2018/04 The Digital 1%

Elysium, In Time, Upside Down – some of the many dystopian stories where a small segment of society with access to the best tech (and quality of life) pits itself against the rest (of us) who are relying on outdated tech (and probably living in ghettos). We probably notice the cool tech more than we do the growing similarity between fiction and reality. When we think of the 1%, we probably think of those holding the most money. The reality going forward is that the 1% will be holding the best tech (okay and still the most money).

I have written before about our relationship with tech and with things.  Advising clients about the updates to their websites now that the EU GDPR policy soon goes into place, however, got me thinking about the periphery of things. That, and my child wanting to build a website last week. That was the easy part! Information, education, and the quality of life we take for granted and enjoy through tech – how might that change going forward?

We speak of the Internet of Things and Digital Culture with a casual assumption about our participation. The speed of technological development coupled with our expectation to have access to the latest gadgets mean that at some point we may at the very least be bankrupting ourselves just to keep up with the Joneses. The requirements we have to communicate with a phone, to watch the latest movies, to find information on the internet, to exercise and track our progress were met years ago. In the same way that our driving needs were most likely met with our first car. The ways in which technology has improved our lives is now being surpassed by all the extras we want but really do not need. If you think of improvements in a garden rake over the last 50 years, and your requirements of a garden rake in your garden, you will understand what I mean.

The rate of change in tech is staggering. It was only 11 years ago that the iPhone was released. Think of your first mobile phone and home computer. If the technology of cars advanced at the same rate as computers, then a new VW Beetle would now cost 4 cents. Most of us are lucky enough, in addition to enjoying all these gadgets, to also have free access to water, shelter, food, education, gasoline, electricity, things (which we can also easily throw away); but what might change over the next few years?

Access to Information
The new EU GDPR policy goes into place in May. What has been heralded as a way to protect us and our data from misuse can also be seen as a way to make us pay in the future for what we are used to receiving free of charge today. As Larry Downes correctly wrote in his recent article :

As information collection and use become more expensive through GDPR … consumers will pay the price, directly and otherwise. The transition will be chaotic and even traumatic for users weaned on free stuff, many of whom will be unable to pay for services that are no longer ad-supported and are less personalized. Our great global conversation may become both quieter and more insular. For those who can afford it, the EU’s new deal for data will make interactions feel more private and less, well, creepy. … however, What about the rest of us?

We always have to give something to get something.  While we may feel that the tracking pixel and personalised ads were a subtle intrusion into our lives, we should keep in mind that our digital culture did not jump into being the moment computers went online. Our digital habits, especially our habits as consumers, have their roots in both the online and offline world with links far predating the world wide web. These components are both persuasive and historical.  We should therefore be prepared for what business (and government) have in store for us as we begin to feel that our data “is safe”.  Safety is often a trade-off for performance or worse, for control.

Education
I live in Germany. We are lucky in that our child goes to a small school in a relatively good, middle class neighbourhood. However we already experience even here the growing teacher shortage. The children have a computer class once a week (in the 3rd grade), but tech is not used in the classrooms (there are no tablets or other devices available).

It is said that Germany must invest nearly €3 billion a year in technology for schools if it wants to stay competitive globally. Many are of the opinion that this figure is probably a third of what is really necessary. More imporantly however is that the number of children in elementary school is expected to rise from 2.8 million today to about 3.2 million by 2030.
German primary schools (alone) could soon be missing as many as 24,000 teachers, a development that is expected to spill over to high schools already grappling with a wave of retirement and a lack of young teachers.

A total of 129.2 billion euros was spent on education in Germany in 2016 – five billion more than in 2015. Germany is a country that invests a lot of money in education; no other country in Europe spends more.  However, Germany’s educational expenditure is high only in absolute terms. In the European Union, only the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Italy spend a smaller proportion of their GNP on education than Germany.

A Dystopian Future?
What does the future hold for us if we are unable to afford access to information, or to the best tech? What skills (analog as well as digital) will our children require in work and to live? Will we have the best/useful information? Suitable educational resources? Access to important health care patches even?

I see a time when good devices, reliable internet/wifi, good tech will be available only at considerable cost and then only to a very small segment of the population.  Just like it is today when it comes to quality food, water, and quality of life. There will still be internet and wifi, mobile phones, software etc for everyone – but I believe there will be a divide between our tech and their tech much like there is a difference between eating at McDonalds or at a Michelin restaurant. When we are talking about healthcare, education, housing, food and water – that becomes a very scary but very realistic future.

*Post update May 10, 2019 Are we losing the ability to read and write? Is Digital dumbing us down? https://www.sueddeutsche.de/bildung/sprache-deutsch-analphabetismus-studie-1.4435933

*Post update March 25, 2019 – in an obvious switch, the 1% will not want to turn into the smartphone zombies that the rest of us are mutating into. They will have something better – real, hand on, human experiences. “Human Contact Is Now a Luxury Good” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/23/sunday-review/human-contact-luxury-screens.html

*Post update March 3, 2019 Who will be able to afford self-driving cars?
https://hbr.org/2019/01/the-cost-of-self-driving-cars-will-be-the-biggest-barrier-to-their-adoption

*Post Update May 31, 2018* Data Protection now means emails, websites, and perhaps devices like Alexa. In the future the Internet of Things will not only mean fridges, TVs, and cars, but other convenience items. Such as sex robots. “Safe sex”and internet connected devices will take “protection” to next level.  https://designyoutrust.com/2018/05/these-chinese-sex-robots-are-equipped-with-artificial-intelligence