3 Ways to Learn What New Technology Really Means for You

3 Ways to learn what new technology really means for you

The connection between people and technology across the world intensified in 2016. We saw the mass adoption of home assistants and AI beating a human at the complex game Go, as well as Pokemon G0 where AR went mainstream for the first time. We saw the launch of OpenBazaar that allowed sales to happen between anyone, anywhere in the world using Bitcoin. Each one of these projects–and thousands of others–represent great strides integrating technology into our daily lives in unprecedented ways.

Are all these changes beneficial? These technologies clearly have benefits, but what about their risks? How should we assess emerging technologies in 2017?

The questions are only getting tougher as we continue. Even within the Bitcoin community the debate about the future of the blockchain is intense and can be difficult to understand, much less take a stance on, but we have a collective responsibility to take an active part in defining our ongoing relationship with technology.

If we unquestioningly accept or reject new technologies we may face unexpected risks or forgo substantial benefits.

Here are some questions to ask about emerging technology in the new year:

  1. What does this technology do?
  2. Who controls this technology?
  3. Who benefits from – and who bears the costs of – this technology?

These questions create a simple framework to analyze emerging technologies. Every person has different opinions on what makes technology beneficial. This post is meant to give the user a framework, not meant to convey any sort of objective analysis (though the opinions of the author will be displayed).

1. What does this technology do?

In order to determine if an emerging technology is beneficial, you must know what it does. While this sounds obvious, it’s all too common for people to dismiss emerging technology as not beneficial (or even harmful) without even taking the time to understand how it works. Adam Thierer, technology policy expert, explains so-called “techno-panics” where people act unreasonably towards the threats of emerging technology.

If you look at the details of most emerging technologies you’ll find the specific action they enable is typically somewhat tame and nothing to be afraid of, but some take the worst case scenario and play on people’s fears and ignorance of the new technology.

2. Who controls this technology?

A core aspect of technology is its dynamic nature. A technology doesn’t spring into existence and remain static, but grows and changes over time. It’s important to understand who controls this technology in order to properly assess how beneficial it is, and over what time scale the costs or benefits will remain, or be lost.

If a technology is purely digital, then it’s important to determine if it is open or closed source. Open source technology means the code is available for everyone to look at and use, whereas closed source technology is controlled only by those building it. Technology built on closed source code may not be malicious and may be beneficial to its users; many of the most popular applications are closed source.

Unfortunately, there are dangers in used closed source technology. First, you don’t know exactly what it is doing. Since no one but the builders have access to the code, you are forced to trust that they aren’t doing anything harmful. Second, even if you currently trust them, with closed source you need to trust them forever. This makes assessing the benefit of technologies built on closed source code difficult. What was beneficial yesterday might be malicious tomorrow, and you wouldn’t know.

With open source project, developers are able to see what the code is doing and see when it changes. They can relay this information to everyone so that no one needs to place so much trust in the builders.

If control of a technology is closely held by a single organization or small group of people, then you are forced to trust their motivations currently as well as in the future. If the control of the technology is distributed to all its users and not held by a small group, trust isn’t needed.

3. Who benefits from – and who bears the costs of – this technology?

At first glance it seems obvious that the people who benefit from emerging technologies are whoever is using them. At some level this is true; in most cases people aren’t using a certain technology unless they believe it is helping them. However, not everyone is aware of the costs involved with using some technologies.

There are trade-offs associated with nearly all technologies. Some trade-offs are obvious. Buying the newest technology typically costs more money than existing technologies. Purchasing the vehicle with the most recent safety improvements will likely be more expensive than older (but less safe) models. The newest smartphones cost the most. These are easy to see. Other times the trade-offs are more difficult to calculate.

Examples

1. What does this technology do?

There are many examples of emerging technologies that people don’t take time to understand. Drones are machines that make flying substantially cheaper and more accessible to the general population, and the vast majority of drone owners are responsible and pose no threats to others. However, due to conflating drones with large military drones used overseas in combat zones, and a few infrequent cases of irresponsible drone owners, some fear the worst from a society where drone use is common. Understanding how drones work – including their limitations – should help allay those fears.

2. Who controls this technology?

There are numerous examples of a technology initially having noble intentions and eventually straying from them due to them being controlled by a small group.

Paypal is an example. Peter Thiel co-founded Paypal, and described a vision for Paypal that would compete with government issued currency and protect users from inflation. Years later, Paypal has been unable to deliver on Thiel’s vision, while another emerging technology – Bitcoin – has begun to do just that. This is because of who controls the two technologies. Paypal is controlled by a company and must respond to company leadership, shareholders, and governments. Bitcoin is controlled by no central organization and no one is forced to trust that any company, group of shareholders, or government won’t change it for the worse – because they can’t.

No matter how noble the intentions of the creators are, nor how beneficial the technology is today, if it’s controlled by a small group then you cannot be certain those benefits will remain over time.

3. Who benefits from – and who bears the costs of – this technology?

The traditional model for online shopping is an example of unseen costs. A buyer may chose Amazon or Alibaba because of convenience and selection. The process of buying is simple and quick, and the prices are usually pretty good. What a buyer doesn’t see are the costs associated, both to himself and to the seller.

The most obvious cost is the cut taken from the transaction itself, typically around 10 or 15%. The seller typically passes on some of the costs to the buyer, meaning they are effectively paying higher prices due to those fees.

Another cost is the loss of data from both parties. The platform now knows more information about both parties involved. They can take that information and build detailed profiles about the users, and use that information themselves or sell that information to others. There is a cost associated with the risk that the platform will be hacked and your private information stolen, especially credit card information. Identity theft and online fraud are rampant, largely due to online retailers having their security breached.

Other costs are less obvious. Buyers and sellers are shown a curated and censored marketplace of goods and services. The platforms tightly control their own marketplaces with terms and conditions and are willing to censor trade for their own benefit or on behalf of governments. You may not have access to the best products because of behind the scenes deals, or the platform may remove products you love in favor of cheaper products you don’t want.

Perhaps the least obvious cost is the exclusion of users from this system who don’t have access to credit. Users who are unable to obtain a credit card, either due to their geographical location or socioeconomic status, aren’t able to participate in the system at all. Users in the system aren’t even aware of their exclusion and will never know what goods or services they could have offered or purchased.

Using Bitcoin and OpenBazaar for online commerce have their own trade-offs, but avoid some of the costs mentioned above. With both Bitcoin and OpenBazaar…

  • No organization controls the technology; it is completely distributed.
  • No company, group of developers, or government controls the open source code.
  • Users need not fear about a small group exerting control and straying from the original intentions of the project.

Everyone who uses the technology benefits from not relying on middlemen. Users don’t pay fees, don’t have their data collected, and don’t have their trade censored. The costs are also borne by the same users, needing to run the software on their computers and connecting to the internet.

OpenBazaar doesn’t exclude any users from the system.

What emerging technologies most interest you in 2017? How does it stack up to these three steps?


Want to try some disruptive ecommerce technology to see if it’s right for you?
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