Blessed are the devs: for they shall inherit the earth.
Every year the course of human existence is disrupted more and more by the evolution of technology. The rate of change is accelerating on such a steep trajectory that I don’t believe governments and the institutions we trust to manage our society, our security and our economy have the capacity to keep up.
Like many people who stop to consider the change that is coming, considering my livelihood, my kids future and the future of those around me I am drawn to ask; who is best placed to ensure that while technology takes over in more and more arenas, we move toward a utopian - and not a dystopian - future for all.
The answer, I believe, is the developer community.
I believe that software engineers, in all their many forms, hold the key to defining the course of humanity.
This is the story of why…
The legacy of the modern age…
Before we get on to the disruptive nature of technology, let’s look at the current foundations of society and what 20th century technology has done to strengthen or weaken those foundations.
Sadness is the legacy of the past; regrets are pains of memory. – Unknown
My generation - and my parents before me - were brought up on the belief that fundamentally our institutions worked with our best interests at heart. But as the 20th century drew to a close we all discovered that, in fact, this is not the case.
Let’s look at a few recent examples;
Science & Health
As engineers, developers, mathematicians; I think we would consider ourselves scientists. We follow empirical evidence, we peer review and we build on the cannon of work of our predecessors.
But the truth about science is that it is astonishingly biased. In the USA, 71% of research funding comes from the private sector and studies show that scientist are considerably more likely to find in favour of their funders, with as much as 15% admitting to changing their design, methodologies or results under pressure from their funding source. [Update: June 2018 - Two days after writing...]
Science, unfortunately, is not always truth.
The art of medicine consists in amusing the patient while nature cures the disease. – Voltaire
Where does this lead? Between the 1930’s and 1950’s tobacco was “recommended by doctors”. Cigarettes are only now being driven out of the market (in this country) but for the government they have always been a revenue stream, with taxation standing at ~82% of the cost of a 20-deck.
And these things still go on today. For decades - for my whole lifetime in fact - I have been sold “low fat” food as a good thing. But the reality is that eating too much fat doesn’t make you fat - eating too much sugar makes you fat. I was brought up on cereal and fruit juice and low-fat processed meals, sandwiches and “a mars a day helps you work, rest and play”.
The reality is that the advice we are given by scientific research and our health institutions is so intrinsically linked to the macro needs of the economy and so often lead by lobbying and funding of the commercial producers that the actual scientific understanding of what’s best for the health of the nation and the research into how to build a healthy society is missing from our collective knowledge.
People who know me personally will know that we have looked very closely at the role of education in our family over the past few years.
Things started when our middle child, a late August baby, was due to start school and due to be the very youngest in his class. Concerned that he simply wasn’t ready to stay awake from 9-3 without a nap, much less concentrate on school, we started investigating our options and found that we could apply to have him start the following year. At the time we felt this would give him a chance to mature a little more - even give him some of the oldest-in-the-class advantage suggested in Malcom Gladwell’s brilliant book - Outliers.
But having made the decision, and started the following year with him in school, we didn’t stop conducting our research. Before the year was out we took the decision to remove him from full-time education entirely, along with his elder sister. They are now, technically speaking, being “home schooled” and the change in character, energy, appetite for learning and overall wellbeing of both children is astonishing.
If you’re interested, there are two fundamental reasons why we took the decision and they are as follows;
- First, the corpus callosum, the 250m fibre bundle that joins the left and right hemispheres, doesn’t mature until 7-8 in girls or 8-9 in boys. In non-memory based maths additions this bundle manages 7 hops between left and right. In reading it allows the reader to both assimilate the information on the page and imagine and world-build what they’re reading. I believe that by aggressively teaching the three R’s to children as young as 5 years old, without this structure in place, we’re forcing their brains to compensate, building alternative memory-pathways to read and write. By the time their brain matures to the point where the laying down of pathways to leverage and strengthen the left-right bridge becomes possible they have already compensated; weakening that bridge during development and permanently undermining their ability to be creative thinkers.
- Second, children need - more than anything else in the world - a strong bond with someone. Social bonding is one of the most fundamental mammalian traits. But as a society, rather that protect the bond that forms between parent and child we ship them off to school from a very young age and leave them to form bonds with their peers. We’ve all either experienced first hand - or heard from others - about the experience of picking kids up from school and asking how their day was, only to get a few grunts in return. If the child is old enough to have a mobile phone then we’re lucky to get a grunt at all. Well the truth is; it’s inevitable. We have reduced parenting to a few hours, morning and evening, when everyone is tired and a few days at the end of the week. Our children our bonded with their peers - are, in effect, being brought up by their peers - and our society is increasingly made up of generation after generation of adult who had little or no meaningful adult influence in their childhood. We didn’t want that for our kids.
Ultimately though, there is a reason for such full-time education. It is not to benefit of the child. It is to benefit and sustain our economy. Our economy relies on both parents, wherever possible, being in full time education. Our benefits system will look after parents when their children are very young; but from a very, very young age we are incentivised and subsidised to get them in to full time care and as soon as they are school age the parents have to return to work and will lose their benefits. They are not given the option of home-schooling.
Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world. – Nelson Mandela
Our education system is designed primarily - and has always been, since being set up by the Victorians - for the economy and only secondarily for the benefit of the child. If that were not the case we would do more to follow Scandinavia’s example, start children at 8 years old and enjoy generation after generation of better educational outcomes.
Military & Defence
He who wishes to fight must first count the cost. – Sun Tzu
So, I’m not going to go through every institution in detail but while we’re covering off the role of our institutions over the turn of the millennium consider the role of our military in conflicts over the last few decades; in Syria, in Libya, in Iraq, in Afghanistan. We all have a different political leaning and will all have different views on our reasons for going to war - but can anyone say, unequivocally, that our actions overseas have definitely made our county safer or indeed improved the safety of any Syrians, Libyans, Iraqis or Afghanis?
Banking, Media & Politics
And think also of our non-governmental organisations; our media institutions, our banking sector and the political process that sits outside our civil service. Newspapers have perhaps always had the capacity to sway the electorate but over the past 30 years the number of independent news organisations has diminished massively.
If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you do read the newspaper, you’re misinformed. – Mark Twain
Our news organisations now seem so driven by click-bait that the sanctity of truth has disappeared - our media institutions exist to drive traffic to ads; they do not exist to enlighten the populous and engender discourse.
The evolving technical age…
Today, technological disruption permeates the whole of society. It effects the economy, the political process, the environment, the future of work, the conduct of war - it is even starting to effect what it means to be human. Nothing in our society is immune from forthcoming, fundamental change.
The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. – William Gibson
One of the most profound changes that we have coming is in the way that we work. Not just how we do our jobs but how we think about the action of going to work.
The economy of work…
In the UK alone there are around 10 million people who, in one way or another, drive for a living. As autonomous cars and lorries mature millions of jobs will disappear almost overnight. This is the nature of the law of diffusion of ideas and the speed with which this change will take place has nothing to do with technology and all to do with economics.
Transport isn’t the only area where technology is removing the need for labour. Anyone who works in our space knows that the systems we build allow much, much smaller teams to do better work than bigger, less tech-savvy teams. Whether it’s stealing big contracts from the KPMG’s and PWC’s of this world - as we do - by providing small companies with decent tech, or building banks like Monzo on tech from the ground up, the fundamental need for people to do work is shrinking.
If you’re not building the automation, you’re the one being automated – Unknown. Me?
Robotics and machine learning touch more areas than driverless cars too - with the continuing decline in the need for factory workers, farm workers and even paralegals.
The rise of the corporation…
Meanwhile, as our economy changes, the corporate bodies that underpin the technological revolution are growing at such a rate that they look set to fundamentally change the ecology of the global economy.
Power doesn’t corrupt people. People corrupt power. – William Gaddis
I looked at the gross income of four major technology players; Google (Alphabet), Microsoft, Apple and Amazon.
Today, these four represent combined annual revenues in excess of 20% of the UK’s gross domestic product (GDP). That, in and of itself, might seem alarming. But when we consider the rate of growth of our GDP over the past decade and compare that with the rate of growth of these four companies, they are set to overtake the entire UK economy by as early as 2026 - that’s only 8 years away… and that’s only four of the big players.
The reality is that we’re moving to a world where corporations out weigh governments at scale and where the economy driven by the automation delivered by these corporations doesn’t support the welfare of the mass unemployed. Society will need to find an economic solution to the problem - but in the meantime, we also need to consider the social solution to the problem…
… and that is where we, the developers, come in.
Developing a better future.
As engineers, we have the power to chart the course of this change.
The best way to predict your future is to create it. – Abraham Lincoln
In running the Bath Digital Festival over the past few years I have discovered the astonishing breadth of technical capacity in this region alone. I have met engineers working in all reaches of AI and machine learning, from NLP to spacial awareness, in robotics, and digital genomics. And the applications are boundless too - whether it be energy supply, aerospace, automated transport and logistics, disruptive fintech or in our case in bringing technology to bear on the international aid sector to ensure more money flows to the people who need it and grant-making is more aligned with lean methodology.
But having a vibrant tech sector is only the beginning. I believe is that we engineers will inevitably be the architects of our new future. As such, I believe that we have a fundamental responsibility to the shape of that future. As engineers we have a key role to play in defining the moral compass of the organisations we work in and for. We have the capacity to change working practices and change minds at the very highest level. We are disrupting not only the way people work but the way they think. We have a responsibility to be mindful of how we conduct ourselves, what we agree to do, what we push back on and how the organisations we work for evolve.
Technology will define the future that our children inherit.
If we define the technology then we define their future.
Time and tide waits for no-one.
As I speak to people as I have with you today I often hear a dissenting voice, a voice that says things like; we’re just a cog in the machine, one person can’t make a difference, people don’t care enough about the services they engage with so how can we change the behaviour of society if they don’t care.
Sometimes God puts a Goliath in front of you, to help you find the David within you. – Unknown
Google, Facebook, Amazon… these organisations are too massive to get beyond. They have so much money to throw around… They are the new normal.
“Normal” is very difficult thing to think beyond.
It’s very easy to assume that we cannot affect a change. We’re all individuals, we all work for the man, we cannot - alone - drive change.
I would rather be a rebel than a slave.
So it happens that not far from where I live is the house where Emile Pankhurst lived. So I am constantly reminded of the power of the few to change the course of history. Whether we think of the emancipation of women, the abolition of slavery, or the legalisation of homosexuality - for a time, for a very long time, society had totally accepted a normal state of affairs that was overturned by a consensus of opinion to the contrary to the norm propagated by a tiny group of dissenters.
I would rather be a rebel than a slave. – Emily Pankhurst
Now, I’m not comparing the society we live in today with the slavery or overt oppression that existed in previous centuries. But we are entering a time of extreme social change - and extreme social change driven by our paymasters, by people who need our skillset and our compliance - and I believe we either make the concerted effort to define that change or we will be defined - and defeated by it.
So what leads people to succeed in affecting change?
The drama triangle
Well, my wife, who works in the business providing mentoring and support, CPD guidance and so on for our staff talks about the “Drama triangle” and the “Energy Triangle” and I think this is a good way to think about how you approach what I’m saying in this article.
In the drama triangle we describe three voices - voices we all have in our heads;
- The Victim - driven by fear; always unable, something went wrong… you didn’t remind me, my IDE broke, the code was already broken.
- The Hero - driven by righteousness; always swooping in, fixing things and leaving a vacuum behind, committing the solution, saving the day.
- The Villain - driven by blames; always pointing the finger, always deflecting, always someone else’s fault.
Now, actually each of these characters have a counterpart. When we think about a problem in our day-to-day lives it’s very easy to face that problem with a combination of the Hero, the Villain and the Victim. We all do it - all of the time.
So when I stand up and talk to you all about something as crazy as trying to change the world, for the better… and when I tell you that it’s our responsibility to be the change we want to see in the world… I don’t doubt the natural reaction is to think about what I’m saying in the voice of one of these three.
Let’s try a different way. Let’s look at these three characters and see if we can’t deploy the same mindset with a more positive energy.
The energy triangle
- The Creator - where the victim is driven by fear, fear of failure, fear of the unknown, his counterpart is driven by joy of the unknown and acceptance and understanding that failure is how we learn. He is the creator; trying new ideas - however whacky - to solve the problem.
- The Coach - where the hero swoops in and solves the immediate problem, feels pride in the fix and leaves nothing of value behind the coach also provides solutions but the coach is a mentor, providing solutions by nurturing the skills of those around them. The hero gives out fish, the coach teaches people to fish.
- The Challenger - where the villain blames the challenger questions, quizzes and challenges. The challenger asks why and how. The challenger makes people think and explore alternatives in a blameless culture.
So if we apply this thinking and discipline ourselves to change the energy with which we consider the problems as we’re confronted with them… if we are mindful of the opportunities we have to affect change, often and on a small scale… what can we achieve?
Until you spread your wings, you’ll have no idea how far you can fly. – Napoleon
The thing is, we’re not a small, isolated bunch of people sitting in the west country. We are part of a global community of developers who already have the infrastructure to communicate across any boundary, to organise ourselves, to collaborate, to co-create. Unlike any other sector we have the skills to mobilise ourselves and build consensus - we do it all the time in the way we develop.
So when we look at the challenges ahead; the size of the Goliath organisations, the disintegration of truth in the mainstream media, the manipulation of politics or just the way our own organisations operate - I believe we have much more power than we give ourselves credit.
I believe that we have a responsibility to steer the moral compass - to be the magnet.
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men and women do nothing. – Burke & Kennedy
Where we feel that we’re too small to affect change, that is the victim speaking. But what would the creator think? We have communication channels that open us up to millions of other individuals and the means to orchestrate the communication.
Where we feel that commerce has gone too far to claw back and it’s all Amazon’s fault, that’s the Villain talking. The challenger might find ways to help mobilise the silent majority to coach these organisations towards better, more ethical working practices.
Where we feel that people don’t actually care about the technology around them - that they’re just ‘users’ - then perhaps that’s the hero talking. But we don’t need to swoop in and fix the problem, protect their privacy and run away again… they will never learn to care. We have the power to coach them to understand how important their data and privacy is but their behaviour won’t change while we play the hero.
Be the change you wish to see in the world. – Mohandas Gandhi
As a breed, we developers are both more connected and coordinated than probably any other profession - but we are also more in the driving seat that anyone else too. We have a chance, perhaps a responsibility - a duty even - to combine our power to affect change.
We can see that no-one else is going to do it; not the banks and boards and shareholders who run the big conglomerates or the politicians who serve them, nor the institutions we expect to have our backs. The world is changing so fast they couldn’t help us if they tried.
If you’re always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be. – Maya Angelou
But we hold the key. Together, we can steer the course of technological development, even the rate of change and we alone have the capacity to set out humanities journey into the post-digital age.
We have a great power. But with great power comes great responsibility.
Please help - criticise away... This article first appeared as a talk at BrisTech on June 6 2018 and this article is basically my notes. I'm sure it's riddled with grammatical and factual errors. Do, please, let me know - in the comments below or better still, on Twitter @jimbomorrison. Thanks!
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