The Limits of Technology

As part of my home entertainment during lock-down, I have been enjoying a series of Web TV programmes called This Is Imminent hosted by Simon Waller, and whose broad theme asks “how are we learning to live with new technology?” – in short, the good, the bad and the ugly of AI, robotics, computers, productivity tools etc.

Niska robots are designed to serve ice cream…. image sourced from Weekend Notes

Despite the challenges of Zoom overload, choked internet capacity, and constant screen-time, the lock-down has shown how reliant we are upon tech for communications, e-commerce, streaming services and working from home. Without them, many of us would not have been able to cope with the restrictions imposed by the pandemic.

The value of Simon’s interactive webinars is two-fold – as the audience, we get to hear from experts in their respective fields, and gain exposure to new ideas; and we have the opportunity to explore ways in which technology impacts our own lives and experience – and in a totally non-judgmental way. What’s particularly interesting is the non-binary nature of the discussion. It’s not “this tech good, that tech bad”, nor is it about taking absolute positions – it thrives in the margins and in the grey areas, where we are uncertain, unsure, or just undecided.

In parallel with these programmes, I have been reading a number of novels that discuss different aspects of AI. These books seem to be both enamoured with, and in awe of, the potential of AI – William Gibson’s “Agency”, Ian McEwan’s “Machines Like Me”, and Jeanette Winterson’s “Frankissstein” – although they take quite different approaches to the pros and cons of the subject and the technology itself. (When added to my recent reading list of Jonathan Coe’s “Middle England” and John Lanchester’s “The Wall”, you can see what fun and games I’m having during lock-down….)

What this viewing and reading suggests to me is that we quickly run into the limitations of any new technology. Either it never delivers what it promises, or we become bored with it. We over-invest and place too much hope in it, then take it for granted (or worse, come to resent it). What the above novelists identify is our inability to trust ourselves when confronted with the opportunity for human advancement. Largely because the same leaps in technology also induce existential angst or challenge our very existence itself – not least because they are highly disruptive as well as innovative.

On the other hand, despite a general shift towards open source protocols and platforms, we still see age-old format wars whenever any new tech comes along. For example, this means most apps lack interoperability, tying us into rigid and vertically integrated ecosystems. The plethora of apps launched for mobile devices can mean premature obsolescence (built-in or otherwise), as developers can’t be bothered to maintain and upgrade them (or the app stores focus on the more popular products, and gradually weed out anything that doesn’t fit their distribution model or operating system). Worse, newer apps are not retrofitted to run on older platforms, or older software programs and content suffer digital decay and degradation. (Developers will also tell you about tech debt – the eventual higher costs of upgrading products that were built using “quick and cheap” short-term solutions, rather than taking a longer-term perspective.)

Consequently, new technology tends to over-engineer a solution, or create niche, hard-coded products (robots serving ice cream?). In the former, it can make existing tasks even harder; in the latter, it can create tech dead ends and generate waste. Rather than aiming for giant leaps forward within narrow applications, perhaps we need more modular and accretive solutions that are adaptable, interchangeable, easier to maintain, and cheaper to upgrade.

Next week: Distractions during Lock-down

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life During Lock-down

As I write, Victoria is witnessing record numbers of new COVID-19 cases in the so-called second wave of the pandemic. Even as the State Government maintains the Stage 3 lock-down in Greater Melbourne (and most recently mandated the wearing of masks), some members of the public are trying to challenge these restrictions, while others have to keep being reminded to comply with the pandemic measures. Frankly, the way I have been feeling about the latest events, I don’t know whether to laugh, scream or cry.

The Village of Eyam – Image sourced from National Geographic

Laugh, because I can’t believe how crass or stupid some of these refuseniks are. Scream, because I am so angry at the State Government’s failure to properly manage the hotel quarantine programme (which has led to the widespread community transmission), and the delayed decision to require masks in public. Cry, because the whole situation is incredibly sad, given all the people who have lost loved ones to the virus, and the many more who are experiencing financial hardship.

The Premier keeps saying that now is not the time to debate the whys and wherefores of who is responsible for the failure in hotel security arrangements, what caused the community transmission, or why so many people continued with their normal routines despite being symptomatic or while waiting for coronavirus test results. OK, fair enough – the Government’s main focus is on protecting public health (and shoring up the local economy), but hopefully there will be plenty of time for analysis and debate once the virus is under control (and hopefully well before the next State election, due in 2022…).

Meanwhile, I don’t know why politicians and health administrators are so surprised when members of the public fail to “exercise common sense”. Maybe the public kept hearing the Government was doing a such a great job (hey, remember Lock-down Pt. I?). Perhaps they over-compensated after a few weeks’ social distancing, became complacent and let down their guard. Or maybe they took their lead from public messages about “returning to normal” – and going to the footy and getting on the beers again….. Perhaps there is a sizeable portion of the community who can’t be trusted “to do the right thing” (or maybe they just don’t trust politicians, public servants, health experts or mainstream media).

As for why those people carried on as usual (despite being symptomatic or awaiting test results): there may be economic factors at play (to be discussed another day, but if that doesn’t include a debate on a Universal Basic Income, it will be a lost opportunity). It could be a lack of information and awareness. It could simply be human nature. But for a culture that celebrates “chucking a sickie” (indeed, one former Prime Minister even suggested it would be a point of national pride to do so following Australia’s success in the Americas Cup), something has gone wrong somewhere if people don’t feel any responsibility or obligation towards the health of their fellow citizens.

In my more existentialist moments (and I seem to have so much more time for that these days…), I can’t help thinking the pandemic is a three-fold challenge to the future of the human race: 1) the virus is nature’s way of inoculating itself against homo sapiens; 2) it will prove Darwin’s theory of evolution (survival of the fittest) by exploiting our weakness as social creatures – it’s figured out how to get us to spread the virus on its behalf; 3) the reduced levels of human activity and pollution will give the earth some time to heal (at least for a while).

At other times, I think about Talking Heads’ song “Life During Wartime”* – especially the line “I got some groceries, some peanut butter to last a couple of days”. With the need to limit shopping trips, the various shortages, and the focus on being prepared for a total lock-down, is it any wonder we may feel some anxiety? Of course, we could be in a far worse situation than what we are currently experiencing in Melbourne, both in terms of the number of cases and the breakdown in social order we see elsewhere. Yet that just underscores how inconsiderate and selfish those people are who can’t bring themselves to wear masks, or observe Stage 3 restrictions. Yes, the restrictions are inconvenient, and at times tedious, but they are hardly onerous compared to a full scale health crisis. And if anyone wants to discuss public sacrifice in the face of a virulent disease, I suggest they do some research on the village of Eyam in Derbyshire, England.

For myself, I know I have been very fortunate so far (probably thanks to some “compound privilege”). I have been able to work from home since March (although as an independent contractor, my monthly income has been reduced), but I have not seen any friends or family face-to-face either, and I won’t be traveling overseas next month for a family wedding, or to visit elderly parents. I am able to walk each day in the nearby park, but apart from food shops and the post office, I’ve not been inside any other retail premises. I haven’t been to pubs or restaurants, but I try to support the local hospitality sector by ordering prepare-at-home meals about once a week. I can’t get to see live music, but this has forced me to revisit my own music-making. And I don’t have to do any home-schooling, but I have friends and relatives who work in the health and education sectors.

My biggest concern, apart from the pandemic itself, is that we miss the opportunity to re-think the large areas of the economy that need restructuring. Politicians keep talking about “jobs, jobs, jobs”, as if the archaic labour structures inherent in the traditional master and servant relationship is the be-all and end-all of social economics. But where are these jobs coming from? COVID19 shows we can consume less, make do with less stuff, and so it can’t just be a demand-led stimulus. Nor should it just be a construction-led recovery (more “Big Build”), unless it is combined with innovation, sustainability, hi-tech, smart cities, etc. There is definitely a need to think about national self-sufficiency, and figure out what to do about supply chains, manufacturing and renewable energy.

Somehow, we have to turn this uncertainty and these challenges into positive outcomes.

Next week: The Limits of Technology

* The whole album, “Fear of Music” is the perfect soundtrack for the nervous paranoia and unease of the pandemic…..

#Rona19 – beyond the memes

More commentary on Covid-19 – at the time of writing, Victoria is at Stage 3 restrictions, with Stage 4 possible very soon. Generally, people seem to adapting to if not actually coping with this daily reality (although people are still flouting their quarantine obligations). But there is still some confusion on how to interpret, observe and enforce the social distancing measures, and of course, huge economic uncertainty remains for many people who have seen their working hours evaporate, especially if they are in vulnerable industries, and/or they can’t work from home.

Sign of hope? (Seen on my daily walk)

Meanwhile, the shutdown has prompted a fair number of less serious responses, from toilet paper memes, to “viral” GIFS, from parodies of “My Sharona” and “Bohemian Rhapsody”, to unfortunate examples of the downside of company video conferences while working from home.

But beyond the hashtags, what might we expect once we get through the current pandemic? Here is a somewhat random list of possible outcomes:

  • A renewed appreciation of personal space in public places – will we continue to observe such protocols where and whenever practical, as it becomes a community norm?
  • Greater respect for introverts – possibly better able to handle self-isolation, they are comfortable with their own company and don’t feel the need to seek out crowds  – social distancing does not represent an existential crisis, and they don’t rely on social situations for their personal validation.
  • Passenger airlines and cruise companies are toast – the tourism and travel industries will be hard hit, and may struggle to rebuild in their current form.
  • The online economy will get a boost  – restaurants and providores are already retooling to offer D2C food and meal deliveries (even cutting out the likes of Uber Eats, Deliveroo and Menu Log). Some brick and mortar retail is adapting fast, but will face a reduced share of available discretionary spending.
  • Naturally, digital services will thrive – from communication solutions to virtual classes, from remote working support services to telehealth. But bandwidth capacity and internet down/upload speeds remain a challenge in Australia.
  • The end of physical cash – if retailers prefer contactless payments (less contamination), what use are those notes and coins in your wallet?
  • A higher community standard for the individual duty of care we owe to each other – Covid-19 will certainly test the “duty of care” we owe to neighbours, colleagues, members of the public… if I knowingly infect someone, or act recklessly or negligently, can the victim sue me?
  • Likewise, the corporate social license to operate will be tested and re-cast – in light of monopolistic practices, price gouging, market abuse and disregard for the “new normal”, companies will need to re-assess many of their standard policies.
  • Increased use of facial recognition and other technology for surveillance purposes – if people cannot be trusted to observe their quarantine, self-isolation and social distancing obligations, the authorities will not shy away from further incursions into civil liberties that we currently take for granted.
  • A hybrid of on-site and working from home employment structures – not everyone will want to continue working remotely, nor will everyone be in a rush to head back to the office (or the daily commute), which will likely cause headaches for employers….

More on these themes next week….

Next week: The “new, new normal”

 

 

The Ongoing Productivity Debate

In my previous blog, I mentioned that productivity in Australia remains sluggish. There are various ideas as to why, and what we could do to improve performance. There are suggestions that traditional productivity analysis may track the wrong thing(s) – for example, output should not simply be measured against input hours, especially in light of technology advances such as cloud computing, AI, machine learning and AR/VR. There are even suggestions that rather than working a 5-day week (or longer), a four-day working week may actually result in better productivity outcomes – a situation we may be forced to embrace with increased automation.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

It’s been a number of years since I worked for a large organisation, but I get the sense that employees are still largely monitored by the number of hours they are “present” – i.e., on site, in the office, or logged in to the network. But I think we worked out some time ago that merely “turning up” is not a reliable measure of individual contribution, output or efficiency.

No doubt, the rhythm of the working day has changed – the “clock on/clock off” pattern is not what it was even when I first joined the workforce, where we still had strict core minimum hours (albeit with flexi-time and overtime).  So although many employees may feel like they are working longer hours (especially in the “always on” environment of e-mail, smart phones and remote working), I’m not sure how many of them would say they are working at optimum capacity or maximum efficiency.

For example, the amount of time employees spend on social media (the new smoko?) should not be ignored as a contributory factor in the lack of productivity gains. Yes, I know there are arguments for saying that giving employees access to Facebook et al can be beneficial in terms of research, training and development, networking, connecting with prospective customers and suppliers, and informally advocating for the companies they work for; plus, personal time spent on social media and the internet (e.g., booking a holiday) while at work may mean taking less actual time out of the office.

But let’s try to put this into perspective. With the amount of workplace technology employees have access to (plus the lowering costs of that technology), why are we still not experiencing corresponding productivity gains?

The first problem is poor deployment of that technology. How many times have you spoken to a call centre, only to be told “the system is slow today”, or worse, “the system won’t let me do that”? The second problem is poor training on the technology – if employees don’t have enough of a core understanding of the software and applications they are expected to use (I don’t even mean we all need to be coders or programmers – although they are core skills everyone will need to have in future), how will they be able to make best use of that technology? The third problem is poor alignment of technology – whether caused by legacy systems, so-called tech debt, or simply systems that do not talk to one another. I recently spent over 2 hours at my local bank trying to open a new term deposit – even though I have been a customer of the bank for more than 15 years, and have multiple products and accounts with this bank, I was told this particular product still runs on a standalone DOS platform, and the back-end is not integrated into the other customer information and account management platforms.

Finally, don’t get me started about the NBN, possibly one of the main hurdles to increased productivity for SMEs, freelancers and remote workers. In my inner-city area of Melbourne, I’ve now been told that I won’t be able to access NBN for at least another 15-18 months – much, much, much later than the original announcements. Meanwhile, since NBN launched, my neighbourhood has experienced higher density dwellings, more people working from home, more streaming and on-demand services, and more tech companies moving into the area. So legacy ADSL is being choked, and there is no improvement to existing infrastructure pending the NBN. It feels like I am in a Catch 22, and that the NBN has been over-sold, based on the feedback I read on social media and elsewhere. I’ve just come back from 2 weeks’ holiday in the South Island of New Zealand, and despite staying in some fairly remote areas, I generally enjoyed much faster internet than I get at home in Melbourne.

Next week: Startup Vic’s Impact Pitch Night