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.   

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.

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’.  

Priorities: Space commercialisation or mankind living in equilibrium with our planet?

The Badger’s always been open-minded, but on the back of the rah-rah about billionaire’s travelling to the edge of space, G.K Chesterton’s comment ‘Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out’ sprang to mind. It may be a step forwards for commercial space activities but with so many problems to solve here on earth, what’s the real benefit to mankind of billionaires puffing out their chests on becoming a space tourist? In fact, what’s the benefit to mankind of space tourism and the commercialisation of space, period?  If you have the luxury of unconstrained independent philosophical thought, then you get to the answer ‘not a lot’ quite quickly. After decades open-mindedly supporting space technology that helps us understand the universe and our home planet, the Badger finds himself questioning the wisdom of the modern ‘space race’ and space commercialisation.     

The modern space race is driven, in one form or another, by entities desiring ‘control and dominance’. There are dreams of harvesting valuable resources from other planets and of humans as a multi-planetary species, but it’s beginning to feel like mankind will have seriously declined on our home planet long before such dreams are realised in a way that brings benefit to the masses. It’s okay to have a vision and dreams, but when it was 1972 that the last person stood on the moon, and presence on the International Space Station since confirms that humans are biologically unsuited to being away from the home planet for lengthy periods, then there’s an obvious case to be made for focusing more on getting better equilibrium between mankind and our own planet than on space endeavours. Future astronauts might, apparently, be ‘gene-edited’ to overcome these biological issues, but that’s no benefit to mankind or our planet today when it really matters. (It could also mean that humans ultimately morph into being the intergalactic ‘plague of locust’ baddies that are often depicted in sci-fi series and movies. That’s not an attractive legacy for future generations).

Hats off to Messrs. Branson and Bezos for achieving their few minutes of weightlessness at the edge of space before returning safely to earth, but their money would be better spent helping mankind live in better equilibrium with the planet they briefly left.  After all, if your home starts to fall apart around you, most rational people will spend their money fixing it rather than buying an expensive luxury that does nothing to address the immediate problem.

With space debris already a growing problem, commercial satellite mega-constellations like Starlink already being considered as ‘pollutants’ of the night sky and disrupters of  astronomy, then perhaps it’s time to reprioritise away from space back to achieving  sustainable, equilibrium between mankind and it’s home planet. Perhaps the time has come not to be so open-minded about the vested interests of space commercialisation that our brains fall out.

Beware of the downsides of the ‘Bandwagon Effect’…

‘If you act too fast and don’t think things through then your mistakes will be difficulties long into the future’.  This is what the Badger’s father would often say if he thought someone was acting with haste or being overly influenced by a popular bandwagon. Three things caught the eye this week that somewhat obtusely reminded the Badger of these words.

The first was the lecture, reported here and here, by Jeremy Fleming, Director of the UK’s GCHQ. He warned of a tech ‘moment of reckoning’ and the real risk that the West might no longer be able to supply the key technologies on which we rely. He used Smart Cities and their threat to security, privacy, and anonymity, to illustrate his point. He also pointed out that it was decisions taken a decade ago that has meant the West has few companies able to supply the latest key technology components underlying 5G.

The second was English football’s announcement that it will boycott social media over the coming weekend in a protest over online abuse. Social media is pervasive and has been a concern to many about the voice it gives to the many undesirable aspects of human behaviour for a long time.

The third was the ad tracking spat between Apple and Facebook caused by the imminent arrival of Apple’s IOS 14.5 operating system which bakes privacy into its systems and could significantly damage Facebook’s ad network earnings.  This vitriolic locking of horns by two of the digital world’s money-making behemoths shines another light behind the scenes on how they make money from us all.    

So, why did these things remind the Badger of his father’s words? Because in a small way they are all a manifestation of the downside of the ‘bandwagon effect’ which has spurred the digital world on over recent decades.  Social psychology tells us that people tend to align their beliefs and behaviour with those of a group, and this has certainly been evident with the growth of big tech and social media companies over the last 20 years.  When people see others adopt a product, service, or technology, then they think it must be good – or at least acceptable – and so they jump on the bandwagon!  Even IT outsourcing and offshoring have not been immune to the effect. When jumping on a bandwagon, the downsides of doing so emerge much, much later. One way or another, the three items that caught the Badger’s eye illustrate this point and also the dangers of having acted too fast years ago without thinking things through properly.  

Today’s younger generations are not immune to the ‘bandwagon effect’, which is why the Badger takes every opportunity to echo his father’s words. They should learn lessons from the past and especially that it is often perilous to act fast because mistakes will emerge long into the future and not be correctable.     

‘Finger trouble’…

Some days, no matter how hard you try, your fingers just don’t seem to do the right thing when interacting with a computer. Other days they accurately do the right thing every time. Most days for normal people, however, your fingers do a mixture of the two.  The Badger experiences the same phenomenon when playing his electric guitar, although in this case you can hear the finger trouble!   

When news broke last week, see here for example, that records in the UK Police National Computer (PNC) database had been wrongly deleted, the Badger, conditioned by decades in the IT industry, immediately suspected that ‘finger trouble’ would have played a part. It nearly always does somewhere along the line when operational services have issues. It was, therefore, no surprise that the UK policing minister said ‘…down to human error, some defective code was introduced as part of that routine maintenance earlier this week and that’s resulted in a deletion of some records …’.

The minister’s words trigger many questions about what happened and why, and why recovering deleted records is more difficult than one might anticipate.  The Badger was  immediately drawn to three things – possible complacency in routine maintenance, testing, and mechanisms for backup and recovery.  The media has concentrated on political points and ‘woe is me’ about the impact on arrests and prosecutions, but the uncomfortable truth is that events like the PNC will occasionally happen. The IT that is behind every facet of daily life is complex, handles huge amounts of data, and has been built and it is maintained by highly skilled and professional people, but there is no such thing as a guarantee of perfection. There is no immunity to finger trouble, and neither is there a crystal ball to predict ‘defective code’. The Badger therefore feels some sympathy for whoever pushed the button that deleted the PNC records.  

We’ve all had finger trouble and accidentally deleted things from our computers.  When it happens, it often provides a reminder that you should have backups!  In today’s world the amount of data created every day is staggering and the whole concept of backup and recovery for major IT systems, and the legal rules for retaining data, is very different to that of the Badger’s formative years in IT. It’s not a surprise, therefore, that deleted PNC records cannot simply be restored from a good old-fashioned, off-site, backup tape!

Nevertheless, the PNC issue should be a reminder for each of us to take regular backups of information that you never want to lose. These days it’s cheap to do and one day you might be relieved that you did. After all, the heavenly alignment of finger trouble, defective software, and/or defective hardware can align to cause a problem at any time.  

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!