Everything, Everywhere, Everyone

Back in 1984 I was 17 and in my last year of high school. As part of rather half hearted attempts to turn out rounded young people, we were encouraged to read more widely than our chosen A Level subjects demanded. There was a room lined with many years of issues of The New Society, Economist and New Scientist magazines. We also had a room where we were allowed to smoke on school premises, as far as I could tell, with the same motivation. That is, literally, breath taking. At least it was a different room I suppose.

That year, I read an article in The New Scientist about the Internet. I must have read hundreds of articles in that room (ok, tens). The only one I remember was that one. In part because of the co incidence that followed, but also because the potential was obvious and terribly exciting. At that time, internet was already in its teens but still largely unknown to most of us, being mostly of interest to military and academic types.

A few months later I was interviewed for a place at the University I was later to attend. As part of the day we were subjected to talks, tours and interviews. One of the talks was instantly recognisable to me. It was essentially the article I’d read a few months earlier in lecture form. I stuck my hand up with a doubtless nauseating combination of smugness pretending to be earnestness, and asked if he’d written said New Scientist article. He had. Later that day it just so happened that he interviewed me. It was a comically easy interview. He wasn’t to know that that was the only vaguely relevant thing I’d read outside of the classroom in my entire 6th form.

Setting aside my good fortune, I also recall the disorienting feeling I got from reading that article as it dawned on me, that the implications of being able to transfer data from anywhere to anywhere, reliably and almost instantaneously were imaginable but also chaotically unpredictable.  The article left me feeling excited and bewildered at the same time.  It was the first time in my life I learned of something relatively unknown and knew that THIS WAS GOING TO BE HUGE. THIS WAS GOING TO CHANGE EVERYTHING!

Since then all sorts of things have happened, socially, politically and technologically.  Some of those things have been huge too. It was not until recently that I again came across something a little obscure and again had that same feeling of immediately imaginable but ultimately chaotic consequence.

In November 2015 I was walking a stretch of the South Downs Way, just outside Winchester.  Despite being November it was warm and sunny and I got sun burn.  It never occurred to me to wear sun cream in November!  As I wandered along I listened to an article from The Economist.  It was about another technology that is GOING TO CHANGE EVERYTHING.  That is BlockChain.  At the moment this is the preserve of tech geeks, entrepreneurs, governments and worried bankers. I had to stop for a few minutes to think it through, frazzling further as a result.

Blockchain, to quote The Economist article is a Trust Machine.  Arcane huh?  So what?

Managing trust is really important but gets in the way.  It makes otherwise easy processes expensive and slow. Sometimes it means we are not properly in control of things that are ours such that we trade that control for ease of use. In many countries it slows their economies and holds back development.

A very few examples, of very very many…

Banking:

A lot of what they do boils down to the fact that we trust them (albeit grudgingly) to manage transactions and stores of value on our behalf.  Make that easy to replicate and setting up a bank becomes much easier, simpler to scale and a lot less risky to get into.  As well as that being a challenge to the banks it could also do for financial management in the developing world what mobile did for communication (and a few clunky financial transfers).

Legal

A lot of what lawyers do is execute processes in an independent and standard way so we can manage risks through someone we trust.  Behind the scenes they are often executing very standard processes.  Add automated trust and all sorts of processes can go digital.  Probate, conveyancing and almost anything that needs a notary just for starters.  More importantly, remove the friction of the lawyer and lots of other processes that appear to need lawyers open themselves up for disruption. To be brief, consider that most contracts, however expensively drawn up, are combinations of parameters that could be automatically negotiated if only the trust component could be served.

Democracy

Surely it has occurred to most people that we ought to be able to vote online? Once we can do that, we can have a referendum every five minutes if we like.  I didn’t say it was all good!

More generally:

Identity:

The scope here is eye watering. For a taster consider how much on line now depends on reputation. Uber drivers, AirBnB hosts and guests, credible restaurant reviews and so on.  Then there is the control and monetisation of our identities on line.  I can think of nothing more likely to disrupt Facebook and Google’s dominance than the application of this technology.

Anonymity vs Accountability:

This is a hot internet topic where the balance between, say,  unaccountable trolls and the need to be able to blow the whistle on wrong doing makes the issue of anonymity intractable.  That is, until you add a trust broker, who holds your acceptance of accountability in escrow so you can be anonymous when there is a need.

Ownership:

This is also impossibly clunky at present.  As with banking, this will be an area of huge disruption to vested interest (banks, lawyers in particular) and a fast track to developing countries to gain access to the sort of systems (e.g. land registry, I could have told you it was dull) that create the sort of secure environment that accelerates commerce and growth.  The sort of frameworks that took us hundreds of years to build could easily be set up and scaled in a generation for the rest of the developing world.

I could go on at much greater length.  Like I say, this changes EVERYTHING,  it changes it EVERYWHERE and it will do so for EVERYONE.

There will doubtless be down sides. The most obvious is the wholesale destruction of very many very high value jobs and the further concentration of power and wealth around those who own the Blockchains.  Some of the implications for the Internet of Things are too mind bending to explore here until I have thought a bit more.

The Economist article is here, you should be able to read it without a subscription as long as you haven’t read too many already this week.  There are oodles of others.

http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21677198-technology-behind-bitcoin-could-transform-how-economy-works-trust-machine

There are issues in scaling Blockchain.  I’m expecting some innovations and doubtless a few compromises will be needed to make it work.

The implications are truly staggering.  Let’s a have a look in 20-30 years.  Another blink of an eye.

What do you think?

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Everything, Everywhere, Everyone

  1. Before I comment specifically on the various points raised in your extremely eloquent post (not lost it yet, Tony) I thought I would recount another related story that someone told me just as I started to work for one of the biggest media companies in the world. They have a resident peacock, in case you ask. We were discussing the immediacy of news coverage, and how it is expected to be here, now, in full technicolor, 24/7 and ideally with the odd drone or VR headset thrown in for good measure. In turn, I described one of the first really major, and sustained, news stories that I remember growing up: the Falkland’s War. For those that were around then (have to assume some readers were still a bottle of oaked Chardonnay away from coming into existence), this was a BIG thing in the UK. BIG. And we sent our best and most illustrious correspondent to travel, by destroyer, down there. His name is/was Brian Hanrahan. What I remember vividly of the time was you got news in doses, most likely as part of the 6 o’clock news, or perhaps the 9 o’clock news (and if you were just dragging yourself out of the swamps, and just HAD to watch ITV, the 10 o’clock news). So Brian only got to tell you what he’d been up to once, perhaps twice, a day. Otherwise, it was back to kicking a football / rugby ball / child around the school playing field and you mostly forgot all about it.

    So why was this rather strange sharing of views on news important, and particularly relevant to the topics in hand ? It’s all about a generational shift in expectations. We never expected to hear Brian 24/7 and, frankly, it was shocking enough to hear about him once a day. But now we get to be IN the battlefield, with real soldiers sporting GoPros and showing us the battlefield all day, every day. And that is now what we expect. We want instant gratification. But then we want instant everything. Instant data (what do you mean, the “live” train times are 2 minutes delayed ??), instant downloads (Virgin now selling you 200Mbps that you just HAVE to have or the world will end), or instant video (hello Netflix, come in, wipe your feet, have a bread stick, but don’t annoy Uncle Ronnie).

    And the strange thing in all this is that you and I grew up in a world when this wasn’t the case, so our point of reference is a comparison to the good old days when the Two Ronnies used Twitter as an innuendo, not as a way of getting a bigger audience. But the generation that we all pro-created did not have the benefit of living through that. They’ve grown up, for many, not even knowing a world without the Internet, without Smartphones, or without the 21st century equivalent of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Only this one actually works. And as a result, the compass by which they lead their lives is generationally different, VERY different, and many of the measures by which they value their lives are almost at odds with much of what you describe above. Concepts of Identity, Ownership and Anonymity are not necessarily alien to them, but they certainly mean very different things and have different reference points. And simply because they’ve grown up in a world where the information, devices and society around them have built a set of values that I really don’t think we (us over 40s) can really get our heads around.

    But the biggest problem in all this – and something you don’t really attend to in your verbal ramble – is that, right now, we’re in charge (that’s us over 40s again). For now. But increasingly not. Within 10 years the leaders of many of the major corporations of this world will be lead by the generation that grew up Hanrahanless. The generation that didn’t need to read about t’internet in a PAPER (what’s that ??) publication. They’ve never known a world without it. So have designed their existence around it. But now THEY are leading the world.

    Without wishing to sound like the portent of doom, I do see many positives in all this. We have considerably more knowledge at our fingertips than we ever had before, in fact probably ever since the dawn of time. Want to know Shane Warne’s brother’s name ? That’ll be Siri on hand to answer your question.

    I will, however, introduce one heading you’ve not touched upon. And that is authenticity. To be, being authentic goes to the very heart of human nature. It’s about soul, credibility, ethics, honesty, sincerity and candour. And when we all had to talk to each other (as in, face to face, not using Whatschatappagram) it was the difference between whether we wanted to do business or not. But now, we can fake our authenticity. Because we can use the Internet as the bridge to human interaction. And nobody has developed the Internet Authenticity Filter, that I know of. And so, the generation of leaders who are growing up around our ears do not possess the capacity to understand the difference between authentic and not, and especially when presented with another human being in front of them, like, really in front of them, like.

    Now THAT is what worries me. Because not being authentic generates almost all of the concerns you raise above. And nobody could ever have doubted that Brian wasn’t being authentic when he grew his beard.

    • Hi

      As ever a few things missed the cut. One was the current cliche that “the pace of is now slower than it will ever be”. While I doubt that is technically true, the underlying point that the pace of change is about to accelerate dramatically and that we ain’t seen nothing yet is I think true. 

      I’ve just read (listened to actually) Napoleon The Great, his biography by Andrew Roberts. It’s astonishing what that man got done, well worth a read (or listen). One of his many pet sayings was that at some point it is one drop of water that trips the overflow. Once that happens, the dynamic shifts dramatically. In the main he was referring to critical moves in battle. It’s rather like the tipping point theory I suppose.

      We have seen lots of actually quite incremental change which has had a huge effect on our lives, habits and as you say, how we think, what constitutes, “normal”. Almost all things we think normal had only been so for decades usually.

      On the other hand, we have had lawyers, accountants, shop keepers, bankers and so on for centuries and that makes this event different but inevitable and pointless to fight and essential to embrace, regardless of your generation. It’s too fast to let that be a frame of reference.

      More important are the opportunities this opens.  The services offered by those professions were slow, expensive and difficult to access (even the less obvious shop keeper, who was actually first to go!). Take away the barriers and we don’t do the same for less. We do more, anywhere, even (especially) where it used not to be possible for reasons of availability and cost. That makes all sorts possible in the developing world, in historical terms, overnight and elsewhere simply due to reduced friction and lower cost.

      As to authenticity, I agree. I can see it coming back into fashion. 

      I go to a cinema called Everyman. They are a chain. It is very nicely appointed, cool staff, nice bar, but of course can be solely a digital transaction. Before each performance, the manager stands at the front and talks to the audience for 30-40 seconds about phones, drinks and is generally smiley and nice. It is short enough not to be a pain and personal enough to be real. The audience love it, because it is authentic. There is always a murmured chorus of “thank yous”.

      I’m tempted to paste your comment as a stand alone post 

      Cheers, beer soon?

      • I like Everyman cinemas. We have one near us in Walton-on-Thames. In fact they’ve sort of followed me around since the days when I lived in Islington and used to go to Screen On The Green. For full disclosure, I only started to go there because it was the only cinema I could have a pint in whilst watching the film, but it did end up as somewhere I thoroughly enjoyed since the staff / popcorn / seats weren’t made of plastic. But I have to admit I’ve never had the manager come out and give us all a pep talk. It’s endearing but you have to think that may also be something to do with your proximity to lots of trees and hills (as opposed to lots of concrete and red buses).

        But back to the discussion. I agree wholeheartedly that, on balance, this whole thing represents a massive opportunity. I’m constantly amazed by what my kids know, and I don’t mean what they’re taught at school. I mean facts about stuff, or knowledge about how to do stuff. They’re self-taught in a whole range of things that we’ve spent years, and countless library visits and night school classes, trying to master. My youngest daughter edited a spoof movie trailer, featuring her, with music, titles, and a story. I may work in the media industry but I never taught her to do that. And you know what ? It’s bloody good. Did I mention she’s only 10 ?

        So the point here is really what’s going on around your whole article and point on Bitcoin and traditional financial services. It’s being driven by the generation who adopts and adapt with voracity like we’ve never seen. And in due course, the senior leadership of the banks will also be populated by the same people, with the same mindset. Now THAT changes everything.

        We have a debate at work around sub-25s and their disaffection with ‘traditional’ TV. The fact they would prefer watching on an iPad (probably wired up to headphones). The fact they HATE watching something at the time it was scheduled to be on. And the fact they are increasingly doing more than just watching TV – multiscreen is the norm, not the exception. The debate centres around whether, when these 18 year-olds are 38 year-olds, they morph into us over-40s, and adopt the same traditional behaviours. I fervently believe the answer to that is an equivocal and big fat NO. They have never been like us, and they never will be like us. They have grown up in an environment where the inputs, and expectations, are absolutely totally and fundamentally completely different to almost anything we did growing up. They’re basically another species that just happen to share the same genome (sorry to all the geneticist puritans out there).

        And you know what ? I absolutely love it. It makes me truly believe we are undergoing a technical revolution, and I’m part of it, with or without Larry Grayson.

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