Interactions with other Sectors

The increasingly pervasive nature of computing means that its interaction with other sectors of the economy and society are central to an understanding of the future directions that IT may or may not take.

In some of my future blogs I want to explore some areas that are of interest in my work in areas such as energy security.

To set this up I want to use this piece to set up the problem that I have found in futures practice.

When I first got interested professionally in futures thinking, I was asked to develop an exercise for a technical/ engineering community. I have used variations of the exercise over the years and with similar results. Let me explain.

Find a number of volunteers to prepare a presentation and ask the rest to be an audience. The task is as follows:

The presenter goes to bed tonight and wakes up in the morning in 1950. They discover that they are giving the keynote at a global conference of engineering and policy makers on the future of the telecoms infrastructure. The task, armed with knowledge of the infrastructure today, is to give a talk which is both inspiring and credible to the audience.

Computing was at this time in its infancy, notions of convergence were still years away, though various examples can be found of futures ideas, notably those of Vannevar Bush.

The audience also has preparation to do. They have to understand what the knowledge and expectations of an audience in 1950 would be.

Perhaps not surprisingly, many technical people are actually quite good at “selling” a technical vision to a technical audience. Importantly, my experience is that they are able to abstract the technology to give a sense of direction without being bogged down in minute details. For instance, I have seen some clever ways people found not to preannounce in 1950 to an audience of the invention of the microprocessor.

The initial Q and A session with the audience on the technology story often smoothes out some of the rough edges.

Here is the tricky bit. Let the audience open up onto wider issues from a perspective of 1950.

Here, in my experience, technical folk can be wonderfully subversive and devious. My favourite question was along the lines of:

“Why would I want to phone Korea? I don’t speak Korean and don’t know anyone in Korea. We’ll probably be at war with them anyway”.

This is where it gets really difficult for the presenter. Trying to keep a focus on the topic and staying credible is deeply problematic. Announcing the collapse of communism, the globalisation of the economy and so on are all traps I’ve seen people fall into.

Almost without fail, when I started using this exercise, the presenter ended up describing the growth of air travel, the jet aircraft to a bemused audience. Broad changes in the economy and society come not from single technology developments but interactions of multiple domains. There is a trade off between a focussed area and a broader picture, when you look to the future. Many people tend to instinctively trust the focussed picture and are uncomfortable with the “big picture”, but when they’ve tried to be both presenter and audience in this exercise come to the conclusion that there is a choice between being credible and wrong(focussed) or incredible and right (big picture).     

Personally, I have never phoned Seoul, but I have flown there and called home from a conference.

After a few questions, I’ve often found people arguing that “where we are today” is actually impossible. That is the point of the exercise.

Of course this is a 60 year future picture. However, the same problem emerges with any timescale of 10 years or beyond, sometimes as little as 5 years.

So, when people try to sell a vision of the future of computing, they may well get the technology right, but the reality is that interactions with external factors will have unforeseen and maybe unforeseeable consequences.

If you are committing investment, or indeed your career, to a particular development in information technology, then some insight into these external factors can prove powerful.

So, next time you are listening to a presentation on Cloud Computing and you find the technology story credible, remember the exercise above. Whatever the story, it won’t work out that way(IMHO!). So, which external factors will shape the way Cloud Computing develops in the real world? Thoughts welcomed...

About the author
Chris is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.

See all posts by Chris Yapp
April 2018
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