Life in technology-land, it transpires, is a lot more complicated than Silicon Valley had us believe. The price of ‘free’ is going up each day. And it is not just financial. Every internet upside, it’s becoming clear, has a downside. Thus the drive for frictionless online experience runs up against the online Catch-22, which is that if something is accessible it is not secure, and vice versa. Accessibility and security are incompatible. The threat is fractal, from phishing and other attempted scams that most of us will have experienced at our Mac or PC, to ransomware attacks on organisations (the recent hack involving the NHS and many others around the world was just the biggest so far); and even national level (subverting democracy, as alleged in the US elections and the Brexit vote). A variation on this law is that if you can hack you can get hacked back: to add insult to injury the malware used in the NHS attack was developed – at taxpayers’ expense – by, and then stolen from, the US National Security Agency.
Many observers fear that the next financial meltdown in the works is not the regulators’ inability to model the system they are supposed to regulate, nor the spread of derivatives backed by new types of securitised asset classes, eg student or car-purchase loans (although both of those are serious enough). It’s cyber attacks on big banks. An audience at Davos in 2016 heard that the hacking of even a mid-sized US bank could have systemic consequences globally. The panel agreed that cyber security was a major issue of our time: a management as much a technological problem. In a typically blunt piece in the Evening Standard, Tony Hilton recently pointed out that the threat is made worse by cost-cutting among the biggest companies, which has been the source of much of their apparent financial improvement over the last two decades.
‘In terms of increased operational efficiency the results have been impressive,’ Hilton noted. ‘But too often it comes at the expense of resilience leaving businesses vulnerable to shocks and setbacks. [British business] is fragile to a far greater degree than ever before’. This at a time fraud is becoming much more like a business, complete with professional specialisms and supply chains like any other industry. Criminologists suggest that the current downward trend in violent crime is nothing to do with deterrence, better policing or villains going straight. Rather it is the mirror image of the growth of online fraud: why would anyone take the physical risk of burgling a house when you can break into a bank account from your laptop without leaving the comfort of your own home?
Where technology, or anything else, is underpriced it is likely to be used indiscriminately and for its own sake rather than for its real, harder-to-achieve benefits. Technology can be used to make us smarter or dumber, to augment human intelligence or replace it. Moravec’s paradox says that what’s high-level for humans (go, chess, accountancy) is trivial for computers and vice versa (computers can’t unpack a washing-up machine or iron and fold clothes and put them in a drawer). Moravec in combination with artificially cheap tech tools perversely guarantees that computers will eat the high-level, high-paid jobs and leave humans with with low-level, low-paid ones (Uber gigs, the many varieties of personal care). Too many tech applications are about features, not benefits. Uber destroys more value than it creates, and of what it does create it appropriates by far the lion’s share. Do we need more dating or disappearing photo apps? What is the social question to which driverless cars are the answer?
Now add to this an ad-based, more bluntly surveillance, business model, whose currency is attention. An attention economy militates in favour of not only accessibility with attendant vulnerabilities as outlined above, but also persuasion, seduction, and manipulation of all kinds, whether through greed (betting) sensationalism (fake news), desire (porn) or fear, all designed to make users give up ever more of their personal details as they spend just an extra minute on each site. The costs for individuals are addiction, shortened attention span, solipsism, isolation. ‘The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads’, one data guru famously lamented. This is technology that makes us dumber at a meta scale. ‘It's not just ruining our attention, it's ruining our minds,’ says Tristan Harris, an ex-Googler who founded a Time Well Spent movement. ‘The attention problem makes it harder to solve every other problem.’
All technology involves interference with ‘nature’ which creates winners and losers. As such it behoves us to use it not just ‘because we can’ but with forethought and a duty of care to people – in conjunction with humans, not against or instead of them. The heading on a post on FTAlphaville recently warned: ‘More technology, more problems. At some point we may have to ask: is it worth it?’