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Will 2014 be the year in which we let technology control us?

, Forbes India
Jan 23, 2014 at 10:37am IST

Everything's getting connected around us. Computers. Smart mobile computing devices. Embedded systems. Documents. People. Creatures. Pets. Even ideas. Everything now has the possibility of being a node on the network, able to publish and to subscribe. Everything.

Before this decade is out, there's talk of 50 billion connected things. The Internet of Everything. At one time, this figure seemed fanciful. Now, if anything, it looks conservative. Of that 50 billion, human beings are going to be in a minority, even allowing for multiple devices per person.

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So it's not surprising that the age-old question of being 'controlled by technology' raises its head. Some human beings have this penchant for 'Exit, followed by a bugbear', I suppose.

Will 2014 be the year in which we let technology control us?

Everything's getting connected around us. Everything now has the possibility of being a node on the network, able to publish and to subscribe. (Man using a smartphone, via Shutterstock)

It may be what technology wants. But it's not going to happen. Not in 2014, not for a considerable time.

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Not until we find a way of taking a machine to court, using it, winning, and getting paid by the machine. There's the rub.

We've had the internet. We've had the Internet of Things, we've had the Internet of Everything. As Marc Benioff memorably stated at salesforce.com's annual customer, partner and developer conference Dreamforce last November, we are now in the era of the Internet of Customers.

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Behind every device, there is a customer. Behind every tweet, there is a customer. Every like, every comment, every rating, every review, every purchase, every sale: There is always a customer. After all, people buy from people and sell to people. That's been the case since people learnt to trade with each other, and it's unlikely to change.

In the main, we use technology to help us make decisions, and not to make the decisions per se. And if you don't make the decision and you can't be sued, then you're not in control.

Most of the time, we don't actually let technology make decisions, but to present us with information upon which decisions can be taken. In so doing, we may ask of technology that our process of making decisions is simplified: Crunching numbers, presenting them in consumable, comprehensive ways, making them easy to find and use.

Providing answers to questions that inform us, that provide us with more information.

When I was at school in Calcutta, we had odd notions of what the developed world looked like. For example, we used to joke that a deprived foreign schoolboy was one who couldn't afford new batteries for his calculator. Fast forward to today, when some people think that happiness has two principal measures: A full signal and a full battery.

In some way, we were being serious about calculators. I think I must have been part of the last generation at school to learn to use slide rules, something that faded out by the time I left school in 1975. But other mind-numbing jobs had not yet been outsourced to technology. We had physical paper-based tables for many things, particularly for trigonometry and for logarithms. I've watched my three children grow up over the years, and I've never seen any of them carrying around tables of logarithms.

Outsourcing mundane jobs to technology (and not just information technology) makes sense. As Kevin Kelly pointed out, it helps us evolve. There is a school of thought that suggests man's sentience is directly related to our conquest of fire: That we put the 'technology' of fire to work for us, used it to break down and simplify our food intake, allowed us to build external stomachs as a result, and thereby make our physical stomachs smaller and our brains bigger over time.

Labour-saving devices (I'm tempted to spell that 'labor' but I shall resist that temptation) make sense, and in no way have us ceding control.

Sometimes we can have the illusion that technology is in control of something. Like when your bank manager says he can't give you the overdraft you want, because the system says no. All that means is that the discretionary power to make the decision has even been taken away from the person who says that to you; nothing more and nothing less. The decision in contexts such as these has been codified by someone, and then carried out by the 'system': It didn't take the decision, all it did was enforce a set of rules it was instructed to enforce.

Decision-support systems by their very nature are not decision-making systems, so the question of being in control doesn't arise.

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