MATTSPLAINED  MSP80  Mini GOAT: 2019’s Greatest Bits [So Far]
MATTSPLAINED  MSP80  Mini GOAT: 2019’s Greatest Bits [So Far]
Sometimes it pays to be retroactively futuristic. As we approach 2019’s halfway mark, MSP takes a beat to pull together some of the threads of the first part of this long and stupidly confusing year.
Produced by Jeff Sandhu for BFM89.9
We tend to race through topics here on MSP. So, today, we’re taking a brief pause to look back over some of the material we’ve covered so far in 2019.
This is a show about the future? Surely, looking back is the opposite of what we should be doing?
I guess I suddenly realised that it was June already. We’re already nearly halfway through 2019 and, I can’t speak for our listeners, but I’m still in the mindset that it’s the beginning of the year.
That 2019 is still going to unfold before us.
But I guess the simple fact is that a lot of the year has unfolded.
Has it been a busy year?
It’s felt that way. I don’t know whether it’s just me. It might be.
But for the past couple of years I’ve felt that the stories have kind of been flying by faster than we can cover them all.
Certainly, issues with technology companies have been blowing up left right and centre.
We seem to have reached this point where we have all this magnificent, game changing tech but our systems to cope with it - whether regulatory, financial or social - are creaking.
You mean Facebook and the social media companies?
It’s kind of a lot more than that.
So, yes, we have all the negative stuff.
We have companies exploiting us for profit and being less than transparent about how they operate and how they treat our personal data.
So, yes, that’s a huge story.
We also have the rising costs of tech, which are partly down to economics but partly down to profiteering.
Isn’t it just part of the game?
We’re all a lot more market savvy.
We’re staring down at the world’s largest companies each time we go online.
We know what kind of profits they’re making.
And we can see that innovation is slowing.
Anyone, like me, who is still daft enough to be an Apple customer, you’re probably feeling it the most.
We don’t get excited when Apple release new products anymore.
We get stressed. Because the newest product is essentially going to be a little bit better than the last one but will be vastly more expensive.
Yet Apple sits on what is often referred to in the media as a war chest of cash.
To the outsider it appears to be almost a siege mentality.
Because they’re afraid of their own consumers?
I don’t know what it is. But you do wonder what they’re preparing for, because we certainly aren’t seeing huge leaps at this point.
Wearables and bezel-less screens.
Innovation that the word meh was invented for.
You can understand why people are heading away from the traditional names for companies like One Plus.
The devices are great and they’re way way cheaper.
When you look at some of the big established brands and their mid level and budget phones, tablets and laptops, you do wonder why anyone would chase the high end when the flagship devices are two, three or even five times the price of perfectly capable entry level devices.
But it’s not all negative today, is it?
That’s where we get tripped up.
Because these shows shouldn’t be negative.
We should be spending more time on the life affirming aspects of all this innovation.
We did a show a couple of weeks ago about all the crazy and cool stuff that scientists and inventors are coming up with.
All the breakthroughs and discoveries. All the weird stuff we’re finding in space.
To which end, we will be doing a monthly show on all the smiley innovation stuff - probably the last show of the month.
So, today is a great opportunity to say, slow down.
We’re halfway into 2019.
Let’s remind ourselves of some of the stuff we’ve covered so far this year before we accelerate into the future again.
If you had to sum up an overarching theme for this year, what would it be?
I think it would be the idea of asking questions.
Last year we talked a lot about power.
That the tech companies spend a lot of time trying to convince us to follow their rules and their way of thinking.
We forget that they need us more than we need them.
We’re seeing that power shift in the consumer market.
You mean the rise of companies like One Plus?
Yes. Before all the political hullabaloo it looked like Huawei was on track to be the biggest global player in consumer electronics.
Which is astonishing for a company that few of us outside China would even have been able to name 5 years ago.
Consumers have been voting with their wallets.
And it’s not surprising.
Rather than empowering us, it feels that over the last few years, technology has been doing its best to relieve of us our money, increment by increment.
But in a way, they’re trying to do it at exactly the wrong time.
So many of us are now fearful for the long term, even the medium term prospects of the jobs we have.
We feel less secure. Less wealthy. And technology opens up this giant menu of additional stuff we feel we have to buy.
Like subscription services?
Exactly that. We’re currently planning a future episode of the show where we look at the dozens of fees we can end up paying for everything from TV streaming to document storage.
And then there are the apps that we spend a dollar or two on and then use once or twice.
We see the rise of QR codes and ewallets making it even easier to make these micropayments.
But the result is this steady trickle - a stream you barely notice - but which ends up being a river gushing out of your bank account by the end of the month.
If that’s the case, shouldn’t we be glad that so many online services are essentially free?
That’s where we come back to that idea of asking questions.
People are starting to realise that free services come with too many strings.
The strings being the ability to manipulate what we see and how companies talk to us and about us.
They’re a bit like that person who pretends to be your best friend and then gleefully shares all your secrets and fears with the world once your back is turned.
I was in Macau a couple of weeks ago - giving a talk to a group of market researchers.
And what impressed me was the discussions they were having about morality and privacy.
Wouldn’t you expect them to be talking about the opposite to get as much information as possible out of people in as many situations as possible?
Exactly. You’d expect them to be pedal to the floor.
Instead, we were actually hearing discussions about restraint.
We were hearing about quality of data.
But also, these are the people who understand the implications of data and the value of data.
Don’t forget they’re consumers as well. It’s their own data that gets scooped up as well.
But also, because they’re an insights industry.
They are responsive when it comes to consumers shifts and trends.
And they’re picking up on this restlessness and restiveness from ordinary folks, too.
The idea that we’re pricing our data = our own value - too cheaply?
Yes. And this idea that we’re flexing our muscles as well.
There’s certainly a lot of incivility online.
And we’re finding that social media and search algorithms often prioritise content that has an incendiary or abrasive edge.
But I’m heartened I guess that we’re realising that we have that power.
Especially people who aren’t in my ageing gen X or your ageing millennial age group.
A group of savvy digital natives who are running rings around the bots and spiders.
Who share intimate content beyond their reach in closed networks, and post sanitised performance or publicity shots on public networks.
I think we were discussing that in episode 69, technology that works for us…
Yeah. Everything has become a bit skewed.
And that’s more of a problem for us. Because we feel trapped in the system.
But we designed the system.
We decided we didn’t want to pay for stuff and we’d let whatever shady company peer into our personal lives for information.
So, we have a generation of kids who grew up disabling the parental content controls we thought were infallible.
They were infallible because we didn’t know how to disable them?
I remember trying to explain to this guy in a mac store, about my age, who was trying to decide whether to buy a laptop or a tablet for his 3 year old son.
And me and the shop assistant were trying to explain to him that, though it had less functionality, the tablet was a better bet.
Because it would be easier to control content access and lock it down.
He couldn’t grasp that his 3 year old would probably be able to bypass any restrictions on a laptop in about 30 seconds.
Because those tools, those pieces of software, looked impenetrable from his generational standpoint.
And would be practically invisible to his son.
Do you think we’ve lost the battle about technology working for our generation?
I don’t think it matters. I think our generation is largely irrelevant to this part of the tech debate.
Now we have an entire generation that knows how to disappear from the radar when they feel like it.
And the tech industry is focused on ways to reach those guys.
When we come back, more retrospective futurism. Here on MSP.
Before the break we were talking about who technology should be working for. We were talking about the ability of post millennial generations having the ability to disappear from the radar as you put it.
Didn’t we also - on episode 68 - devote an entire episode to saying these would be the first generations to be tracked digitally from birth until death. How can you have both - a generation that’s tracked but can stop being tracked when they feel like it?
I’m not sure if you’re completely sure of your role on this show.
You’re supposed to help with the smoke and mirrors that disguise the flaws in my logic.
Not draw attention to it.
Luckily, you’ve chosen an example where I can defend myself.
This is a generation that is more adept at staying off the radar of private companies in terms of the details they share about their lives.
However, they are still subject to this increasing meta-data tracking that all of us are falling prey to.
Like where we go, who we meet, the intersections of data streams rather than explicitly saying who we’e with and what we’re doing?
Yeah. You might not say that you’re going to the mall with friends. But it stands to reason that if you and a bunch of other people are captured on CCTV and RFID scanners standing in astore looking at sodas at exactly the same time, the chances are you’re all friends.
Especially if you then all continue on to another store or walk around in the same pack.
AI is helping to extrapolate a lot more information out of the data we assume is anonymous.
Because those intersection points are a lot more revealing than we think.
And we spend our entire lives online, so those devices and apps are sending literally hundreds of thousands of pings a week back to Google and Facebook and Amazon web services.
Which we touched on in episode 66. Never Gonna Give You Up. Where we talked about how hard it is to cut the big technology companies out of your life.
Or rather we talked about Gizmodo writer Kash Hill’s attempts to live without Big Tech.
It was way too much of a scary endeavour for me to try out.
That’s one of the reasons we keep coming back to this idea of asking more and more questions.
Because we forget how much of our lives is connected to the cloud.
And I’m not just talking about things we own that are connected.
Things we take for granted. Like the payment systems in stores.
Or the backends of the companies we work in.
All of these services link back to that same handful of companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Google.
This enormous data trail that combines with our personal information.
Which makes it impossible to disconnect?
Pretty much. I think we did a show last year. Episode 31, Amazon’s Age of Empire, which highlights the enormity and scope of what Amazon could do.
Which hooks back into Episode 63, We Are the Robots, where we discussed the rise of surveillance capitalism.
Never Gonna Give You Up and We Are the Robots are two of my favourite episodes of this year so far.
We’ve done a bunch of shows this year that come back to this idea of a system training us to be more like machines.
We’ve talked about things like China’s social credit system which is now being looked at by government’s across the world.
It has been framed as an overreaching surveillance tool.
But there are plenty of governments, even in the supposedly democratic world, who are looking for overreaching surveillance tools
Especially as we’re in an age where their pesky citizens can say anything they want about those governments and publish it without someone in authority approving it first.
I think we based that episode on the book the Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff…
Yes. So we were looking at the last 20 years of tech as this enormous land grab.
A bit like the rush to explore the US Wild West in the mid to late 19th century.
And it’s one of those situations where there are no real rules or laws so the winners get to define the terms.
We take it for granted that tech companies are allowed to behave in certain ways and use our information in those ways because they’ve told us they have that right.
It’s interesting, because those younger generations we’re talking about, they were born into a world where tech companies were establishing these ideas - that they own our data, that monopolies are natural, that disruption is the defining business philosophy - as norms.
It’s a bit like the ‘he said, she said’ discussions we have about privacy.
That we tell the tech companies they need to respect our privacy and protect our data more carefully?
And they tell us, absolutely, it’s priority number one and list the things they’ve done to stop their competitors from accessing and listing your data.
While also telling us that this ensures our information is only given to the trustworthy companies that contract their services.
Again, that issue about asking questions, annoying people and figuring out who has your information and why.
Because many of the bigger tech companies now have more surveillance muscle than governments.
It’s great that your messaging app is encrypted so securely that neither the CIA or the FSB can hack it.
But what good is it if an intern at the Shady Data Corporation Inc can type Username: User and Password: 1234 into a login box and is connected to your phone’s camera as you sit in the bathroom stall.
Can they do that?
I hope not. I’m using an extreme example.
But then you see vulnerabilities like the ability to hack into Whatsapp using a simple missed call.
And you start to wonder, how strongly are these services protected?
And, as a free tier user, what are my rights?
When it comes to surveillance capitalism, the fewer legal rights you have beyond whatever your service provider decides to put in a EULA, the better.
I thought you said today wasn’t going to be completely miserable?
Well, we did talk about clean meat in Episode 73.
A revolution in biotechnology that’s allowing us to look at realistic meat substitutes for the first time.
Both lab grown and plant based.
I thought that was pretty much a feelgood show.
But certainly, I think we’ve had a bit more focus this year on some of the things that science is doing to improve our lives.
Especially when it comes to repurposing technologies we’ve known for thousands of years.
You mean episode 71, Superwood?
Yeah. I think that was one of the ones I did with Richard Bradbury, while you were away.
I’m sure you’ve listened to it though…
PLAY CLIP: SOUND CLIP OF CRICKETS
Rude. Good job I don’t take these things to heart.
We’re constantly looking for stronger, renewable and eco friendly building materials.
Especially as we have this addiction to concrete which is not only fuelling emissions, it’s helping to make our towns and cities less responsive to the climate changes that are resulting.
And wood is the answer to that?
Well, these scientifically enhanced superwoods that are as strong as steel and much much lighter.
Trees are a great way to soak up carbon. So rather than cut them down and burn them and replace them with concrete…
Sustainably grow them, harvest them and use them for the construction.
They’re already being used in towers. But probably their greatest use is in low rise prefabs that can be made offsite and quickly bolted together.
Franken-meat and smart twigs? That’s your idea of an upbeat ending?
We’ve looked at the positive case of all this data and privacy arguments as well.
MSP65, we looked at utopia for idealists.
You’re right, it’s easy to only see the negative side of these changes.
Especially as these are the ones that fill our feeds.
So we had a look at the best case scenarios.
How data can be used to improve our lives.
To actually secure more privacy. To give us more job security and wealth and independence.
To build better towns and cities.
To cheapen healthcare and medicine.
How AI can be used to check our worst impulses rather than to magnify them.
Because those are the choices?
Yes. Because asking questions is also about knowing what kind of world or society you want to build.
It’s about telling your elected representatives that it’s not okay that they don’t know that Android can’t run on an iPhone.
And it’s also about remembering that the world you want and the world I want won’t be the same thing.
Mine won’t have children in it - for starters - I think I’m the only person who didn’t think the movie Children of Men was dystopian.
And that it’s alright for it not to be the same thing.
Social media has made us forget that not everyone thinks the same as us.
And that’s something we should embrace, not run from.
Extremism starts to take over when you act when you think and act as if everyone believes what you believe.
Society lies somewhere else. Hopefully, somewhere a little closer to the middle.
Even in the future.