Disrupt the future, just don’t destroy it

15 Jan 2018

What’s wrong with this picture? Rushing headlong into digital, we forget the world around us. Image: Roman Samborsky/Shutterstock

The forces of digital disruption are unstoppable, but disruption shouldn’t necessarily mean the destruction of entire industries, writes John Kennedy.

Growing up, we were a reading household. Voracious readers. Every day, we would buy two newspapers: the Irish Independent and the Evening Herald. When I was a boy, my dad would collect me from school and I would always hope he would stop by the local newsagents so I could coax him into buying comic books like The BeanoThe Dandy, Warlord or The Victor.

Before we had the internet, we had TV and a big set of encyclopaedias to inform our world view. When I was eight, I had a map of the world onto which I would stick the flags of every country. When I was 10 or 11, I had a part-time job going door to door in local estates selling the Meath Chronicle newspaper, and sometimes I’d help sell a local A4 news sheet called The Focus, which was lovingly written and stapled together by volunteers, while a schoolfriend would collect advertising revenue from shop owners.

My dad passed away last year but, most evenings, I still pick up those newspapers for my mum, and the Chronicle every Tuesday night as the first clump of copies arrives. I smile inside as I watch punters shuffle out the door before me with the latest edition under their arms.

Walking through the local newsagent/post office at the weekend with newspapers and magazines for my mum brought back a strong surge of emotions, returning me to a time when the floor above the shop sold computers, and a Christmas when my dad had the foresight to invest in the family’s first computer, a Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48k. Rudimentary lessons in coding came from computer magazines bought from the same shop.

Sadly, The Focus has disappeared, replaced in some ways by more immediate Facebook groups where native information is exchanged on who can fix dishwashers, or suspicious vehicles prowling the neighbourhood, or a pothole that needs to be filled by the council. It is both a poignant and a useful development.

The displacement of media – most teens or 20-somethings never have and probably never will buy a newspaper – is just one example of a slew of industries that are being disrupted, even destroyed, by digital.

And no one knows what will replace them or how they will be saved, or even if they should be saved.

The universe has been dented and needs repair

And yet, some in the tech world cling to the word ‘disrupt’ as though it is a virtue, like that worn phrase about how they will put a dent in the universe. Why is it that the language of ambition is often so imbued and laced with destruction, too?

It is change, they say – get used to it.

Do the hundreds of thousands of taxi drivers currently praising apps such as Uber and Mytaxi for revitalising their profession not realise that as soon as their cars can be automated, they will be gone?

There is no reason to be sentimental about the past, because the past fleets before our eyes every day. Right now, we are in the eye of a storm of change driven by automation, robotics, data science – you name it.

I’m all for progress, but not if it means making a tiny handful of people rich while no one plots an alternative direction that will bring billions of people along with it. A rising tide should lift all boats.

Tech could be a force for good. Maybe in time, the history books – if there are books in the future – will record it as such. But it doesn’t feel that way right now. Yes, it means we are more connected, possibly more knowledgeable. However, others argue that we are becoming addicts to information with a diminished world view because the algorithms feed our echo chambers with the things we want to hear, reinforcing prejudices.

Often, when I discuss the future of robo-advisers and how automation might threaten jobs, tech executives use the same analogy of what happened when the first motor vehicles arrived more than 100 years ago. What happened to the blacksmiths, the farriers, the wheelwrights, the steam-engine drivers? They assimilated or changed.

No one politely mentions two of the biggest and most destructive world wars that wiped millions of lives from the world and ushered in the jet and atomic ages. Heck, the internet is even a legacy of the Cold War, envisioned by DARPA as a way of communicating in the midst of a nuclear winter.

Let’s not sacrifice truth at the altar of digital disruption

My thoughts on digital disruption, and the need for responsible disruption, are driven by two things that happened within 48 hours of each other last week.

First, a very bright family man in his 30s who lives in California called Mark Zuckerberg announced that his social network – which has connected 2bn out of the 7bn or so people on Earth – has a moral responsibility for the world’s information.

Zuckerberg said that Facebook will now reorientate its algorithms to surface stuff that matters to people, not just brands and publishers. What this will mean is anybody’s guess, but my suspicion – and hope – is that Zuckerberg’s visit to every US state in the last year made an impression on him and highlighted the dangerous differences that are left untended.

The second thing that happened was that esteemed Channel 4 broadcaster Jon Snow was in Dublin for the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition. Snow, a campaigning and fearless journalist, pointed out how the tech world is disrupting industries such as newspapers and TV without giving anything back, and that the instant gratification of digital is causing fake news and misinformation to cascade.

Snow pointed out how the Grenfell tower fire in London still raged for hours after millions of people first heard about it on social media, but there were no local journalists on the scene to report the fact.

“There were none at all,” Snow was quoted as saying in The Irish Times.

“Why was that? That was because Facebook has obliterated most local advertising. Most people nowadays advertise on Facebook, Google or one of other platforms because they are far more rewarding and it’s much easier to target. And, consequently, there is no income for local newspapers, and they are dying.”

If we cannot see what is happening in the world around us, we cannot change it. And we need to be very afraid if truth is the first thing to be sacrificed for what we claim is progress.

Stranger Things have happened

The forces at play driving digital disruption are unstoppable. But the disrupters need to think about what they are giving back.

For example, the music industry has been decimated by digital. As Spotify hurtles toward a multibillion-dollar IPO, the prospect for musicians to make a living wage from the digital revolution is looking dire. According to Digital Music News, for an unsigned musician to make minimum wage in the US, a song would need to achieve 230,000 plays on Apple Music, 260,000 plays on Deezer and 380,000 plays on Spotify. That’s impossible for most artists.

And yet, there are examples where digital disruption is offering hope.

Netflix, for example, is spearheading a revolution in original programming. While the broadcast world quakes from streaming and what it could mean, Netflix is creating actual jobs for actors, writers, producers, directors and the countless associated roles such as carpenters, set designers, costume designers, special effects – you name it. Netflix said it plans to invest between $7bn and $8bn in in-house programming over the next year.

So, how do we encapsulate the good aspects of digital and the example being set by Netflix rather than seeing livelihoods disappear or be destroyed?

Perhaps emerging technologies such as blockchain can be employed in a creative way to make digital tangible for industries disrupted by it. Perhaps Facebook and Google can take better stock of the role they play in communities, rather than becoming big cash tills with no faces and only email addresses to talk to.

Change is constant, change can be good but, once the music stops and the truth fails to flow, we are all diminished.

Disrupters need to think and care about what comes after the disruption.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years