. I’ll dive into this in my follow up thought piece on how the Big Tech platforms are enabling a surge in mission-driven companies delivering social good with a verve akin to the original freewheeling, radical, counter culture.