Challenges of a New Decade

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Arab Spring showed what technology could do in society. Getty Image.

It finally struck me over the break that it wasn’t simply another year end, but the end of a decade. Having lived through the end of a millennium, I guess I could be forgiven for taking a decade in stride. But then it occurred to me that more things happen in a decade these days than happened in all of a century, say the 12th as an example.

That got me musing about things typical at a milestone like this, as well as some that aren’t quite as typical…

The decade began in the aftermath of one of the worst global economic catastrophes in history, rivalling the Great Depression (that began in 1929). It drove discontent among the global middle-classes in ways we couldn’t have predicted pre-social media.

The Arab Spring happened in 2011 when people subjugated by decades of totalitarian rule in the Middle East took to the streets armed only with cell phones, demanding better and fairer treatment. The Arab Spring was made possible through social media and internet technology and they were front and centre for much of what happened throughout the rest of the decade. More importantly though, these technologies, and several more, have gone from wondrous curiosities that seemed to be bending history’s curve toward justice, to the core elements of what looks like growing repression. In short, the past decade revealed tech’s dark underbelly.

My retrospective analysis started when I began reading Shoshana Zouboff’s new book, . I was a fan of her 2002 book The Support Economy, and I referenced her in a paper I wrote in 2004, titled The New Garage, which said in part,

Enterprise applications that merely track transaction data are ubiquitous and rather than bringing the vendor and customer closer together, as CRM promised, according to Harvard Business School professor, Shoshana Zouboff[1], customers are more alienated and show less loyalty than ever before.

A real balck swan.

In retrospect, that seems like my awakening to the dark underside of social. We knew enterprise software needed more than what we entered the century with, more data, analysis, and communications, but we had no idea what additional technologies would cost. It’s amazing to me now that we never thought to ask what the cost was and we certainly could have.

Asking about the potential underside is an idea brought to the forefront in 2007 by Nassim Nicolas Taleb in “The Black Swan” from which many of us first got accustomed to the idea of unknown unknowns. But Zouboff points out that rather than doing that, i.e. looking for the unknowns, more often than not, we humans instead try to normalize the unknown so that it is amenable to analysis by conventional thinking. In the end applying conventional thinking to sui generis phenomena is just plain lazy.

Not to get political but (okay, just for a moment) we watched as someone ascended to political power by outright unconventional means, portending things that were antithetical to our traditions. But rather than asking about the possible unknown consequences we normalized it all by saying things like he’ll become presidential when he’s president. Still waiting on that, but I use this as a metaphor and not a screed.

So, what do Zouboff’s and Taleb’s ideas have to teach us in the new decade? Perhaps what many already sense, that we’re in for a wild ride and not just politically but in technology and CRM especially. It’s easy expanding and claiming new land but much harder bringing law and order to the newly settled territory and that’s what the next decade in tech looks to have in store.

Economic cycles get started by technological disruptions and both pass predictable milestones. At the beginning we see birthing and early adoption and later, as the disruption matures, commoditization and market saturation but also in many cases we see regulation.

Regulation happens when a disruption is so big and its economic consequences so profound that all people must have it and the rules of sharing that resource need to be written down and enforced. We saw this with the road system, telephone and electricity but also with such basics as water and sanitation services. Some disruptions skirt or avoid the regulation trap and society is not necessarily well served. The internet and its most heavily used apps like social media are not regulated but maybe they should be. They’re certainly undergoing a robust wild west phase.

This brings us back to social media and machine-based analytics. Once the darling of the tech-literati but now the bane of democratic governments these technologies, if left unchecked, continue to change the social dynamic around the world, and not in a good way. They are becoming the tools of strongmen for manipulating populations crowding out sensible discourse with the verbal equivalent of mudwrestling.

They are the underside of the tech era. They are also too valuable to be exiled from society, which is why they need regulation. As recently as November, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff likened social media to nicotine addiction, telling journalist Kara Swisher, that Facebook is the new cigarettes. He went on, “You know, it’s addictive. It’s not good for you. There’s people trying to get you to use it that even you don’t understand what’s going on. The government needs to step in. The government needs to really regulate what’s happening.”

He’s right, of course, but there’s regulation and then there’s regulation and it should concern all of us that the regulation we seek is sensible and easily enforced. That’s why I have been championing to idea of regulating social media through licensing and certification, which we already use in professions and industries like medicine, law, construction and personal services like hair styling.

In all of these areas, practitioners must demonstrate proficiency through certification and licensing and practitioners in social media and its use with analytics and machine learning should have to do the same. But there’s a fine line we establish in regulating these societal necessities. For example, we can all represent ourselves in small claims court, take over the counter medications, even cut our own hair and the world will not bother us. But when we try to do any of these things for others, we act as professionals who should have ethics which drives the need for credentials.

Oliver Wendell holmes, Jr., National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

We need similar balance with social media and how we use other people’s data. We can’t go on letting social moguls pontificate about free speech without accepting a duty to first do no harm, something the medical profession figured out a long time ago. To my mind that threshold was asset 100 years ago by Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

In Schenck v. United States Holmes articulated the free speech standard that has held for over a century. There is no absolute right to free speech, Holmes observed. You can’t falsely shout “fire” in a theater, cause a panic and expect the First Amendment to bail you out because you were just exercising your right. In Schenck Holmes first announced the “clear and present danger” test which basically said that free speech can’t be the refuge of individuals intent on causing harm with their words. Schenck was announced as a unanimous decision of the court.

Something like that should apply to social media and the easiest way to get there is by requiring those who use it professionally to be, well, certified professionals. So far social media companies have gotten a free pass by trotting out the same tired arguments that other would-be monopolists have always used: It would clobber the economy, or the industry, or prices would spike, or your rights are being violated. But nothing is further from the truth.

In the next decade, we’re going to have to clean up some of the mess made by cloud computing, mobile devices, the wireless internet, social media and other gee-wiz tech since the turn of the century. The good news is that it’s a predictable journey and a path well-traveled. There are economic waves, like K-waves, that explain what we’re going through in more detail. Regulation is a key component but so should be taking a hard look at business models and while we’re at it developing global conventions on data privacy and a treaty on cyber warfare.

If the treaty idea seems far-fetched keep in mind that the US just budgeted for a Space Force akin to the Army, Navy and Air Force. Many people think this is nuts. It would be great not to need to militarize outer space and that may depend on how we regulate cyber-attacks or fail to because we need to determine when a cyber-attack is really an act of war. It’s certain that we’ve turned a corner on more than the calendar. Technology’s childhood, its innocence, ended in the decade just passed and now we need to figure out how to ensure a long, prosperous and sane adulthood.

(Cross-posted @ Denis Pombriant | Medium)