Smart Warfare…

The Badger recently saw an elderly pensioner clash with an Extinction Rebellion (XR) activist at a demonstration in London. The clash triggered the Badger to think about ‘smart warfare’ and reminded him that anything prefixed with ‘smart’ might mean ‘clever’, but it doesn’t necessarily mean ‘good’ or ‘beneficial’.

‘Can you zealots stop blocking my way please’, the pensioner asked politely. ‘I’m not a zealot; I’m a climate activist engaged in smart warfare’, the activist replied with a sneering arrogance. The pensioner responded indignantly with ‘I’ve been climate and environment conscious for years, so you should be ashamed about being at war with me when it’s the big countries in other parts of the world that have the biggest impact on the planet’s climate’. With that the pensioner pushed past the activist blocking their way. With a derogatory hand gesture, the activist turned their attention to someone else. The activist believed they were engaged in ‘smart warfare’, but to the Badger they seemed to be illustrating the polarising, fixated, tribal behaviour that is prevalent in today’s world.

The phrase ‘smart warfare’ tends to trigger thoughts of ever-evolving advanced military weaponry and a future of cyber warfare, swarms of drones, and robots. The activist’s use of the phrase, however, illustrates that ‘smart warfare’  is really modern-day terminology for the centuries-old execution of power over people using whatever clever tools and techniques are available. Tools range from extreme physical violence to the most subtle psychological techniques that enable one mind to influence and control another. Yes, clever advances in technology broadens the tools available and changes how wars are contested, but truly ‘smart warfare’ requires more than just technology, it requires clever, effective, and inspirational leaders, and committed and united people. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows that subjugating a population takes more than advanced ballistic, information, cyber, economic, and propaganda weaponry. It’s people that conduct ‘smart warfare’ not technology, and people will always find ways to resist against the odds regardless of the clever technology in use.

As the XR activist’s use of the phrase illustrates, ‘smart warfare’ has broadened beyond the military domain into the routines of normal life in our globally connected, online world full of misinformation, disinformation, processing of personal data, and location and preference tracking. When you buy a traditional newspaper from a shop, there’s no record of the articles and adverts you look at or share with other people, your opinions, other people you associate with, or whether something in the paper prompted you to make a purchase or change your behaviour. The opposite is true when we use the phones, tablets, and laptops that dominate life today. ‘Smart warfare’ is thus a routine aspect of life today because organisations are using clever tools to analyse this information to wield power over us! With this in mind, always use the apps on your phone, tablet, or laptop wisely…

Describe the dynamics of today’s digital world in one word…

Would you find it easy or hard to describe the dynamics of our modern digital world in one word? Would one word immediately come to mind, or would you need time to think before deciding? Rather than decide yourself, would you prefer to converge on a word via a group discussion? What would your word be? An ex senior civil servant, in their eighties with a razor-sharp mind, asked these questions in a recent conversation. The Badger took the easy option, answered ‘don’t know’, and we moved on to other things. The questions, however, have bugged the Badger ever since, and so as Storm Eunice buffeted the windows, he settled in his study listening to a playlist of favourite music to decide his answers.

The answer for the first question was ‘it’s hard’. In fact, it took much longer than expected to decide on one word to answer the last question. The answers to the second and third questions came quick and were straightforward. They were, respectively, time to think rather than spontaneity, and deciding for himself rather than potentially succumbing to  groupthink’. The word the Badger ultimately converged on as the answer to the last question was ‘Creep’.

The word has enormous breadth. In materials technology, ‘creep’ is the movement and permanent deformation of a solid under persistent load ultimately leading to failure. Glaciers and lead on church roofs are simple illustrations of the phenomenon. ‘Scope creep’, when requirements drift away from agreed baselines due to client pressure and poor controls, is well-known to those running businesses, projects, programmes, or service delivery. This kind of ‘creep’ often leads to financial problems, commercial disputes, and serious delays. And then, of course, ‘creep’ is sometimes used to describe people who are unpleasant, untrustworthy, insincere, or are just plain odd in their habits, interests, and behaviours.

Creep’ seems a more realistic descriptor for the dynamics of our modern digital world than the word ‘change’. For example, our insatiable demand for resources and fossil fuels is producing creep deformation of aspects of our planet to the point of crisis and questions about our sustainability on it. Additionally, digital innovation and fast technological advancement represents a persistent stress on businesses, governments, and the public producing the erosive creep of personal privacy to the point where societal rupture is a risk. Similarly, the need for social media platforms to keep people engaged and active is causing the creep of fact, news, and sensible debate into just disinformation, misinformation, abuse, and entertainment fuelling growing distrust and antipathy. ‘Creep’, of course, can still be used to describe some people, and it seems particularly apt today for politicians and so-called elites!

Oh, and ‘Creep’, by the way, is a great song by Radiohead! What would your one word to describe the dynamics of today’s world be?

From Self-driving cars to the Thought Police and Big Brother…

As widely reported, for example here, here and here, a Law Commission of England and Wales report recommends a new system of legal accountability for vehicles with self-driving capabilities, anticipating the future when vehicles drive themselves for a part, or all, of a journey without a human driver paying attention to the road. When the vehicle’s driving itself, the Commission recommends that the ‘human driver’ is immune from prosecution if anything goes wrong. Instead, liability will rest with the company or body that produced and approved the vehicle and its technology for use.

The Badger read this while taking a break from entertaining his energetic grandson who’d tired himself out and was having a nap on the sofa. The mass use of completely driver-less cars at level 5, a nirvana for some, is still years away, but the report illustrates that there’s more than technology to be addressed if vehicles with higher levels of self-driving capability are to be introduced and used safely on busy public road networks.

Three thoughts came to the fore. The first was that at the higher levels of self-driving capability, cars are like aeroplanes for the roads, and so manufacturers and operators will need to adhere to airline industry-type standards in order to keep vehicle occupants safe. The second was that enormous amounts of data needs to be stored and available for use as evidence in insurance claims and legal disputes when there are, for example, accidents. Who stores it and where? Who has access to it and under what circumstances? How is privacy and personal freedom protected? The answers aren’t yet clear, at least to the Badger. The third was that insurance companies will progressively find ways of minimising their liabilities as the higher levels of self-driving cars become commonplace in the mix of traffic. The Badger has thus resolved to henceforth read his motor insurance policy terms with a laser-like legal focus on renewal every year! Overall, it seems clear that the requirement for a vehicle to have a human driver will be with us for a very long time yet.

The move towards driver-less cars is just another example of how the relentless march of technology means the toddler sleeping peacefully on the sofa will grow up in a world with similarities to that in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.   That’s an uncomfortable thought, but for all the conveniences and benefits, the internet and digital revolution of recent decades has eroded privacy and made surveillance in society easier. The Badger’s wife chided him for being gloomy before confidently saying that our grandson will grow up to be a scientist or engineer solving life’s real problems and won’t worry about such matters. The Badger chuckled. Regardless of his career choices, the toddler already has the rebellious independence and intelligence that means he will never succumb to the Thought Police and Big Brother!

Drones, dinosaurs, and a private life…

The impressive choreographed light display that employed more than 1800 drones at the Tokyo Olympics’ opening ceremony is becoming a common sight at high profile events.  A friend’s daughter, who starts university in September, asked what many will have wondered while watching, ‘How did they do that?’  The Badger chuckled when she glibly answered her own question by saying ‘Someone’s probably doing it all from an app on their iPhone’.

Drones have all shapes and sizes, work in different ways, and perform many functions in today’s civilian and military life. Indeed, drone swarms will play an important role in military conflicts in the years ahead.  Watching the Olympics’ drone display, however, provided a visual reminder of just how far computing, software, and communications technology has advanced since the New York 9/11 atrocity 20 years ago. Most internet connections were clunky and slow at that time, and the internet itself didn’t dominate our lives. Broadband was in its infancy, flash drives (USB sticks) were uncommon, and Sharp, Samsung and Nokia had barely released their first camera-phones. Skype, YouTube, Google Maps and Streetview, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon Kindle, iPhones, and iPads didn’t exist, and most people visited real shops to do their shopping! It’s a very different world today, but not necessarily a better or safer one. 

The friend’s daughter cannot imagine life 20 years ago because all kinds of digital technology has been available at her fingertips throughout her childhood, teenage, and now her adult years. She’s a complete digital native who has become, perhaps, more reliant on technology’s conveniences than is healthy. She routinely calls the Badger and her parents ‘dinosaurs’ but she always listens respectfully when her parents point out that privacy at the time of 9/11 was very different to the concept of privacy that exists today. An individual was less technologically ‘monitored’ 20 years ago, had a true private life, and chose what to share with others, when to share it, what medium to use, how to share it, and with whom. Sharing was a conscious, physical, act. Technology has since changed the concepts of personal privacy, freedom, and independence, and has made those born this century the most ‘monitored’ generation ever.

The friend’s daughter knows that powerful forces in the online world know more about her life, habits, and location than for any previous younger generation, but she still wants most aspects of a private life that her parents enjoyed 20 years ago. Her parents rubbed salt into the topic of what constitutes a private life today by observing that ‘We’ll soon be able to tell Alexa to send out a swarm of drones to find out what you’re up to anywhere in the world’.  This didn’t go down well with their daughter responding vociferously that she’s entitled to a private life! Indeed, she is. But it won’t be the type of private life that was once enjoyed by ‘the dinosaurs’.  

Your privacy? Look before you leap…

The Badger was paying little attention to a dialogue between two experts on the radio until one said, ‘What the lockdowns have made us appreciate is that the world before the pandemic was not what it ought to be’.  The Badger’s ears pricked up. Why? Because this chimed with a recent debate the Badger participated in. It centred on whether people take enough personal responsibility for their privacy in today’s world and the Badger had stirred the pot with the following.

Pandemic or no pandemic, today’s world is dominated by the conduct of business, personal, and official affairs online.  Recent lockdowns just reinforce how over the last 20 to 25 years, since personal internet banking started to gain real traction, ‘online’ has become critical infrastructure for daily life. Most of us use online services to operate and administer bank accounts, investments, pensions, utilities, to search and apply for jobs, to interact with government departments (e.g. for vehicle licencing, benefit claims, taxation, health, passports, etc), to search for information, to buy things from Amazon, eBay, Uber, Deliveroo, supermarkets and retailers, for maps and directions on journeys, and – of course – to use various types of social media platforms.

Compare this with how we functioned 20 to 25 years ago and you’ll realise just how much of our personal data, likes, and life habits are now held somewhere in cyber space.  But ask yourself the following. Do you really know how the organisations or platforms you interact with use what they hold about you and your habits? Do you really know how they share your information with others and for what purposes? Do you really know if they sell your information, and if so to whom?

You will probably not answer with a crisp Yes. Why? Because you are unlikely to have really read the Terms & Conditions and Privacy statements presented to you, and if you have, then it’s doubtful you really absorbed what they said. Your privacy is not what it was 20 years ago, and we all bear some responsibility for that! Your information is a valuable commodity.  Others will use it to generate profits or influence the way you think and behave  and so we all need to be aware of good guidance and take more personal responsibility for preserving our privacy.

From the sheepish looks of others, the Badger had struck a chord.  The debate ultimately agreed that ‘technology has eroded personal privacy and governments must act to counter this’, and that ‘everyone must accept they have a personal responsibility for how they use online services’. The latter is crucial, even though it’s a challenge in a world where blaming someone else for our own failings is commonplace. However, one thing is certain, there’s truth in the saying ‘look before you leap’. If you value your privacy, always read and understand the Terms & Conditions and Privacy statements presented to you when you do anything ‘online’.

 

With every generation comes change…

With every generation comes change! Society evolves. Every new generation grows up in different conditions to those when their parents  were young.  Every new generation rails against the actions and decisions of older generations. Every new generation thinks they know best and wants to change the world, and every older generation thinks younger generations are feckless, frustrating, and irritating – just look here, for example. These may be sweeping generalisations, but they convey a truth and an uncomfortable reality.

Every new generation grows up in a society whose norms are challenged or changed by new technologies of one kind or another. It’s been the same for centuries. Anyone born in the last 40 years, however, has grown up in one of the most disruptive periods for society ever.  Just in the last 20 or so years our global population has exploded, increasing by around 30%, the population of urban centres has risen by ~60%,  the internet has changed the way everything is done, mobile phones have become a necessity and nearly everyone has one, and social media has taken over.  Every generation thinks it’s making society better, so is society better for those born since the 1980s who have been riding the Information and Digital wave?

The Badger’s found that when people are asked this question, No is the dominant answer!  Ostensibly because of a perception that two vital commodities in society – trust and privacy – have declined, with broadcast and online news media, and the social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter being mentioned as to blame. News organisations with a reputation for unbiased reporting are seen as being thin on the ground, and social media platforms are seen as an uncontrollable digital wild-west.

One person bravely claimed that the behaviour of those born since the 1980s and social media had already put society into a downward spiral. Their justification? Simply that anyone whose first reaction to anything was to reach for their smartphone, create a video, and immediately upload it to social media had lost the plot. A brave view indeed in these turbulent days.  The person is, of course, from the older generation and perhaps resonates with the first paragraph above.

The Badger’s view is simple. Change driven by disruptive technologies is painful and produces downsides as well as benefits. There’s little doubt that distrust is rife in society today, that privacy is fast becoming an alien concept even with GDPR, and that a finger must point to the media, the internet, and social media for some of this.  Just as in life, however, there are no magic bullets and no one has a monopoly on being right. One thing, however, is certain. The attitude, behaviour, and use of digital tools and platforms by our younger generations is creating the society that their kids will definitely rail against!

A Tidy-up leads to ‘Privacy Rebellion’…

The Badger’s performed a much overdue tidy-up of his home office and more mementoes, defunct gadgets, old books, reports, and papers were found than anticipated. It started as a quick tidy-up but morphed into an archeological dig that triggered fond memories and wonderment. It’s amazing what accumulates in nooks and crannies!

Three things of note found were a 1999 Company Annual Report, an associated 1999 slide set from the company Leadership Conference, and a Palm Pilot from the same era. Tidy-up progress slowed while the Badger read the Report and the slides because in 1999 the company was a market leader in SMS and data transmission to mobile phones, and part of the slide set covered the future of mobile phones. Today, 20 years later, the company doesn’t exist, and the Badger’s smartphone hugely exceeds the vision painted in the slides. It reminded the Badger that company’s come and go and just how much information and mobile technology has changed our lives. And the Palm Pilot? Well the dust was wiped off…and it still works! The Badger’s wife wants these items to be recycled, but they’ve just been moved from the office to a nook and cranny in the garage. She doesn’t know this yet!

During a short break in the tidy-up, the Badger’s wife sighed philosophically and commented that ‘Technology has driven lots of good in the last 100 years, but the negatives have always been down-played until they’re blindingly obvious and cause everyone to run around demanding change. In the next 20 years it’ll be the same in the digital world.’ She elaborated a little with ‘Oil, nuclear, cars, planes, antibiotics, plastic, and palm oil have advanced our lives, but it’s only recently that everyone’s realised their impacts are unsustainable. People are fickle, it’ll be no different with AI.’

A fair point perhaps? The Badger nodded playfully and added that ‘data’ was the future critical commodity, and that there could be a ‘privacy rebellion’ when the general public fully appreciate that the conveniences provided by the Internet of Things and AI could mean the current concept of a private life disappears. Impish speculation, of course, but items about voice recordings (here, here and here) and facial recognition (here and here) just illustrate the need to be wary of what goes on behind the tech in our homes or on the street.

So, there you have it – a tidy-up leads to the prospect of a ‘privacy rebellion’. Why not have an office or man-cave tidy-up of your own? It’s therapeutic, you’ll reminisce, you’ll find gadgets you didn’t know you had, and it could even spark a philosophical discussion with your partner about the future. But best of all…you might get brownie points from your partner for recycling, even if you’re really just moving things from one nook and cranny to another…

Quiz night, ‘What 3 Words’, and is tech solving problems that aren’t really problems?

The following questions were asked during a quiz night at the Badger’s local Public House:

Who said ‘If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions’?

What geolocation mechanism can locate you anywhere in the world to a 3mx3m square?

The Badger’s team got the answer to the first one right, Albert Einstein, but we got the second one wrong. Our answer was GPS, but the quiz master said the answer was ‘What 3 Words’ – which you can find out about here and here and a specific example of its use here. The Badger’s team complained loudly, but to no effect. Why? Because it transpired the quiz master is a fan of the ‘What 3 Words’ smartphone app. Although the Badger’s team were not quiz night winners, the Einstein and ‘What 3 Words’ answers triggered a subsequent lively debate over rather more post-quiz beverages than prudent!

The debate centred on ‘Is tech increasingly solving problems that aren’t really problems?’. One team member cited digital number plates on cars (see here and here) as an example of something motivated only by making money. They speculated the ‘solution’ had been invented in 5 minutes and that 55 minutes had then been spent trying to invent the problem it was trying to solve. A reversal of Einstein’s wise words! Another team member was adamant that ‘What 3 Words ‘ is unnecessary given GPS is routinely part of modern smartphones. The Badger’s contribution to the debate was simply this. Entrepreneurs will always have ideas for making money, marketeers will always try to persuade us we need their solution to solve a problem or inconvenience we didn’t know we had, and we should never take tech at face value and always understand what’s happening to our data if we want our private lives to be just that…private.

Oiled by the beverages, the debate boisterously descended into a game that invented amusing word combinations, aka ‘What 3 Words’, for the location of well-known landmarks. For example, orange.ballon.home and wooden.plank.palace were proposed for the entrances to the US White House and UK Houses of Parliament, respectively! Eventually seriousness returned, and we concluded that tech should focus on solving the real problems of life and the planet, and not things that make us lazy or mean we don’t need to learn for ourselves or take personal responsibility for our actions.

At the end of the night all the team got up to leave except for one individual who said they’d stay to be like Einstein and spend 55 minutes thinking about a problem – whether they could actually get up to leave – even though they’d already thought of a solution – to just stay at single.malt.whiskey and have another drink. Did we laugh…just a bit…

Smartwatches? Remember to be an individual not a data point…

The Badger’s trusty Tissot watch, worn every day for 25 years, has sadly expired. It’s been replaced with a new traditional timepiece made from Titanium. Before buying the new watch, the Badger explored general purpose smartwatches, both online and at the local tech store. There’s a wide range available with rich functionality and the market is growing strongly. So why didn’t the Badger buy one? Ostensibly because ultimately the salesperson rightly triggered the Badger to think hard about their upsides and downsides, something that should be done for any tech purchase! The Badger decided he’d never use all the apps and functions, didn’t want to routinely charge a watch, and didn’t want data from its use to become part of the data trail the tech giants already have on the Badger to use for their own commercial gain. Put simply, the Badger realised that a ‘private’ traditional watch which doesn’t need apps meets his requirement and will last for the next 25 years.

Like all tech, smartwatches have upsides and downsides. However, consumers rarely spend enough time thinking about the downsides before adopting or buying tech. We are fickle and easily persuaded by clever positioning and marketing that concentrates inevitably on the positives. Is, for example, issuing smartwatches to children to track their movements a useful, helpful and convenient benefit, or is it a significant downside and erosion of personal privacy when the concept was subsequently rolled out across a wider society? The Badger thinks the latter because, in extremis, your smartwatch adds to the data trail in a completely connected world and that means others can run your life, not you!

The Badger’s not anti-smartwatches, just suspicious and cautious about the use of the most valuable commodity in the current world – our data. Josh Lifton, CEO of Crowd Supply, is quoted as saying “If you want to be considered an individual and not just a data point, then it’s in your interest to protect your privacy.” Spot on! We should all think more about our privacy and about being an individual rather than a data point.

Technology moves fast and, of course, drives progress. Louis Bleriot became the first man to fly across the English Channel 110 years ago this week and just look how far global aviation has come since! Will today’s smartwatches be quickly overtaken by new developments? If Elon Musk is making implants that link the brain directly to a smartphone then the answer has to be yes! The Badger’s certain of two things, however. Implants are not for him, and his traditional watch will preserve his privacy and individuality for many years to come. Don’t be put off buying a smartwatch, just buy one not because it’s trendy, but because you’ve really thought through the pro’s and con’s, are clear that it meets your requirement, and you’re confident that you’ll remain a private individual rather than being a data point with someone else controlling your life…

‘People will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think’…Probably not!

The world is awash with visions, forecasts and opinions about technology’s impact on society and our daily life in the coming decades. Journalists, academics, economist’s, politicians, company marketeers and independent commentators have all set out a future dominated by artificial intelligence, robots, autonomous vehicles, the internet of things, and so on, but in reality, it’s people like you and me that will determine what becomes real.

Humans first developed tools to help adapt to changing circumstances in the Stone Age, and we’ve been doing that ever since. The Badger’s sure of two things – that we’ll continue to use technological advances to provide useful tools, and that we’ll avoid the societal subservience to technology as set out by Aldous Huxley’s ‘People will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think’. Today we are more educated than ever, familiar with tech’s good and bad points, questioning of tech giant motives, and more careful with our personal information. We have already experienced technology’s pros and cons and so we’re unlikely to accept being oppressed or enslaved by it in the future. At least that’s the Badger’s view!

TechMarketView’s recent ‘Down with the kids’ item had the Badger nodding vigorously in agreement. Two points really resonated. Firstly, today’s digital native teenagers still see the control, freedom, and independence offered by really driving a car as a rite of passage. Secondly, its question ‘It’s humans that are driving the invention and application of tech across industries, and its humans that will experience the consequences, good or bad, but will any of us humans be allowed to decide whether we want it or not?’ goes to the heart of what the future will look like for us all. To answer ‘No’ is a slippery slope to the Huxley view mentioned above. It would also mean his statement – ‘Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards’ – has truth and that the dystopia of Brave New World – published 87 years ago – is what we have to look forward to.

The Badger – ever the optimist and chuckling at, and relating to, a piece on whether an AI android could live forever – thinks a Brave New World dystopia will never happen. We’ll always adapt to new technology, just like we’ve done since the Stone Age, but humans are a savvy, unique and dangerous species which makes it improbable that we’ll ever allow technology to usurp our control. Why? Because a species like us that invents an axe to cut down trees to provide shelter and then also sees its usefulness as a weapon against others is never going to allow itself to get into a position of any kind of subservience. So, there you have it. The Badger’s added to the great wash of opinion about the future!