The End of Digital
Worthing Digital interviewed Tom Cheesewright in advance of his talk, The End of Digital, taking place at The Dome Cinema Worthing on Thursday Oct 4. The event is FREE, book your place at: https://www.meetup.com/WorthingDigital/events/254185908/
Tom Cheesewright is one of the most respected consultants and commentators on tomorrow’s world. As an Applied Futurist, Tom helps people and organisations around the world to see what’s next and to build a coherent response.
Tom is a frequent presence on TV and radio, explaining today’s world of high frequency change and the technology that drives it. He has appeared thousands of times over the last decade across the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and Sky News as well as in many print and online publications including The Guardian, The Times, and The Evening Standard.
Tom consults with clients looking for greater foresight into the near future, and teaches and licences a range of tools for building more agile organisations. He is a frequent speaker on the future across a range of industries. Customers include global corporations such as BASF. BP, KPMG, LG, Nikon, and Unilever, as well as universities, charities and public bodies.
Tom’s first book, High Frequency Change, will be published in 2019. Find out more at https://tomcheesewright.com
Mark: I’m Mark Ford talking to applied futurist Tom Cheesewright for Here & Now. We should start with: Tom You’re a futurist… what’s that?
Tom: So I work with companies and people around the world, typically large companies to really try and answer three questions. Firstly, what does our future look like? Companies that come to me are typically quite concerned, or potentially excited about what the future holds. They have this sense that change is happening faster now and they want to change the way they think about the future to be a bit more responsive.
So that leads to the second question, which is once we understand that future, how do we tell that story? There’s no point having a vision of the future if we can’t communicate it to our customers or our shareholders or our board try and secure investment or whatever else it may be. So I help them with that storytelling piece. And thirdly we get to the really knotty problem, which is once you’ve seen the vision of the future we’ve convinced everybody else about it, what on Earth do we do about it? And that generally gets me involved in change and Innovation programs trying to help companies change the way they operate on a day-to-day basis to be more responsive and to this current period of high frequency change.
Mark: We’ve talked before this about “ambient computing”, the idea that we’ll just to be able to blurt something out and that will be responded to in some way by a system. Is that the sort of thing that you’re starting to think about now?
Tom: Absolutely. One of my underlying principles is this the biggest, most consistent driver of changes is technology. And if you rewind over the last 50 years some really interesting things that happened in that pattern. We know that computers have gotten smaller, we know they’ve gotten more powerful, we know they’ve gotten cheaper. But in many ways it’s the use to which we put that capability that’s been really interesting, because if you wanted to make a computer do something 60 years ago you were looking at an incredibly difficult manual process to try and encode those actions. You were having to do an awful lot of working out beforehand, you had to either punch them into punch cards or create an incredibly complex computer script in a language that the machine understood. Fast forward through the eras of graphical user interfaces and point-and-click icons and the mouse and touch screens to today and (I have to be careful how I say this now), but if I speak to my voice assistant and ask for a particular song to be played, there’s a good chance that’ll actually play the song I want. That has offloaded an enormous amount of work to the machine. We’ve outsourced all of that initial thought and conscious rigor that we had to go through to make a machine do something to the machine itself. And as that happens we become less and less conscious of the machine being any sort of technology, it just sort of disappears into the background.
There’s the old phrase that your technology is anything invented after you were born. Well, even things invented long after you were born, if they’re just invisible, if they just work, if the interface with them is so intuitive that it maps against things we’ve been learning how to do evolving how to do for millions of years then it becomes invisible. This phrase ‘ambient technology’, the world just responding to our needs even without it necessarily having to vocalize them almost instantaneously.
Mark: Yeah, it’s funny, the quote you’ve used reminded me what my favorite Douglas Adams quotes:
“I’ve come up with a set of rules to describe our reactions to technology:
1) Anything that is in the world when you’re born as normal and ordinary and just part of the way the world works.
2) Anything was invented when you have between 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably make a career in it.
3) Anything after invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.”
I think quite a few of us feel like that.
Tom: I think that’s absolutely true! It’s interesting how (I guess I’d call it call it semi-generational) there is a natural acceptance of these things below a certain age. An excitement and enthusiasm, quite often a sort of naivety about them between two ages, then an inherent rejection of them after that. And I say semi-generational because there are lots of people clearly after those ages who are very enthusiastic about these technologies and leap in with both feet.
I think you can really see that with social media behavior. Those people who came late to social media feel “isn’t it all terrible?” and “shouldn’t we shut it all down?” It’s not quite like that, but you still hear a lot of that sentiment even though the majority of Facebook users are well over 40. You’ve got that group who are younger than them for whom it was an absolute novelty and jumped in with both feet and documented their entire lives, visually or across a multitude of platforms. That group I really feel sorry for now because they given away so much of their privacy that can never be taken back. I’m very pleased that I went to University before the advent of social media and my entire life isn’t documented in inescapable digital form.
Then you’ve got the generation after that who’ve come to it with actually a much greater degree of conscious understanding, because they’ve grown up with it and have seen the negative side of it. Their social media behavior’s really interesting and it’s what’s driven the adoption of things like Snapchat. These conscious choices about which are the right networks do certain things on? What is the trade-off between what you get from the social network and what you’re giving away in terms of your privacy? I think those three age bands actually describe that really well.
Mark: I was listening to a Worthing Digital talk yesterday, from four years ago. The speaker was talking about wearable technology and the phrase “The Quantified Self” came up and I thought that’s something I haven’t really thought about for a long time. Because back then I was getting quite keen on it. I had a Fitbit and I a Fitbit scales and I was measuring everything that I was doing all the time. That’s really fallen by the wayside more recently. The peak of it was maybe three or four years ago and that’s disappeared again now, but… I don’t really know where I’m going with that but you just made me think of it!
Just give us a quick idea of what sort of things you’ll be covering when you’re down talking to us next month.
Tom: I think this idea that that as technology disappears, lots of things happen in that process. So it becomes more accessible. It becomes more of a consumer technology, less of an engineering technology. A good example, rewind again to the last century. If you owned a car you largely knew how to maintain a car. I’ve strong visions of my dad in the 1980s on a cold winter’s morning pulling all the spark plugs out sticking them in a vice, heating them up with a blowtorch and sticking them back in the engine to get the car to start. I don’t think anybody now would know how to do that, even if it were possible with it the various plastic covers on the engines. The same is happening with computing technologies, because in many ways it is more accessible to many more people, but is also becoming more hidden away and buried, less accessible to the vast majority of the populace. So there’s this interesting interim period where more of us are able to hack it and do interesting things with but ultimately it’s disappearing. It’s becoming invisible.
I’m interested in what that means for us as human beings as we are becoming increasingly reliant on it, but less cognizant of how it works. I’m interested in what it means for commerce. One thing I see absolutely happening is outsourcing buying decisions to machines in relatively short order. I would quite happily outsource the buying of toothpaste and toilet rolls and tins of tomatoes to a machine as long as it meant I never run out of those absolutely vital staples. Particularly tins of tomatoes, for anybody with kids who live on pasta!
It affects transport. It affects what it means to be human. It affects security. How do we consider cyber crime, when that cyber crime affects a piece of what we increasingly consider to be ourselves. Whether that’s a digitally enhanced memory. Your digitally enhanced capability to do your job. There’s all sorts of interesting implications for how we treat security and cyber crime and privacy in this age as well. Where does this processing power sit? This invisible ambient computing upon which will increasingly rely: Who owns it? Who controls it? Who sets the rules? They’re issues were struggling with now. They’re only going to become more acute in the future.
Mark: That’s a really good analogy. The other week I went to my car to top up the screenwash. Opened the bonnet and looked at the engine and just saw plastic covers everywhere. I thought “that’s the thing I need to do and I don’t really care about the rest of it. I’m not interested”, so that is definitely the way technology is going. Everybody’s less and less interested in anything other than the immediate thing that they will deal with. We are at a sort of “halfway house” now with things like “dash buttons”, where you can have a button next to the toilet to order more toilet roll or whatever. You can definitely see that’s the way it’s going to go.
Tom: There are really clear interim technologies. You can quite often see interim technologies as gateways to where things are going to go. I remember 20 years ago seeing a device for downloading digital music and putting it on a Minidisc player. You know that’s not going to last but it’s an interesting pointer to where things are going. And absolutely the dash button is another one. We know that the back-end, in terms of sensing capability: Understanding when you’re running out of stuff, whether that’s through computer vision, the the mythical internet fridge monitoring when the milk is going to go off – None of that stuff’s quite there yet, but we know that someday it will be. So Amazon’s building up the other end of the business as well. Let’s just get someone to push a button when they want something. Ultimately that decision will be taken out of your hands if you want it to be.
There’s a particular class of technology that does that, which is “augmented reality”. As soon as we are all walking around with a pair of smart glasses on – something in which Apple and all the other companies are investing huge amounts – we have an always-on camera on our faces, probably 10 hours a day, capturing a vast array of information about our surroundings. At that point you don’t need a smart fridge, you don’t need sensors everywhere because you’ve got the best sensor (a visual sensor) capturing all that information as you go about your daily life and then driving responses from that.
Mark: There’s a lot of interesting stuff coming, I think there always is, but it just feels at the moment like we’re at the cusp of another big explosion of development in that area.
Tom: Yeah. I’m not sure if it’s a new one or if it’s the crescendo of the last 40 or 50 years of connected computing. It’s that combination of connectivity, storage and processing power, all increasing at an exponential rate. It almost has this inevitable conclusion that we apply that connected smarts to a greater and greater range of challenges.
Mark: I think you’re right. Great. Thank you. Well, I guess if we ramble on for too much longer, you’re not going to have any material left you talk. So I’ll leave it there, but looking forward to seeing you in October and thank you very much!
Tom: Fantastic, look forward to it.