The Great Awakening of Information Technology

The human race has made it pretty far, considering the various blights, pestilences and geopolitical struggles we’ve encountered along the way. For a self-reflective species, we are constantly creating and consuming technologies as a means to an end. We are lazy. We seek to benefit from increased efficiency through the implementation of applications. With the concurrent resurrection of the barter system via the ‘sharing economy,’ technology giants have turned their sights towards the profit centers of their existence: the consumer.

Thanks to our penchant for signing things without reading the fine print, companies are commandeering databases of information on consumer behavior, breadcrumbs left behind from aimlessly browsing the internet. There is no doubt in my mind that as time goes on, more insights on macroeconomic market trends will come from analyzing the mind of individual consumers. Instead of watching markets and responding to irregularities, predictive analysis will allow companies to more efficiently allocate resources to better serve their customer base. This includes everything from spending less money on ads (better tailored to the individual means ads are more efficient) to deciding what the next product launch will be. In essence, from our species’ unique ability to self reflect comes a massive analytical economy of understanding economic activity.

What am I getting at here? Surely a relationship where both consumers and businesses benefit from increased knowledge is a good thing. And this would be the case, if we were also addressing the increasing privacy concerns regarding the collection and selling of user data. Unfortunately, most companies delighted at the idea selling user information to other companies have neglected to ensure proper safeguards against hacking or malpractice. I legitimately believe that this is not the fault of business executives. If you had stumbled upon a treasure trove of *treasure* that could be exploited practically for free, would you not do the same?

The issue herein lies with our government, and the lack of definition when addressing the relationship between users and the platforms in question. Technology is outrunning the speed at which the government can pass smart legislation to ensure quality technology and protected citizens. And when government falls behind, problems coagulate within society and the likely response is regulation. Regulation isn’t bad, but it is inherently devised to prevent certain kinds of behavior that may be harmful to consumers. But when interest groups can command politicians to pass regulations, then the fight becomes less about consumer protections and more about protecting existing industry structures. (Old Money vs. Innovation). Just take a look at the taxi industry and what Uber has done to restructure age old ideas about transportation.

Regulation is the critical leverage point for the future of technology in the United States, as companies will not invest in new ideas if they come with the baggage of heavy regulation, or lack thereof. We need politicians who understand the vacuum of power when it comes to innovation. First come first serve is the name of the game in the Silicon Valley. If a company can pioneer a technology and disperse it via a platform system like many companies have already done, they stand to generate a heavy amount of market share due to high valuations from investors. All this could well be wiped out if cities started fighting against technology companies looking to redefine decades-old rules.

The solution is simple.

We kill the Batman. (Batman here represents preexisting market rules that stifle innovation and the free market)

Politicians who put forward bills to address the ecosystem could go a long way to clearing up how far technology companies are able to stretch when it comes to investing in certain types of technology (driverless cars, drone delivery, automated checkout registers). In the end, the onus is on these individuals to both encourage innovation but protect citizens from the inevitable changes that may leave some without jobs. I’d like to transition to something more philosophical: whether our online profiles have inherent rights while accessing applications on the internet. The UN seems to think so.

In June of 2016, the UN passed a non-binding clause that acknowledged humans have a right to expression, and the Internet, alongside other fast moving technological advances, represents the best medium available to do so. Through lowering the costs to attain an education, set up a business, and more, the Internet represents the best chance to both further the human condition, and build upon it.

This is where things get weird. What does the future look like for human rights? Are digital rights included as the internet becomes an increasingly pervasive part of our lives? Or do we just say, “oh well you signed a thing,” and irreversibly forfeit user data. The problem with legislation such as Net Neutrality is that inevitably ascribes how we understand the ecosystem of the internet… to that of an early 2000’s model car. Yeah, it works great and looks cool and you can go anywhere, but you can’t even begin to fathom the technological advances that will be present, (or not) in 10-20 years from now. My fear is that in order to maximize profit margins, content producers and platforms will launch PR campaigns to keep the internet running in their favor – involving the legislation and regulation of what Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) are able to offer consumers. This is only the most recent example of politicized legislation in the internet ecosystem.

Regardless, consumers will continue to believe that the ‘free’ streaming they receive when signing up for T-Mobile, is just that. In fact, agreements between ISP’s and content providers (everything from streaming services that guzzle data, to normal websites) have allowed for the exploitation of consumers who are looking for the next best deal. This has created competition within the broadband ecosystem, as companies struggle to find ways to stay relevant in an age where data is being constantly consumed. 10 years ago, nobody would have believed you if you said you could watch full length movies in the car. Yet here we are. And the only people we have to thank are the cable executives that everybody loves to hate.

Coming back to digital rights, I believe there will be some sort of digital revolution when discussing the legality of user’s rights and what can be done with information created by the use of platforms on the web. As it stands, most people either don’t care or don’t have the technical credentials to understand what is happening among data sharing/selling corporations. But like any system that becomes more and more integrated in everyday life, the necessity to redefine the rights surrounding use of the internet will become more apparent.

In the end, who will be calling for more protections and clearer definitions of digital rights; The platforms, or the people?

2/20/17

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