Transformation with chaos…

After a morning browsing High Street shops, the Badger and his wife popped into a well-known pizza chain for lunch. The number of empty shops and limited footfall meant that our shopping experience had been a sombre one with little atmosphere. As we waited for our pizzas, it was impossible not to listen to the amusing, interesting, and thought-provoking conversation of a spirited group of 30-somethings at an adjacent table. Their conversation seemed to centre on the importance of social media to free speech given Microsoft’s withdrawal of LinkedIn from China, the forthcoming COP26 climate conference, and transformation of the world! The Badger found himself silently oscillating between admiration at their optimism and idealism and dismay at their simplistic view of our globalised world.    

Three things in their conversation grated. The first was a belief that social media is a bastion of free speech. It isn’t. Free speech has existed in societies long before the advent of social media. Yes, social media is a modern channel for sharing information, but it’ll never be a bastion of free speech when people and organisations with nefarious characteristics or intent cannot be held to account. What keeps most people attached to social media, the Badger feels, is simply FOMO – the Fear of Missing Out – not free speech.

The second thing which grated was the view that it’s the UK government’s responsibility to ‘save the planet’ via COP26. It isn’t. The uncomfortable truth is that the UK can facilitate and be an exemplar on dealing with climate issues, but ‘saving the planet’ is more in the hands of the USA, China, Russia, and India than this tiny island. The final thing that grated was a view that the COVID pandemic has shown that our online tech has already transformed the world and that a green, tech-centric, utopia is just around the corner. That’s not the case! The pandemic has, in fact, highlighted that we’re entering an unruly extended period of global transformation which will affect every facet of our lives. Transformation with chaos will be a feature of the years to come!

Transformations succeed when everyone aligns and commits to common goals, plans, budgets, and so on. There’s little real evidence for such alignment and commitment amongst the major powers. The US, EU, China, Russia, and India all have their own economic and internal pressures. US relations with China show little sign of improvement, countries and companies are re-evaluating the strategic wisdom of extensive globalised supply chains, and the move away from carbon creates different tensions as demand for old commodities declines and demand for different ones rises. With this backdrop it’s foolish to think a green, tech-centric utopia is just around the corner.

As our pizzas arrived, the Badger’s wife said ‘There’s a generation whose entire lives will witness perpetual transformation and chaos’.  The Badger simply responded with ‘That’s life’

Nothing lasts forever…

Facebook Inc and Mr Zuckerberg, Founder, Chairman, and CEO  and largest shareholder by far,  haven’t had a good few weeks.  The recent outage of its platforms irritated users globally and it seriously embarrassed the company, especially when it emerged that its internal systems were impacted too. A sizeable chunk of 3 billion users were affected leading to much press comment on what happened – see here, for example. In addition, a whistle-blower interviewed on US TV, by the Wall Street Journal, and questioned by a US congressional committee  provided an insight to the company that was both damaging and a reinforcement of the widespread perception that the company’s  overwhelming focus is on capturing users and monetising their data over anything else.

At two o’clock in the morning recently, the Badger found himself cogitating on Facebook’s woes while listening in the dark to an unrelated BBC World Service programme during which a professor frequently made the point that ‘nothing lasts forever’.  The professor’s truism struck a chord that felt relevant to the social media giant whose dominance has grown progressively since it floated publicly in 2012.    Now, just a decade since it floated and with recent events reinforcing concerns about its power, the clamour for regulation and even break-up is gaining real momentum in politicians of all persuasions. It feels like Facebook is now truly facing ‘nothing is forever’ headwinds. As pointed out here, it’s not technology that’s at the root of the company’s problems and negative perceptions, it’s the business model.  

Cogitations in the dark about the outage and whistle-blower claims crystalised into raised eyebrows that Facebook could have internal and external facing systems impacted by the same single point of failure, and ambivalence about the whistle-blower’s assertions given that truth is rarely as purported by one party in an argument.  Thoughts moved on to how the Badger’s use of the company’s social media platforms has significantly waned over the years as a greater appreciation of how the company uses and monetises content developed. Then there was a moment of clarity in the darkness. ‘Nothing lasts forever’ applies directly to Mr Zuckerberg’s roles as Founder, Chairman, and Chief Executive too!

Mr Zuckerberg holds both the Chairman and CEO roles, which many will argue provides a clear line of command through the whole company. However, it places a disproportionate authority in the hands of one individual.  The two roles are different, and the best corporate governance principles hold that they shouldn’t be held by the same individual. Facebook floated almost 10 years ago and so perhaps it’s time for Mr Zuckerberg to realise that ‘nothing lasts forever’ and that the time is right for him to step back and let others navigate the choppy waters of the company’s future?  With this thought in mind, the Badger turned the radio off and went to sleep.  

Time for a new microwave oven…

A long time ago in the galaxy of life, far, far away, a system development project involving 50 people regularly experienced a problem with its development and test computer. In those days – when remote datacentres were just a peripheral blip on the innovation radar – computers were often collocated with the team but in a dedicated, air-conditioned room. Responsibility for the equipment, and for interfacing with its supplier to get proprietary software and hardware fixed when problems arose, rested with the team itself. The regular problem experienced by this particular team was simply that after months of functioning impeccably, they returned one Monday morning to find their computer powered up but unusable. Recovering it to a usable state took all morning causing frustration and loss of productivity. Thereafter, the same thing happened every Monday morning for the next 6 weeks.  

The computer supplier sent their experts to diagnose whether the root cause lay with either a software problem in the operating system, or an intermittent hardware or power supply issue, but nothing significant came to light.  Then, late one Friday night when only the development team leader remained working late, there was a breakthrough. The cleaners arrived to perform their nightly duties.  Once a week on a Friday night, however, a cleaner would vacuum the computer room’s floor.  The development team leader noticed that a few seconds after the cleaner entered the computer room, the terminal on their desk froze because the computer had crashed. They quickly realised what the root cause of the recent problems was.

 The cleaner was plugging her equipment into a switchless socket in the computer room and throwing the nearest switch in the mistaken belief that it controlled power to the socket. It didn’t; it controlled power to the computer! Throwing the switch caused an immediate, disruptive, uncontrolled shut down. When cleaning was complete, the cleaner always returned the switch to its original position and the computer would reboot into the nebulous state that the team found it on Monday mornings. It transpired that the cleaner was new and had taken over cleaning the computer room some 6 weeks previously without a proper handover from a colleague.

This is a salutary reminder that the root cause of a problem that manifests itself in computing equipment doesn’t always mean there’s a fault with the equipment itself. As the Badger has found, for example, when your laptop seems to have regular difficulty accessing the internet using Wi-Fi every Sunday lunchtime, one shouldn’t immediately assume it has a technical problem. First check if an older microwave oven is being used to prepare lunch and then check if things run tickety-boo between times. If the answer’s yes to this then, as the Badger’s found, it’s time to buy a new microwave oven…

Technology has redefined normal life…

A century ago, the world started emerging from the Spanish Flu pandemic that followed World War 1. After years of turmoil people wanted change, and the 1920s certainly provided it.  A century later we’re emerging from another pandemic, and the 2020s looks destined to be transformational too. History might repeat itself!  For most people, of course, life today is very different to that in the 1920s. Scientific and engineering advances, and especially the internet and information revolution of recent decades, have put technology at our fingertips and redefined what constitutes normal life for most of us.  

Just how much normal life in the UK has changed since the 1920s can be illustrated, for example, by reflecting on the motor car. In the early 1920s when the UK population was ~40 million, there were only 383,525 cars .  By 1930 the number of cars had risen to 1 million with ~ 7,300 annual road deaths. Today the UK population is ~67 million, and there are 33 million registered cars and around 1800 annual road deaths.  The first traffic light on a road appeared in the mid-1920s, and driving tests became law in the mid-1930s. Cars of the 1920s were ostensibly fuelled mechanical devices owned by a tiny minority of households, whereas today they are essentially fuelled electronic devices with mechanical components which are owned by nearly every household.  Roads are also vastly different, and its amusing to think that any concept of a ‘Smart Motorway’ suggested in the 1920s would have been considered as the ramblings of a lunatic.   

The car and it’s embedded technology has become an essential in the average UK person’s life in less than a century. It’s not only changed the landscape and infrastructure of our country, but also become a fundamental part of our personal freedoms. The 2020s will see cars become powered by electricity, filled with ever more technology to control our driving habits, and become taxed differently to compensate for the reduction in the £28 billion annual revenues currently generated fuel duty on petrol and diesel.  The car as a metaphor for technology has redefined what constitutes normal life over the last 100 years, and that redefinition will continue throughout the 2020s.   

However, there’s something that hasn’t changed since the 1920s, namely primeval human behaviour.  Today’s global connectivity and social media platforms readily bring the most unattractive aspects of this to the fore for all to see. That’s a worry, because the end of the 1920s saw the Great Depression, and if history repeats itself then we could see some similar crisis at the end of this decade, triggered perhaps by a serious failure in the world’s technology infrastructure. If this were to happen, then primeval human instincts will take over and the ensuing anarchy might highlight that life without cars and modern technology is actually survivable, just as it was in the 1920s a century ago

Has tech lost its association with ‘fun’ as a result of the pandemic?

The Badger recently witnessed a young mother struggling to deal with the noisy, stamping feet tantrum of her infant son at the school gates. The reason for the boy’s tantrum became clear on walking past; his mother had confiscated his mobile phone!  The Badger felt rather sad that such a young child had and was so attached to a mobile phone. It was also sad to see the lad’s mum making as much noise as her son by deploying shouting from the arsenal of parenting skills. My, how the world’s changed.

Should infants have their own mobile phones? Has modern tech infiltrated our lives to such an extent that it’s become unhealthily addictive for infants, children, and adults? Will society descend into anarchy if the internet suffers a catastrophic outage, for example, as a result of a solar superstorm? When tech has become such an important tool in our day to day lives then the answers to such questions are not as straightforward as Yes or No.  Tech was a boon during the pandemic, but the Badger senses that the more we used it the more we’ve come to appreciate that a) it’s a tool and not a lifestyle or ideology, b) it can be corrosive to well-being if used unwisely, and c) that we need real rather than virtual social interactions in our lives because they’re more important to our holistic well-being.  The use of tech during the pandemic has opened the eyes of adults, parents, and children to the downsides of letting it dominate our lives.   

One opinion expressed in The Register’s recent weekly debate on the motion ‘Technology widens the education divide’  was that ‘‘tech’ has massively overreached the point where it’s helpful, and is now obstinately wedged into every single corner of our lives, to the detriment of our ability to think and act as independent human beings’.  Harsh, but it’s a growing sentiment. Another interesting contribution to the debate came from Maria Russell, an early-years teacher in North London, who observed that when her young pupils returned to school, their attitudes had changed due to mixed experiences with technology during the pandemic.  Technology has lost its association with ‘fun’ and become less compelling for her pupils who now crave completely different things like climbing, playing with their friends, reading physical books, and having stories read to them.   

Does this mean we might see infants with mobile phones as the exception rather than the norm in the future? Who knows, but when early-years school children don’t consider tech as much ‘fun’ as they used to pre-pandemic, then a seed of change is germinating that could blossom into significant shifts in attitudes towards the tech in our lives as this generation grows up. Time, as they say, will tell.

Welcome to the metaverse…

As the Badger walked to the local High Street to meet friends, the heavens opened dumping lots of rain on anyone without a coat or an umbrella. Luckily, the local train station was just along the road and a quick sprint for its shelter meant a complete soaking was avoided. Sheltering with others in the station’s ticket hall, the Badger messaged his friends to say he’d be late, and then browsed his smartphone’s news feeds until the rain stopped. Everyone in the ticket hall was doing something similar. In fact, the bedraggled crowd looked like something from a zombie apocalypse, but without any blood.  

A news item entitled ‘PC, internet, smartphone: what’s the next big technological epoch?’ caught the Badger’s eye. Its content answered the question by building on a core 2014 suggestion that the tech/IT industry has evolved through three ‘epochs’, each defined by a core technology and a killer app. The three epochs, in time order, were the advent of the PC, the internet, and mobile computing now epitomised by today’s smartphone. If this last epoch is now peaking, then what’s the next epoch technology for the industry? One possibility suggested is metaverses, a term covering a range of virtual realities covering the workplace, entertainment, and community platforms.  Facebook, apparently, wants to become an online metaverse, but that, in itself, is enough to be wary about a metaverse future.   

As the rain eased, the Badger decided it’s unlikely that metaverses, a word that sounds like marketing technobabble, are the next epoch technology. If they are, then we will have to let companies use even more of our data and also accept a further erosion of personal privacy. Many of us will be reticent about doing this given experiences with social media over the last decade. It also seems unlikely that most of us would want to live our personal and professional lives in virtual worlds when, as the pandemic has shown, we crave the touch, smells, textures, physical interactions with friends and colleagues, and the normal rhythms of the real world that we inhabit.   

The rain stopped, and the Badger resumed his journey, walking briskly and dodging the puddles. Just as the destination came into sight, the heavens opened again.  With mother nature exercising its power with another climate change cloudburst, wondering about the next big epoch in the tech industry felt like an irrelevance. A damp Badger finally arrived and chatted with his friends over coffee. None of them are in the least bit interested in metaverses. One, who’s proud of being ‘a digital native and a digital dinosaur’, pointed out that real life is about much, much, more than bits and bytes manipulated by clever hardware and software. They are so right. It’s very hard to see how metaverses can be an epoch technology that will make real life much better.  

Indelible memories of 9/11…

Saturday is the 20th anniversary of the atrocity that killed thousands of innocent people at the World Trade Centre in New York.  If you weren’t there then it’s almost certain that you watched the harrowing event play out on television screens on that fateful Tuesday, 11th September 2001. It was a heinous crime, horrifying to watch on TV in a different country, and it left people with indelible memories wherever they were in the world on that day. These memories are often specific and deeply personal, and two of the Badger’s, for example, are as follows.

The first is of how the Badger became aware of the tragedy at work in a building outside London, some 3,500 miles from New York. Sitting in his office pouring over project documents relating to a 200-strong development team resident in the same building, the Badger was oblivious to the unfolding horror until his concentration was broken by a telephone call from his teenage son. In a voice dripping with concern, his son’s first words were ‘Where are you? Are you okay and somewhere safe? Have you seen the news?’.  The Badger was surprised by his son’s unexpected, anxiety-laden, words. It quickly transpired that he thought his father was in London and that ‘London would be the next target’. The profound relief of his son when the Badger answered reassuringly has proved unforgettable. After the call, the Badger went to a news website, saw a picture of a blazing tower, and knew that the world would be changing.   

The second is of a meeting the following day in London. It involved two people from the company’s Lexington-based subsidiary, 10 miles from downtown Boston. The pallor, demeanour, and body language of two shocked people who had travelled to London the previous Sunday for a week of business meetings with UK-based leaders was unforgettable.  The Badger’s boss, who chaired the meeting, set the original agenda aside to concentrate on their well-being and needs. They were grateful because all they really wanted to do was get back to Boston as quickly as possible to be with their families.  Their professionalism and patriotism while highly stressed, emotionally vulnerable, stuck in a foreign country due to the grounding of planes, and concerned for their loved ones, was hauntingly memorable.   

We should remember that at the time of 9/11 the internet was pedestrian by today’s standards.  It didn’t dominate our lives then, and the likes of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, iPhones, Android phones, and tablet computers didn’t exist.  If today’s smartphones, social media platforms, and streaming had existed in 2001 then the trauma and immediate personal suffering of those caught up inside the towers would have been horrifyingly at our fingertips in real-time. Today’s tech means life is different to 20 years ago, but we should perhaps be thankful that it didn’t exist at the time of 9/11 because the trauma experienced by everyone everywhere would have been worse by orders of magnitude.    

Chips with everything…

Did you know that what’s printed on the tubs of butter you buy at the supermarket relies on microchips to control the curing of the ink? You probably didn’t, but it’s true.  It’s a simple example that there’s ‘chips with everything’ in today’s world. While media headlines concentrate on how the global computer chip shortage impacts things like games consoles, cars, and smartphones, it’s worth remembering that the shortage has a much broader impact.   

It’s easy to believe that current supply woes are wholly caused by the pandemic, but that’s not the case, as many articles analysing the causes illustrate, see here and here , for example. US-China trade tensions are a factor, for example, and so are the decisions made by major corporates in some industry sectors when the pandemic hit.  On the latter, many swiftly cancelled orders with chip suppliers who understandably compensated by prioritising sectors where orders continued to flow. As current delays to new vehicle production in the auto industry illustrates, many companies now find themselves further down their supplier’s priority lists than they perhaps expected now that things are slowly opening up.   

The pandemic has, of course, had some direct impact, but rational and objective observers will conclude that the event has starkly exposed a serious consequence of the globalisation and extended supply chains that have become the norm over the last twenty or so years.  Over just two decades the number of key semiconductor fabrication companies has essentially reduced to just three, namely Taiwan’s TSMC, South Korea’s Samsung, and Intel. When the two Asian firms have more than 70% of the fabrication market from facilities centred in the Far East then we shouldn’t really be surprised when a disruptive event puts the supply/demand equation out of balance. There’s little doubt that many country leaders, politicians, and corporates will already be considering whether the developed world’s heavy dependence on globalised supply chains has gone too far. Global trade’s important, and it has been for centuries, but it seems likely that there’ll be some strategic retrenchment towards a better local/offshore balance in order to mitigate strategic risks over the coming years.

For years we’ve been told by health professionals that eating chips (fries) with everything isn’t healthy, and most people in developed economies are more informed today about the importance of a healthy diet than previous generations. Analogously, we need to appreciate that a life regimen that relies on ‘chips with everything’ for the goods, devices, appliances, and facilities we use every day in the modern world isn’t good for us either. Chips as part of a balanced diet or in a balanced every day life are, of course, perfectly acceptable, and so perhaps a shortage of computer chips isn’t such a bad thing if it helps us return to a better balance in the way we live.   

Reflecting on a smart meter…

It’s ten years since the UK’s smart meter roll-out programme began, and it’s nine months since a smart meter was fitted in the Badger’s home. It seemed apt this week, therefore, to spend a little time considering whether the smart meter has helped reduce the household’s energy consumption. Accordingly, the Badger sat down at his desk with a cup of coffee to analyse how the household’s annual kilowatt hours have changed over the last seven years when the number of house occupants has been a constant. The analysis revealed that annual kilowatt hours dropped every year up until the smart meter was installed nine months ago. Energy consumption has dropped by 36% from the level seven years ago. Consumption since the smart meter was installed, however, is on track to be essentially on a par with the last pre-smart meter year. 

This means that the sizeable reduction in household consumption was achieved during the era of an old-fashioned, reliable, mechanical meter and not by installing a smart meter. It shows that personal discipline and behavioural change in using energy in the home has a bigger impact than having a smart meter per se.  Having a smart meter for nine months has, however, largely been a benign experience.  The In-Home Display still intermittently displays ‘Connection Lost – move the device closer to the meter’ which is irritating when the smart meter campaign’s website says it’ll work anywhere in your home.  The novelty of monitoring the In-Home display also wore off long ago, and now any hype about smart meters is now, frankly, just ignored. The household may have a ‘modern’ smart meter as part of its updated infrastructure, but as a consumer it doesn’t feel particularly beneficial or worthwhile.     

It seems that the jury’s out on whether households think the smart meter roll out programme has been worthwhile. The Badger, as a consumer paying for this programme through their energy bills, is dubious that it’s worth the billions that have been spent. The programme’s been running for a decade so far. It’s much delayed, and the current target set for 2024 looks both optimistic and somewhat irrelevant given the meters must all apparently be replaced if home gas boilers are to be adapted or replaced to use hydrogen.  One can’t help but feel that this programme has been over-sold and is turning out to be an expensive dud, at least for consumers.   

The simple fact is that a smart meter hasn’t helped to reduce energy use in the Badger’s household over the last nine months. It’s become like its old-fashioned predecessor, a box in a corner that just does its thing.  You don’t need a smart meter to save energy and hence money, you just need to change your household disciplines and personal behaviour…which, of course, costs you nothing.  

London, millennials, a stag night, and immersive television…

The Badger spent last weekend in London attending a stag night.  Our party of 8, mainly millennials, had a great time without succumbing to a drunken stupor. The weekend featured a crazy golf competition, a great meal, a stay in the Hard Rock Hotel, a bowling competition, and many wide-ranging discussions during the quieter times. Although the Badger was positively geriatric compared to his millennial companions, he gained much respect by doing well in all the competitions!

The members of the group came from different backgrounds and parts of the country. Bonding was helped by the fact that it was everyone’s first stay in London since the start of the pandemic. Although initially apprehensive, we all relaxed when it was clear that all venues were applying covid-safe procedures rigorously, and that most people everywhere were complying with government guidance. It felt strange, however, to see that millennials were by far the dominant generation on the streets and on public transport, and also that no one gave the groom – dressed as Star War’s C3PO – a second look as he walked along Oxford Street! 

Spending a weekend with a group of millennials having a good time proved strikingly educational for the Badger. This is a generation whose lives have been impacted by a global financial crisis, a global virus pandemic, and enormous advances in digital technology.  Most of them don’t remember a time when they received a sensible interest rate on their savings. Most depend completely on their smartphone and use gaming or Netflix for entertainment rather than television. Most use social media heavily, only shop online, expect things to happen fast, and use cash minimally.  Over the weekend everyone used contactless payment for public transport and even to play air hockey in an arcade at one of the activity venues. Smartphones were used to order and pay for full English breakfasts at a table in Wetherspoons, at a fifth of the price for breakfast in the hotel. This is a generation of digital natives who know that continued rapid tech advances will dominate the rest of their lives. 

During one discussion that morphed from the limited success of 3D TV over the last decade, most in the group believed that television will shortly become immersive using virtual reality technology derived from gaming. Time will tell, but it’s a brave person that says they’re wrong.  It was discussions like this that made the Badger thoughtful on the way home. London’s Oxford Street is cleaner, the buses are hydrogen powered, many shops are empty, but the multitude of American Candy stores and the small number of the Badger’s generation out and about highlights that the world has changed and that millennials have the future in their hands. The Badger’s stag night companions were hungry to embrace every aspect of the digital future ahead.