Sunday, May 21, 2017
Tired tech narratives - disruption at a price
There are a number of recurring narratives in this business that we all enjoy telling and hearing to the extent that repetition leads to belief; feel-good stories about how technology is changing education and society for the better. Although these stories have elements of truth they tend to accentuate the positive and in some cases become dangerous myths. Here are two such narratives that simply won't go away.
Firstly there is the old chestnut of digital natives and a naive belief that the kids/students will work everything out for themselves. Students are using all sorts of innovative digital tools to learn for themselves and this is pushing institutions to respond. Of course there are elements of truth here. There are numerous anecdotes of teenagers creating impressive tech start-ups and the often retold tales of toddlers trying to swipe a printed book and being amazed it doesn't work like an iPad. I don't doubt these but they are more exceptions rather than the rule. Yes, most children and teenagers are completely comfortable with technology but it doesn't mean that they can work out how to search, filter, collaborate, work, study and create without any assistance. I'm not sure either that students are driving educational change as we often hear at conferences. In my experience, students are good at adapting to the institution's teaching methods and even if some may well find the teaching uninspiring they simply find ways to cope since they need the qualification and have taken on a substantial loan in order to get it. Some are using technology to enhance their studies but many only use the tools offered by the institution. Education is changing as a result of digitalisation but the main drivers in my opinion are innovative teachers and insightful leaders, urged on by the ed tech industry; for better or for worse, but that is another story.
The second popular narrative is that of the future workplace. I've seen plenty inspiring accounts of innovative work spaces at high tech companies like Google or Apple where employees have project meetings on giant beanbags, play basketball or take a yoga break whenever they need inspiration. It looks very attractive and they are undoubtedly inspiring places to work. In the same narrative we hear about the growth of the gig economy where everyone works as a consultant moving seamlessly from project to project with breaks for competence development from time to time. Success is built on being flexible, constantly developing your skills, being able to reinvent yourself and always searching for new challenges. The word disruption occurs frequently in this narrative. Technology is disrupting traditional practices and a new flexible and ever-changing society is emerging offering opportunities and growth for those who are able to adapt.
However this narrative also has a dark side. The creative and innovative workplaces we see in these conference presentations are for a well-educated elite with the financial resources to tide them over between projects. For the vast majority, however, the modern workplace has a very different narrative with long hours, stressful schedules, low pay, few if any benefits and seldom knowing whether or not you'll be needed next week. The stars of the digital economy tend not to employ very many people and many of those who do work there are involved in the less glamorous side of operations; in the warehouses or working from home on low wages. The flip side of this gig economy are the people who scramble for zero hours contract jobs with no security and never knowing whether they will get paid next week at all. The digital revolution is not so attractive for those on the wrong side. See more on this in a BBC article, Why "cool" offices don't always make for a happier workforce.
So how about companies taking some social responsibility for all the job losses and problems their disruptive innovation causes? This issue is raised by András Baneth in a recent TEDx talk (see below). He takes examples like Uber, Airbnb and Facebook as companies that have come under hard criticism for the results of their operations and offers advice on how companies should take responsibility and enhance their reputation. This involves at a basic level at least admitting that your business has created some serious issues in society instead of simply denying any responsibility. Then the company can try to help tackle those issues, for example by finding ways to prevent the spread of hate and fake news or funding retraining initiatives for those whose businesses suffer due to their operations.
Disruption is generally viewed positively today and the narrative of bold innovative young entrepreneurs "taking on the establishment" and overturning the system nearly always goes down well at conferences. However disruption also has consequences. A deregulated market can make some people very rich but can also cast many more into unemployment, poverty or insecurity. Social media let everyone have their say but also make it easy to spread hate and prejudice. It may not be completely the fault of the messenger (such as Facebook) but they have certainly a major role and need to recognise this.