It’s progress, deal with it

Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf comments a new book by MIT researches Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee: The Second Machine Age (yes, Netopia will review it shortly). The question is whether intelligent technologies can be a threat to our lifestyle and society. Which, coincidentially is the topic of Netopia’s next event Ethics in the Digital World, Brussels February 18th.

Many Netopia-topics run together in Wolf’s column: the power concentration of Big Data. The threat to knowledge jobs. The decision-making machines. The winner-takes-all-markets of global niche monopolies. The value of intangibles not properly reflecting in the economy. The digital revolution’s part in the economic stagnation. Nice to see, but what is the answer? Or better: what are the answers?

So far, the answer has been “it’s progress, deal with it”. But more and more voices question this definition of progress: why does it only benefit a few corporate entities, while the rest of the world pays the price of free search and networking with falling productivity, unemployment and increased social inequalities? Technology is not some independent force of nature, it is the result of investment, conflicting interests, competing standards, government intervention, consumer demand and many other factors. The future is not pre-determined, we can make change. If we don’t like to see one economic eco-system after another being harvested by the “creative disruption” of tech companies, we can put a stop to it.

Read this Wired-story about online limousine service Uber. The company has an app that connects passengers with drivers, by-passing the rest of the eco-system. Great stuff, cuts out intermediaries, brings down prices, brings better business to limousine companies. Except when faced with the hassle of local taxi regulation (such as pricing and meter rules), they pulled the usual: “those rules don’t apply to us, we are only the connector” (think telcos and pirates, Google search and defamation). How is that not saying “we’d like to be above the law, thank you very much”? Or as the joke goes: “Gravity doesn’t work for Google.” (Google Ventures is an Uber-investor by the way. Surprise.)

There is a simple rule: you make money, you play by the rules. Why should some be held to different standards just because they call themselves “progress”? That joke got old really fast. So let’s stop the charade. Use the legal system to make global tech companies follow the same rules as everybody else. If that doesn’t help, make better laws. And remember, we make the future. Code is written by people, at least for a little while longer. Tomorrow, most of it will be written by machines. That will be a completely different story.