Bulletin February 16 2018. On swords and ploughshares

I need to thank Aleks Krotoski for bringing Kranzberg’s first law to my attention: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”  A stark example, though by no means the most violent, was the gun designed by Richard Gatling in 1861. Gatling was a complex character, so keen⁠ to demonstrate the futility of war that he created a weapon which showed no regard for human life. If any weapon ever did. 

Gatling was, let us say, a complex character — at the same time as selling his weapon to the US Army, he sided⁠ with the Confederates. His invention changed the nature of war in particular, and society in general, as profoundly as Jethro Tull’s seed drill changed the nature of agriculture. While the latter might be seen as a better result, the industrial consequence was to drive many thousands of people into factories, slaves to the machines. 

Against the background of a tragic, sobering, repeated and seemingly unstoppable cycle of school killings, I do not make the comparison between the equipment of war and that of agriculture lightly. Both involve the same materials, and both can be used for righteous good or for unconscionable ill. But even as it might not result directly in violence, a similar type of moral ambiguity is rife in the technological world. 

An ethical debate around technology exists, but it rarely comes up in the thousands of conversations in which I have been involved. Most, if not all examples chosen by vendors illustrate the ‘good’ uses of tech, with the ‘less good’ tending to emerge from real-world experience. So, smart city debates might talk about the wonders of shifting people efficiently, but will avoid bringing up notions of crowd control. 

Why is this? I think we, as an industry, genuinely think that the things we do are all for the better. The positive, optimistic voices lead our keynote speeches and case studies, leaving little room for discussion of the downsides (is it any wonder why cybersecurity tends to get forgotten during design?). And as Frederic Filloux suggests, the amount of chagrin around having drunk too much kool-aid doesn’t change the behaviour — we can all have regrets in hindsight. 

I don’t have any answers, and I wish I did. As I wrote last week, part of it does come from our lawmaking — the nature of legislation is that it covers the areas that the state is willing to control, as per the will of its elected people and its ability to be evenhanded despite the power of unelected lobbies. Another goodly part also comes from within us all, as we accept that such optimism needs to be tempered, not with cynicism but reality. 

This also means that not all problems can be solved with the latest technology. Even as we look to make every single device from toasters to traffic-cones smarter, legislation to monitor firearm use with databases of any form continues to be blocked in the US. It is not my place to say how to do things differently in another country, but the scenario illustrates how one technological advance is restricted, such that another can continue unabated. 

Perhaps Kranzberg’s first law should read: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is our use of it neutral.” In these times of great change, let none of us look back and feel that our biggest act of complicity was to stay silent when it mattered. 

Which brings to some articles. 

The Seven Deadly Sins of the Digital World 

Here’s something I started writing as a bit of whimsy, and ended up feeling a bit depressed. I do remain optimistic, don’t get me wrong — I remain confident that we shall look back on this period in a few decades as one of the most transformative periods in history, not unlike that moment when someone said to someone else, “What’s that you’ve got there?” “Oh, dunno, think I’ll call it ‘iron’. Let’s see what happens if I sharpen it.” 

Messaging the use of AI against terrorist propaganda

Democratisation remains a key element of the information age: simply put, anyone can now say anything to anyone else, anywhere. The message behind this article is that we all have the same tools, so it boils down to how well we use them. Oh, and the law of unintended consequences continues to play out. 

UK Cloud Awards 2018

As a judge for this year’s UK Cloud Awards, it’s only a month to go before I’m wading through the unprecedented numbers of entries. Awards events are only as good as the quality of the entries, which puts them in the same category as employment CVs and kids’ homeworks (and opens to the same questions about the level of help they might have along the way). Unsurprisingly, I shall be looking for examples of best practice that others can learn from. 

Webinar: IT as a platform for business success

I’ll be ‘mein host’ for a Register webinar in a few weeks’ time — a great position to be in, as all I have to do is ask questions of great panellists and bask in their reflected glory. In this webinar the topic is how mid-market businesses can go beyond tinkering with their IT and start taking on the bigger companies: the answer is going to be architectural, easy to say, harder to do! Always a pleasure to hang out with my old friend and colleague Tony Lock

Extra-curricular — local leg-ends 

I know it’s only one marketing statement, but I confess to have had a huge buzz from Lechlade Festival calling Plucking Different “local legends” — we will be playing the fourth year in a row, with headliners Scouting for Girls. Rehearsal tonight before our first gig of the year, at Stroud Brewery. Expect Fleetwood Mac, Rolling Stones, Pulp, The Corals, George Ezra, Arcade Fire, U2, Muse, and of course, Gogol Bordello as well as beer and pizza!

Oh and I shall be run director for this weekend’s Cirencester parkrun. Love parkrun, what a great, inclusive and healthy event. 

Finally, thank you to all my subscribers. Any questions or feedback, let me know.

Until next time, Jon

Bulletin February 16 2018. On swords and ploughshares

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