Digital humans: How can society have a better relationship with technology?

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On Monday 18th January 2016, Pictfor hosted the #DigitalHumans debate in partnership with techUK. A high profile panel, including the author and technology theorist, Tom Chatfield, and the Shadow Digital Economy Minister, Chi Onwurah MP, examined the impact that developments in technology have had on British society in recent decades, considered where technology is taking us, and questioned whether technology is creating the jobs we want – or simply removing the ones we don’t. 

The Panel: 

Chair: Geoff White, Technology Producer, Channel 4 News (@geoffwhite247)

The panel was chaired by Geoff White, Technology Producer for Channel 4 News. White introduced the discussion by means of a speedy canter through the areas of 21st century life that have now partially, or completely migrated to the online sphere. White reviewed the wide variety of online platforms that now play host to many of the most important elements of day to day life – from banking and communication to travel and dating.

White illustrated the extent to which almost every sphere of daily life has been disrupted by digital replacements – often resulting in a better experience, more choice and greater convenience for the user. White began the debate by asking panelists whether or not this rapid transition had come at too great a cost.

Charlotte Holloway, an unashamed exponent of digital-optimism, began with a confident articulation of the tech-optimist’s viewpoint – one in which the immense economic, cultural and democratic potential of technological development is held firmly front of mind when considering the extent to which society leads, or is led by, technology. Holloway did not deny that technology was already impacting, and would continue to change, the labour market, but argued strongly that the changing nature of jobs should not be feared. Holloway added that society should not ignore a changing labour market, but equally should not try to deploy artificial barriers to technological progress through reactive over-regulation of new industries.

Holloway explained that the debate around automation was often skewed towards “pessism and destruction” but stressed the benefit of the UK remaining optimistic, and highlighted that the greater problem was the UK’s significant digital skills gap, something that needed to be better addressed by politicians.

In response to Charlotte Holloway’s call for greater digital optimism, Tom Chatfield began with an assertion that it was a delusion that technology “just is” and that in fact all technologies had “biases baked into them”. Chatfield echoed the vital need for all to have at least basic digital skills and stressed the need for technology to enable people to become better citizens, rather than just better consumers. Improved digital literacy would strengthen digital citizenship by enabling citizens to be better informed, engaged and connected. Discussing the role of education in a technologically rich future, he stressed the need for educators to encourage critical engagement so that people may use technology rather than be used by it.

Upon discussion of the computer curriculum, Chatfield argued that empathy and discernment were two of the most overlooked, and most important skills, and that collaboration, systems thinking and soft skills were key in the digital age. On digital government, Chatfield spoke of the importance of technology being used to empower people as citizens, not just as consumers, and called for a ‘less is more’ approach to digital government, whereby citizens can interact with the state in a clear, easy to use way.

Chi Onwurah MP, the Shadow Digital Economy Minister and Pictfor’s parliamentary co-chair, argued that there were many reasons to be optimistic concerning society’s relationship with technology in the future, but only if digital inclusion was prioritised, the digital skills gap plugged and issues around data ownership solved. Optimistic about the future, and the Internet of Things (IoT) in particular, Onwurah asserted that the IoT would really transform people’s lives, but said that a genuinely progressive digital future could only be realised if everyone was able to participate in, and benefit from technology. Echoing Tom Chatfield’s earlier comments, Onwurah stressed the need for technology to enable people as citizens, not just consumers.

Onwurah argued that all citizens should own their own data, but lamented the lack of clarity regarding what ‘owning your data’ really meant, and the fact that it certainly had no legal meaning. She called for citizens to be at the heart of the public debate about what it really means to own your own data.

Onwurah said that new technologies inevitably increased inequality and entrenched disadvantage when there were high barriers to adoption, particularly in terms of prohibitive cost and/or complexity. Therefore, it was put that technological development needed to be pro-actively managed, and the inequality increasing aspects ‘fixed’. Onwurah noted that legislation would always be playing catch up with new technologies, but concluded that good regulation of technology needed to be about overlaying society’s values on top of runaway development and innovation, not about stifling or blocking that development in the first place. Asked which single policy she would implement tomorrow that would most improve society’s relationship with technology – Onwurah argued for open data by default.

Rachel Neaman, CEO of the UK’s digital skills charity, Go ON UK, began by stating that rapid technological development could democratize access to information like nothing else, but that people needed to have the right skills in place before they could participate. She said that greater efforts needed to be made to address the fact that a quarter of the UK’s adult population lacked digital skills. Neaman argued that whilst technology had the potential to have an equalising impact on society, rather than a divisive one, this effect would not be felt until all possessed basic digital skills and could participate in the digital sphere.

Overall Neaman illustrated a positive vision for the future, but emphasised that unless society as a whole could plan for, and adapt to, the inevitable changes that technology will bring, then people would be left behind and a societal benefit would not be felt. In order to adapt, Neaman stressed that society would need to complete a wholesale shift to a new form of literacy and capability.

Widespread disruption of traditional industries typically produces losers as well, and whilst consumers may experience better outcomes, many workers will have to come to terms with the loss or changing shape of their jobs. Many of the panelists’ discussions were focused around the question of whether or not society retained enough, or any, control over the nature of technological development – and therefore the extent to which such rapid development happened to society or for society.

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