Sunday 8 December 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'Is Uber in rural Ireland a blueprint for tech future?'

Like capitalism, tech is amoral too. Is it time that society, rather than the likes of Zuckerberg, gave it a purpose? asks Brendan O'Connor

Bono told the summit in Davos, Switzerland, that capitalism was ‘a wild beast’. Photo: Reuters
Bono told the summit in Davos, Switzerland, that capitalism was ‘a wild beast’. Photo: Reuters
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

When Bono channelled John Maynard Keynes's "animal spirits" at Davos this week to talk about how capitalism is a wild beast that, if not tamed, can and has chewed up a lot of lives, he could have been talking about technology.

"We need to re-imagine it, re-purpose it, remake it, in our own image and the image of this new generation coming through is that they really, really want their world back", he said.

When he talked about how capitalism is amoral, not immoral, he could have been talking about big tech, the most powerful branch of capitalism right now. While tech spouts platitudes about doing no evil, the main guiding principal of tech has too often been that all progress is by definition a good thing. If we can do it, we should do it, and we can worry about the morality and ethics, or indeed the usefulness of it, later.

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Ask people why they are not upgrading their iPhones as often and one of the reasons is that no one feels the need to have huge tech advances like facial recognition on their phone and the people who do have facial recognition seem to think it's a pain in the ass. It is perhaps the product of high-functioning tech geeks who've watched too many sci-fi movies.

The iPhone is probably the biggest impacting and most magical day-to-day tech that many people use. But the sometimes most valuable company in the world employing thousands of engineers to improve the iPhone cameras slightly, or get rid of the home button, would strike you as a bit of a waste of energy.

Conor Faughnan, of AA, had a slightly different take on when human beings meet capitalism and tech on Friday. He was talking about how loads of people slowed down to look at a fatal accident on the M50 on Thursday and to take photos and videos of the distressing aftermath of the accident in which Jackie Griffin died and to post them on various online platforms.

This represented, Faughnan said, "the dark side of human nature". All this wonderful technology that could change lives and the best some of us can do with it is rubberneck at a tragedy.

Mark Zuckerberg was out again last week defending Facebook. Zuck portrayed himself as an innocent dreamer who just wanted to make a way for people to connect with other people, with their friends, families and communities. He also pointed out that Facebook allows hundreds of thousands of small businesses to thrive, so Facebook has in fact created "millions of jobs".

The same day as we read Zuckerberg's latest apologia, we also read that Facebook was aware for years that it was making millions of dollars from kids playing games on Facebook who were spending their parents' money on in-game purchases without realising it.

According to internal documents released on Friday as part of a class-action lawsuit, Facebook called it "friendly fraud" and argued internally not to stop it. Perhaps most chillingly, kids who spent a lot of money on games like Angry Birds were referred to by Facebook as "whales", the term used for big hitters in Vegas.

So that's how two of the biggest companies in the world are reinventing the future - better cameras on your 1,000 quid phone in case you come across a car accident and getting kiddies to connect with their families through spending their parents' money. Obviously we can't just blame the tech for everything. Human nature plays a part here too. And obviously technology is changing our lives in all kinds of other ways.

But the front-end consumer-facing side of tech seems to be increasingly geared towards trying to get people to spend more money on things we don't need, rather than making the world a better place. So soon we will all have bendable phones, because we were all crying out for them, 8K TV because our TVs aren't gigantic and sharp enough as it is. And soon we will be able to get an even greater variety of restaurant food delivered to our homes. On it goes.

One of the more useful-sounding bits of news about the potential benefits of tech last week was Jim Daly and Robert Troy's idea about bringing Uber to rural Ireland. Talk about connecting people with their friends, families and communities.

We all accept there are various issues around Uber, notably for the taxi industry, who do not wish to be disrupted by all this new tech (don't tell them about the self-driving cars). But it seemed on the face of it a great example of taking an existing need, and trying to apply new tech to it. It certainly sounds more useful than a TV with a curved screen that has a slightly higher definition, so good it is not discernible to the naked eye.

It makes you wonder if we could look again at the interface between tech companies and government. Tech companies are not very good at doing things in the public interest and governments aren't very good at tech or innovation or solving problems. Is there not room for better synergies between the two? Might a bit of friendly guidance from governments, some directions on societal needs help Big Tech rediscover some sense of purpose? Tech companies would get to solve problems where there were actual needs and they might even repair their reputations.

Of course tech is being used for good in many ways. Bono mentioned delivery drones changing lives in Rwanda. Bono was at Davos announcing a new venture he's involved in called Y Analytics, which will develop metrics for analysing the impact of social and environmental investments, the idea being they work with investors to make decisions that benefit society, as well as making money for shareholders.

This kind of so-called "purposeful capitalism" is very much in vogue, the notion that companies should exist to serve the workers, customers, communities and society at large, as against being just about the enrichment of wealthy shareholders. Assets invested in funds that prioritise social and environmental goals have quadrupled to $12tn in the past 10 years. The head of BlackRock, the largest asset manager in the world, wrote to CEOs last year to tell them that with governments failing to prepare for the future, people wanted companies to be about more than just enriching shareholders in the short term that they should aim to serve customers, the community and society as well.

When hard-nosed investors like BlackRock, who manage over $6tn in assets, are demanding companies have a social purpose, you have to think purpose is becoming a necessity for companies trying to sell to increasingly conscious consumers.

The idea of recruiting Uber to save the social fabric of rural Ireland might never work, but perhaps there is a germ of an idea there. Perhaps it shows a way forward for how tech companies can save themselves from their own worst instincts, a way forward for how government and private enterprise could come together to solve some of the world's problems. To not only tame the beast, as Bono would have it, but to actually get the beast to work for us.

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