Brislen on Tech
It's the end of another year and so time to pause, and reflect on what has been before us.
And what a year it's been? The collision of politics with tech, of users' expectations with providers' business models and of planning with reality has left us all reeling from the "GONGGGGGG" sound you get when you stick your head inside a bell just before someone hits it.
So let's take a look back at 2018 and see if there are any learnings we can take into The Future.
Politicians suck at technology
Ah, politics. I've met a lot of politicians over the years, and I've even been asked to be a politician, but my golden rule is never to join a club that would have someone like me as a member, so that ruled that out.
Politicians seem to have one thing in common, regardless of what side of the house they sit on, or indeed which house they're in altogether, and that is: they really don't understand technology.
Whether it's debating how Uber's service can best be regulated through close questioning of their ability to park on a taxi rank (take a bow that particular New Zealand parliamentary select committee) or keep everyone safe by introducing really bad legislation that will damage a nation's security immeasurably (hat tip: Australia) or fail to ask the obvious questions of Google's CEO because you really want to ask questions about the iPhone (US House of Representatives) or stuff up asking Facebook's CEO relevant questions about the destruction of democracy because you don't understand how the snap of chat works (America, stand up again) or ask politely for Facebook to show up only to have them say "no thanks" because who cares what you want (House of Commons, although bonus points for your committee getting stuck in boots and all despite Zuckerberg's lack of availability), politicians of every rank and colour simply fail to understand even the most basic tenants of this business, of the potential impact of the technology or how best to regulate it in a positive and fruitful way.
Until we have a generation of MPs who have grown up immersed in the technology world we will continue to have poorly thought out laws introduced to do rather obscure things that make little difference to the big picture.
In the meantime, perhaps we could hire some experts to advise us on how these technologies will evolve and what the risks are, but also where the opportunities lie… Oh wait, that didn't work out too well either. Our Chief Technical Officer is now languishing in "political hot potato limbo" and is likely to remain there, more's the pity.
Come on, politicians. It's not that hard. Technology is all around us and you yourselves use it every day. The era of the John Banks politician ("Why would anyone trust their banking to the internet? I just don't understand who could be so stupid" - a more-or-less direct quote from John during an interview I had with him on the radio) has passed and today's MPs and ministers should have a better clue about email, about messages, about copyright, about interception capability, about open platforms, about data sovereignty, about the right to be forgotten, and about how to turn it off and back on again.
Maybe we'll put that on our Christmas wish list for next year.
Techblog - Where to now for the CTO?
Techblog - Curran removed from Cabinet
Tech companies suck at pastoral care
This is a term I've learned while working with a number of different schools and it's one I really like. Pastoral care. It's not, as I first thought, about looking after grass, but rather about looking after the wellbeing of your students.
We already know that tech companies in the US tend to be really bad at this when it comes to their employees (cough cough Amazon cough, and while I'm coughing Chorus and its sub-contractors) but locally they've been quite good at it, going so far as to get good scores in terms of job satisfaction.
But when it comes to customers, tech companies really drop the ball.
Not your tech company, of course. I know your company treats everyone really well. I'm talking about the other tech companies. The ones that ask for a customer's personal data, swear on a stack of bibles as tall as their mother that they'll do the right thing by them and then proceed to fail to do the basics properly.
I'm talking about the tech companies that want you to share your innermost secrets with them and then blab them to the world at large, or at least the nefarious dark net underbelly at large.
You know the ones. Yahoo (3 billion records stolen), Marriott Hotels (500 million stolen and yes, hotels are tech companies too), Under Armour (also a tech company and weighing in with 150 million stolen records), Quora (100 million), Facebook (50 million) and so on and on and on.
If they valued this information they'd treat it better. They'd treat customers better. But they don't and the reason is we're not the customers.
It's an old adage that if you don't pay for something you're not the customer you're the product, but sadly it needs repeating. All of these companies ask you for content (specific content that goes above and beyond what is needed to buy or use the service on offer) in exchange for which they will give you some stuff. But never forget, you're not the customer - your stuff is the product they then on-sell or use to make more money. Marriott wants all that information not because it needs to know your date of birth or mother's maiden name or whatever so you can have a better night's sleep in a hotel, but because it's of value to the company that it knows these things. You might get some kind of reward out of giving the information to them, but all too often that reward is lost in the crush and you see no upside at all, just plenty of downside.
Tech companies (and let's face it, I can't think of a single company I deal with that isn't a "tech company" in one form or another) need to get a lot better at this and fast. We can help with that. We can make it in their best interests to get better at it. We need laws that protect our data and insist that they care - call it health and safety for your private information. Sure, it's tedious that schools have to make sure their charges don't get hurt but frankly we expect nothing less - it's high time tech companies were incentivised along the same lines. Fail to keep our data safe and face massive fines, face jail time, face having your social licence to operate taken away.
We might not be customers but we certainly do have a vote.
Techblog - IT professionals happy in their work
Associated Press - Marriott security breach exposed data of up to 500M guests
Techblog - Move quickly on mandatory data breach disclosure laws (from 2011 when the situation was simply urgent)
Facebook sucks at democracy
If there's one story that is yet to fully play out it's the tale of Facebook and the steady erosion of trust that is currently taking place in our democracy.
That's very grand as far as statements go but I do believe this issue cannot be overstated.
I had this conversation with my kids the other day - can you name the three branches of government (we were comparing New Zealand politics with US so were getting into the "why don't we have a president" section of learning).
We got monarch/president/executive/whatever you call it for the first, and parliament for the second, but the third took some time. The judiciary! Judges! Enforcing the laws of the land written by those pesky politicians in the first place.
So we discussed at length how important it was to have a totally independent judiciary that can act as a check and balance on an otherwise pretty unrestrained parliament.
Ah, said I, now can you name the fourth leg of this stool.
The media plays a vital role in our democracy and one that yes, I know it's hard to admit but it's true, goes beyond cat videos, crossword puzzles and clickbait.
The media has to act as a sanity check on the excesses of government or it's all pretty much for nothing. Media as entertainment is fine but I'd rather watch a scripted TV show (Patriot is excellent, by the way). Media as sense check is essential to a properly functioning democracy.
So when a new media player comes along, decimates the existing media landscape, sucks up all the resources and then refuses to admit it's a media player at all, I get nervous. When it goes one step further and starts pushing particular ideologies I get more than nervous, I get angry.
And when that platform then refuses to accept any form of responsibility, but continues to give away data, to share information on a truly colossal scale and pushes out information designed to skew understanding of key issues that really do matter (the economy, the ecology, the political landscape) then it's time to act.
We already have problems with large international players ignoring New Zealand laws (I'm thinking in particular of privacy and just this week our legal system's right to decide who gets named and when) but when you add to that Facebook's willingness to allow mass manipulation of newsfeeds that are ostensibly driven by algorithms but are in fact driven by dollars, then we're all in big trouble.
Facebook is facing the music from a number of legislative bodies around the world and New Zealand should be added to that list. But so too should some of the other tech companies out there that simply refuse to abide by the law of the land. Google is happy to censor Nazi paraphernalia for the German market, happy to erase discussions about democracy for the Chinese market and apparently OK with blurring US army installations around the world for the US market, but they can't figure out how not to breach New Zealand's name suppression laws? Pull the other one.
Facebook has a huge challenge ahead of it. If it wants to retain that social licence to operate, it needs to be seen to address some of these issues head on. But if, as is increasingly the case, the company wants to tough it out, it's going to have to find a way to explain how it has handled data from a privacy point of view, which companies and agencies it has shared it with from an international point of view, and answer some very angry questions about its compliance with various countries' laws relating to political spending, and that is a debate that isn't going to end well.
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