Five years…

David Bowie passed away five years ago on the 10th January 2016. His legacy is a portfolio of great music and it was while listening to some of his songs that the Badger mused on some of the things that have happened  since his demise.

The UK Brexit referendum on 23rd June 2016 upended British politics, changed Europe for ever, and caused widespread public frustration with the shenanigans of politicians in handling the exit process. The whole process exposed the dysfunctionality of politics and politicians across the UK and across the EU, more so than ever before.   

In 2016 Donald Trump – a businessman rather than a career politician – was elected the President of the USA. His term in office, including his impending departure, has been a tsunami of controversy. Mr Trump’s election was founded on a ticket that gave voice to millions of voters frustrated with their career politicians. His enemies would, and did, throw everything at him during his term in office. The pendulum has now swung against him, and the USA seems, to an outsider at least, to be exhibiting the polarisation and in-fighting typical of a failing empire, which does not augur well for the future.

During the last five years, the EU struggled with a humanitarian and political crisis caused by the influx of more than a million refugees, Greta Thunberg brought global focus on climate issues, the MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements made a mark, and the Cambridge Analytica affair exposed some truth about social media platforms and their use of your data. And then, of course, there is the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Badger, however, thinks the biggest happening over the last five years pervaded all of the above, namely the fact that the social media platforms have an uncontrollable influence on our lives and democracy. These platforms claim to be a bastion of free speech but they give voice to extremes, fake news, disinformation, the darker side of the human psyche, attention seekers and faceless disrupters of all kinds. So much so that Western democracy is threatened. The tech giants have resisted regulation by politicians for years, but – regardless of your views on Mr Trump – they now appear to be regulating elected politicians!  It appears from the happenings of the last five years that social media giants wield more unaccountable power than is sensible for the preservation of Western democracy, and that our elected leaders need to take these tigers by the tail and regulate them.   Alternative views, of course, exist.   

There is a great Bowie song that is as pertinent today as it was when released in 1972. That song is Five years, a great version of which was recently released by Duran Duran.   The Badger thinks its line ‘Five years, that’s all we’ve got’  sums up how long elected leaders have to sort themselves and the giant tech companies out if  Western democracy is to thrive through the rest of this century.

Fully autonomous cars – time for realism

Evangelists, visionaries, ‘blue sky’ thinkers, idealists, innovators; it doesn’t matter what you call them, they are needed for progress. For real progress that ‘sticks’ to happen, however, then we need realists too. The Badger, whose career centred on delivering difficult IT-intensive programmes, is a realist even though he did his fair share of ‘blue sky’ thinking in his time!  It’s this realism that’s behind why the Badger always maintains a healthy scepticism about predicted timelines for when the next wave of technology will be rolled out to the public.  This timeline scepticism has always stood the Badger in good stead.

Predictions by excited, future-gazing, tech evangelists may attract lots of media attention but their timelines often grossly under-estimate what’s really involved in getting something rolled out to consumers or end users at serious scale. Things in the real world are often more difficult than anticipated – that’s just life!  So, it wasn’t a shock to the Badger that Uber has sold its autonomous vehicle division to a start-up and that some are wondering whether driverless cars have stalled.  Trials on public roads, of course, continue, there are companies investing in the technology and jockeying to gain commercial advantage, the technology is still coming to terms with the hard to quantify human variable that pedestrians do unexpected things, and there are still many  legal and ethical issues to resolve. And so it seems a pretty safe bet from a realist’s perspective that fully autonomous cars will not be in the majority navigating the UK’s roundabouts for many years yet.

Anyone who has run a major IT-intensive delivery programme knows that Transition and Transformation phases when moving from the old to the new are fraught with risk, challenge, and delay due to the unexpected. The scale of the Transition and Transformation challenge in moving to a fully autonomous car system can be seen simply by a quick look at published UK government figures. There were over 38 million cars on British roads in 2019 and only 1.6% of them were fully or partially electric. It will take at least another decade just for electric rather than fossil-fuel powered cars to be in the majority, so if you are grounded in reality then it’s difficult to believe that fully autonomous cars will be the general public’s ‘go to’ method of transportation anytime soon. It looks like 2021 will see lots more autonomous vehicle related tech, but the Badger feels little of it will shorten the overall timeline for getting complex fully autonomous vehicles operating safely at scale with conventional people-driven vehicles on the country’s roads.

You may feel the Badger has started 2021 as anti-tech, anti-progress, and anti-autonomous vehicles. That’s not the case, he’s just pro-realism and a prudent sceptic – which is always a sensible position to take if you want to retain some objectivity in today’s, instant, globally, connected, digital world.  

Change…

What a year it’s been! There can’t be many people across the globe who haven’t been touched in some way by personal, social, or economic impacts from the Covid-19 pandemic.  It would be very easy, as a New Year approaches, to not only indulge in hand-wringing sadness, regret, and despondency about the events of 2020, but also to speculate – with or without optimism – about the future. But there’s enough of that in the traditional media, on the internet, and on social media platforms, so the Badger set himself a challenge over the Christmas holiday to sum up both the last year and the future using just one word!

That word didn’t take long to emerge. It was streaks ahead of the alternatives. The word was ‘change’.   

This year has seen ‘change’ in nearly everything – how we shop, the structure and the nature of industry sectors, the profile of scientists, technologists and health and care professionals, the way we work, travel, and interact with other people, the shape of the economy and our cities, and our awareness of how the world really works. We now all know that rather than bombs and guns, things you cannot see which don’t respect geographic boundaries can wreak real havoc to our lives and threaten our species. We have also all seen just how dependent we are on global supply chains, digital technology, the well-being of the planet, and – indeed – on each other.

Change doesn’t stop, so the word ‘change’ is more than apt to describe the future. The First World War and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 100 years ago were triggers for major personal, societal, and economic change, and so its highly likely we’ll see the same once the Covid-19 pandemic abates but this time much, much faster.  Why? Because the pandemic has made us face the reality that the old ways really were truly unsustainable.

The Badger thinks we have all been reminded of one thing this year, that you can never be certain in life of what’s around the next corner.  Predicting the future is fraught with risk and disappointment, especially with the world continuing to be in a very difficult place. But with ‘change’ inevitable in 2021, the Badger thinks there’s only one New Year resolution for sensible people to make and that’s to  ‘embrace rather than resist the changes ahead’.   Whether we like it or not, change is a perpetual aspect of our lives. History shows that resisting it leads to disadvantage, avoidable anxiety, and ultimately personal, societal, and economic collateral damage that serves no one well. And on that point of philosophical reflection, the Badger wishes you well and that you have a better 2021 than 2020.

Tech regulation; learn the lessons of the past…

The Badger has just arranged for a headstone to be erected at the grave of a relative who passed-away some years ago. The process started with using Google to research the different types of  headstone, suppliers, pricing, and graveyard regulations. Having done the research, the Badger engaged a provider and arrangements were made using to the providers preferred business methods, namely good old fashioned telephone calls, letters and forms by post, and cheques for payments. Everything went smoothly and the headstone is now in place.

There was only one thing that was an irritant in the whole process – the flood of content, adverts, and unsolicited marketing that appeared in the Badger’s news, email, and social media feeds following the Google search queries!  Receiving unsolicited and unwanted suggestions about funeral plans, care homes, equity release, life insurance, will writing, and donating to charity via a will was just tiresome and a reminder that the big  tech giants track and use our behavioural data. If there was a single, simple, ‘Big Red Button’ that turned all that stuff off, then the Badger would have pushed it!  

Recent news that a Digital Markets Unit is being formed under the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) (see here, here and here) to start limiting the power of big tech firms in the UK seemed like welcome news and a sign that politicians are starting to wake up.  In the USA, of course, Google is already in the cross-hairs of the US government for alleged anticompetitive abuses. At long last, governments around the world seem to be very slowly addressing regulation of the big tech giants which, let’s face it, are enormously powerful as well as being at the heart of the functioning of today’s modern society.

Sceptical about the need for regulation? Read the Financial Times article here. It points out that the 2008 banking crisis showed that careful oversight is needed when the public interest depends on businesses that exist to meet the needs of private capital providers. Before 2008, the approach of regulators to the way banks behaved was ‘principles based’, i.e. deliberately light touch. This relied too much on the banks’ abilities to govern themselves, and it failed. Similarities with the current approach with big tech are striking.  We should learn the lessons from the past! After all, isn’t that what the leaders of all corporations and governmental institutions are forever telling their employees and everyone else to do?

When speaking to the headstone provider, the Badger asked why – apart from a basic website – they hadn’t fully embraced the digital world. Simple, they answered. ‘We’ve stayed in business for over a century because we learn our lessons, one of which has been to always steer a cautious path through periods of innovation and change’. How very refreshing!     

What goes up will come down…

‘Won’t get fooled again’ by The Who, one of the best political songs there’s been, played on the radio as the Badger cogitated in wonderment at Apple’s $US2 trillion market valuation at his laptop. How in the world is Apple worth that much? Well, a simple insight can be found here.  Of course, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, and Alphabet (Google) are not far behind with valuations of $US1 trillion or more.

The Badger’s been around long enough to know that markets are fickle, and that today’s mega corporations will normally disappoint at some stage in the future with the man in the street bearing the brunt when they do.  Yes, the big tech companies are at the heart of today’s world of instant digital mass communication and consumption, but have their valuations and the view of their future prospects become absurd? Hmm. Probably, at least that’s what the Badger – who’s no expert in these matters – senses.  

The valuation of Apple alone is greater than the UK FTSE 100 as a whole, greater than the GDP of countries like the Netherlands, Canada and Italy, and about two/thirds of the GDP of India!  Isn’t that just bizarre when the company hasn’t really come up with anything new recently? By the way, this isn’t an anti-Apple rant, just an articulation that the valuations of tech giants may have become too detached from the real global economy experienced by the average man on the street.  The Dot.com boom and bust of some 20 years ago comes to mind, although – to be fair – the situation today is somewhat different.  Nevertheless, the Badger senses there’s not only a bubble of some kind, but also a strengthening sentiment that the tech giants are way too greedy, powerful, and uncontrollable.  You may, of course, disagree.

As the Badger cogitated, his wife observed, playfully, that if Apple and the other tech giants got together they would rule the planet making governments irrelevant!  The point was tongue in cheek, but nevertheless well made in today’s strange world.  She also asked how it was possible – apart from in the world of spreadsheets and speculation – for Apple to be valued at $US1 trillion two years ago and to have doubled in value in just 24 months.  The Badger, trying to avoid  any explanation of corporations and markets, just smiled and said, ‘What goes up will come down’  pointing to the bit of  correction the tech giants experienced last week as illustration.  

And then Barry McGuire’s ‘Eve of Destruction’ came on the radio. Cogitation ended with just the easy conclusion that while we live in strange times, they are probably no stranger than 50 years ago when The Who and Barry McGuire wrote their songs. The Badger put the laptop away, turned up the volume on the radio, and sang along proving that you can still have lots of fun without being a captive of the big tech giants and their $US trillion valuations.

V-J Day, Animal Farm, and the digital world; a poignant moment…

The only light in the dark lounge was from the flickering images of a TV programme about V-J Day, the end of World War II in Japan 75 years ago. It was poignant not only because the Badger had relatives who served in the Far East, but also because the Badger’s baby grandson was cradled in his arms, fast asleep. It’s moments like this that make you think about what people endured in those times with how it is today, and the slumbering innocent in his arms, that’s just what the Badger found himself doing.  

Those who lived through World War II and its aftermath – regardless of their allegiance, age, colour, or creed – endured great hardship for years. Rationing, for example, only ended in the UK in 1954.  The Badger’s relatives rarely discussed their experiences which undoubtedly set the high values they held dear for the rest of their lives.  They lived without selfishness and took responsibility for dealing with whatever curve-balls life dealt them. They also had a strong sense of right and wrong, a great respect for law, order, and justice, and they put freedom and their families at the centre of their universe.

The world today is different, but is it better? Hmm.  As he watched the TV, the Badger found himself lamenting that the baby in his arms would grow up in a world in which ‘online’ has already hugely challenged the values and moral compass that his relatives held dear.  Today people seem less willing to take personal responsibility for anything; blame seems to be the first instinct and privacy and freedoms seem to have been willingly traded for convenience. Daily living is dominated by ‘online’ devices and social media whose negatives far outweigh its positives.  The news media is full of questionable content rather than fact, and respect for those who uphold law and order seems to be waning.  There’s something wrong with society when a first instinct is to video any interaction with upholders of the law and immediately upload it to Twitter or YouTube. It won’t be long before everyone videos their one to one meetings with their boss and immediately puts them on YouTube too!    

Looking at the peaceful innocent in his arms, the Badger felt that his relatives, now no longer alive, would be horrified by the erosion of values they held dear.  As it happens, George Orwell’s book Animal Farm was published two days after V-J Day in 1945. The book is as relevant today as it was then, and it will continue to be relevant when the Badger’s grandson reaches adulthood. As the little one gurgled and opened his eyes, the Badger vowed to ensure he knows not only of the values held dear by a generation who did what they had to do for the greater good and suffered personal hardships by just stoically getting on with life, but also that life itself is much more important than anything on the internet and social media.  

Is the death of the physical desk finally nigh?

The Badger’s lucky because he has an ‘office’ at home – a room complete with a desk, storage cabinets, and IT.  It’s the Badger’s space for creative thinking, working, and administering modern life. It has a proper desk, one with character and scars that shows that it has been at the heart of creativity and endeavour for years.  The IT sits neatly on it, just like the pen, notepad, and the other odds and ends that personalise the space.

This week, while sitting at the desk, the Badger found himself reflecting on commentaries about how employers offices will be impacted after the remote working of white-collar staff during the pandemic. It soon dawned on the Badger that the longest tenure he has had with any desk is with the one he was sitting at!  The Badger realised that during 35 years in the IT industry he had occupied many different ‘desks’ in employer/client offices, and that he had experienced numerous transformations of office environments. Indeed, the Badger was often part of the decision-making teams that initiated these transformations!

Having an office format that would attract new staff, help employee retention, and support changing business needs were always factors in decision making, but reducing overheads by increasing the density of staff in the same floor area was always a dominant factor. Thus, over time, proper physical desks and filing cabinets in discreet rooms gave way to ‘Open Plan’ with smaller ‘table’ surfaces and wheeled under-desk units, which in turn gave way to  Hot Desking’ where a surface in a long lines of regimented identical ones, with no storage space, had to be booked to be used.  The Badger, and most in the IT sector, never found such transformations too problematic because remote and flexible working – anytime, anyplace, anywhere – has been part of work patterns for many decades.  However, for white-collar people and their employers in other sectors, see BP for example, the pandemic has triggered a structural shift in work patterns and a big rethink by employers of the role, form, and scale of their offices.

Long before the pandemic, ‘Open Plan’ was giving way  to more ‘agile’ environments, and now the pandemic has skewered  ‘Hot Desking’ too – see here and here , for example. Time will tell, but many employers now have under-used offices and their white-collar employees know they can work remotely and productively without commuting to an impersonal worksurface at their employer’s office. Change is inevitable.  So, is ‘the death of the physical desk’ finally nigh? The Badger doesn’t think so. Why? Because, like so much in today’s world, there will be a hybrid solution to the future of work with much more flexible working.  Having a physical desk that you can call your own will feature in this future because it has psychological, functional, productivity and practical merits which complement the virtual desk that your laptop and cyberspace constitutes.  Just don’t look to your employer for one. Have your physical desk at home and be amazed how quickly you get attached to it!

ITER – Another step forward to the world’s new normal

The announcement that the assembly of ITER, the world’s first device aiming to produce net energy from nuclear fusion, has started put a spring in the Badger’s step. Why? Because it’s an international joint experiment that will ultimately benefit everyone on the planet, and also because it has the support and cooperation of world powers who, in the wider sphere of global politics, often spend more time antagonising each other.  Perhaps naively, the Badger feels ITER provides a twinkle of light in the current sea of sour relationships amongst the world’s largest powers.

ITER will move us closer to the ultimate goal of large-scale carbon-free energy. It also represents a ‘moment’ for the Badger who has had a long-standing interest in the science, engineering, materials, and information technology aspects of workable fusion reactors. It’s a massive ‘Build & Systems Integration’ project and the software system that makes it function is just as critical as everything else in its construction. But ITER is also something else; it’s yet another illustration that 2020 is heralding a decade of enormous real change in what constitutes ‘normal’ in life across the world.  The ‘normal’ of six months ago has disappeared and a new ‘normal’ is evolving fast.   Change is very much in the air. Just ask those you bump into in the local supermarket and you’ll find they feel it too.

SpaceX’s recent success, missions to Mars, satellite networks,  health and wearable technologies, video technology for consultations with health professionals, battery and hydrogen powered vehicles, 5G, robotics and artificial intelligence are all examples of an enormous wave of technological advancement that is rippling throughout the world with extra momentum in 2020.  Reliance on fossil fuel is declining. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that life goes on and the environment benefits with less planes in the sky and vehicles on the roads, that high street retail has changed for ever, and that working remotely from the office is effective and productive for many people.

Bosses and workers alike are now questioning the need for expensive offices in city centres and the daily commute. Cities and their transportation infrastructure are accordingly likely to change over the next decade.  The world order is changing too, with the USA and China jockeying for position as top dog and the EU in decline. The election of the oldest president in US history in the next few months doesn’t look as if it will change anything. The world order is increasingly distrustful of each other and the United Nations is largely toothless.

Everything above shows transition to a new ‘normal’ is fully underway. ITER is just one of many indicators of this and the speed with which world change is happening. No one can predict the future, but the Badger is certain of one thing. The first fusion plasma in ITER, scheduled for December 2025, will happen before fully autonomous vehicles are in widespread use on UK roads!