Bulletin 7 September 2018. A computer that says yes: who wants one?

I have been doing a lot of interviews recently with a group I will loosely call ‘digital leaders’, that is, people responsible for making technology make a transformative difference (as opposed to just meeting a need). I know, that already sounds like it’s vanishing up its own rear, but they are genuinely making, or have made, such changes to their businesses. And this observer has been learning a lot from them. 

As discussed on a previous occasion, the ill-understood term digital transformation does have a place, as it moves the conversation from under, to above the bonnet (or hood) of the car (or automobile). The more I think about it (and I hold my hand up as someone who is working through this very process), this is about reframing our understanding of technology as something that enables, as opposed to something that responds. 

Now, then. This is tricky stuff for me of all people to write about, particularly given my reputation for waffle. “Nice stuff, Jon, but can we make it a bit more crunchy/specific/fact-based/etc?” said just about everyone I’ve ever worked with, and rightly so. Something that enables vs. something that responds? Or, put more bluntly, what on earth is he on about this time? 

To make it a bit more crunchy/specific, I’m going to borrow from a call I had today about how our use of technology is moving from systems of record, surrounded by processes. We are asked for information in a certain way and in a certain order, because that’s what the computer tells us it needs. And, largely, we are so overwhelmed with the wonder and magic of it all, we go along with it, be it filling in our tax returns, applying for a mortgage or booking a holiday. We accept, like the digital serfs that we are, pulling technology-powered turnips out of the frozen ground with unspoken gratitude. 

But this is not how things are going to be. Rather, we will be allowing data to flow to where it is needed, with interfaces that enable us to do the things we want to do. I don’t need to say this as some kind of futurist, as it’s already happening: those upstart online companies have got to where they are by using this one, simple trick, of allowing the user, not the computer, to define the process, moving the tech into a subordinate role. Which tech is perfectly happy to occupy, if it is programmed to do so.  

I’m not sure what else to add, other than to acknowledge that we are nowhere near this becoming the norm. As an example, I mentioned tax — some work I did last year involved interviewing government officials, who saw tax-as-you-go as a viable alternative to current (data entry based) systems. We haven’t even begun to understand just how profound a difference it will make to our lives, when this shift takes place, in tax, in retail, in finance, in healthcare: even ‘modern’ tools like Facebook will appear linear, clunky and old-fashioned as a result. (Oh, wait, they already do).

It’s going to happen, either over a period of time or in an explosion of change. Sure, there will be governance issues, privacy challenges, problems of misuse and the (continuing) potential for global destabilisation. All of which is exactly why we need to talk about it now. A storm is brewing: however much we rely on “computers that say no” at the moment, we are already moving away from the place where they have are burden rather than enabler. And we don’t have to look very far: as William Gibson once noted, the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. And, for those who want it, it’s there for the taking. 

Apologies, no articles this week! But I’ve got a few queued up so watch this space…

All the best, Jon

Also published on Medium.

Bulletin 7 September 2018. A computer that says yes: who wants one?

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