Picture from Denim & Steel.

The Future of Technology — A Conversation with Todd Sieling

Todd Sieling is the co-founder of Denim & Steel, an interactive technology studio on Main St. Vancouver. He co-founded the agency with friend Tylor Sherman in 2011, after years of experience as a consultant. Todd’s commentary on technology has always been very interesting to me. It challenges the dominant narrative and brings to light aspects of our experience with technology that are too often ignored or forgotten by both the tech community and the multitudes of tech enthusiasts who follow its evolution.

Here’s our short conversation on the future of tech.

Maryam Khezrzadeh: Good morning Todd! Thanks for sitting here with me today to talk about the future of tech. So before we do that, let’s look at how the tech industry looks like today. It seems to me that like any other industry, the tech industry has a certain landscape. We hear a lot of talk about Virtual Reality, AI, Internet of Things, Automation. So my question for you is: how does tech look like to you? How do you see that landscape?

Todd Sieling: That’s a very good question. I think that technology as a topic is always situating itself as talking about the future and talking about what’s coming soon, what’s going to happen soon, and what things will be possible that might not be possible right now. But it also is a business and a real thing in the present, and so is always following its ordinary course of things. And right now we have a lot of talk about, like you say, AI, VR, Internet of Things. Those are the future things that we might have some small pieces of today. But we are also starting to talk a lot about the effects of technology, much more. I think that technology is becoming less of a topic about itself, which is pretty much the only thing that it talks about, until you start thinking about things like employment and sustainability and economics and markets and so forth.

Technology is becoming less of a topic about itself — which is pretty much the only thing that it talks about — until you start thinking about things like employment and sustainability and economics and markets and so forth.

I think that there are large changes going on in the topic of technology itself; and that its walls, that separate it from the rest of the world, are dissolving very rapidly; and people are starting to look at it more as something that is happening within the world, and has to be dealt with by the world, rather than a thing that functions on its own.

In a lot of ways it’s the same thing that it’s always been — at least for the past 150 years or so — which is this idea of tremendous possibility and change and and innovation and so forth. But there is also a shift happening in the topic and one that I think that a lot of people who have enjoyed: — I don’t want to say worship — but the admiration of people; like if you say that you’re in technology, they admire you: “you must be smart!” “that must be exciting!”

Now the sentiment is shifting, and it’s more one of like: “ah that’s interesting! but I’m a little suspicious”, or “I’m not as excited about it, I’m a little bit more worried”. So I think that there’s going to have to be some reconciliation between the way that we are used to thinking about technology and accepting the changing reality of what it actually is and how we administer that.

MK: Like a little healthy dose of pessimism towards technology.

TS: I think so, but I think that because there’s been so little pessimism that there is going to be an overcompensation for a little while where there’s probably going to be a backlash.

MK: so if everything goes right, then what is the possibility? what is the future of technology?

TS: Well, what is right depends on probably who you are and what you want to see. Everybody who makes technology and uses technology has some kind of motivation or agenda that they are looking to fulfil. Setting that aside, I’d rather just say what I think the future might be. And by future I mean the near future.

I think that If you try and predict the far future, it’s just useless. It really is. You can talk about what might happen, but to say “this is the way things are going”, there is an authority that is undeserved when people say this is going to happen; and I find that particularly funny on one hand — because it’s almost certain to be wrong — but I also find it very offensive; in that it’s like I demand that there be no other possibility other than the one that I imagine right now, which is probably one of the most existentially show-business tech things that a person can do.

The biggest topic around the discussion of technology is going to be the ideas of truth and trust.

So in the near future though, I think that the biggest topic around the discussion of technology is going to be the ideas of truth and trust. So coming out of, or being right in the middle of, an epidemic of, or a crisis of you know what is true, what can we actually believe, what should we believe? Who is telling the truth and how do we know? The role that technology is playing in the distortion of how we accept things as true or not — in the discourse that we have — is both acting as the facilitator, and it’s being used against the idea of actual discourse or actual truth making.

I think there is going to be a very serious reckoning with that kind of change. We are already seeing the prospect of being able to simulate someone on video and sound saying something that they did not say at all, you know what is the prospect of having a public or a society when that kind of mechanism is in play, and it doesn’t have any kind of control over it whatsoever.

So I think that how we determine what is true and what is not, rather than people just screaming at each other, and who screams the most, who has the most bots, those things are unsustainable as ways of establishing truth. That’s just a way of forcing it to happen that won’t last. So I don’t know what the outcome is there.

in 2017, Lyrebird, a Canadian Tech Startup, announced they have achieved the technology to generate digital voices that could sound like anyone. — Photo from Lyrebird Youtube channel

The other thing is about trust, and these kind of go hand in hand. How do you forge trust across a networked commons that covers the whole globe? That Has many different agendas and has many different contexts and cultures and motivations and constraints. I think that trust always has to be there, like I said they go hand in hand. But the way that we make trust happen between different parties. There is a lot of talk right now about bitcoin and extended blockchain technologies and how these can be used as a way of creating trust. I find these quite interesting. I think that there’s something really interesting there. Just though the way that we reconcile remoteness, the remoteness that technology makes possible, with the actual idea of trust.

You and I sitting here, you know I trust the people walking around here are not going to attack us or try to steal my bike, my back is turned to my bike but my bike is not locked up. I trust that people walking by won’t try and take it. In a different situation, if there were some more distance, I wouldn’t trust it as much. So I would lock it up and there I’m trusting the lock to kind of mediate between the way that I’m able to leave things in the world, and my feeling of comfort in doing so.

You can’t really have a society without regulation and policy. A lot of people think that those things give them away, but the moment that you change the word regulation into protection, suddenly things are very different.

So in a networked world, or a digitally immersed world, what mechanisms do we use to create trust and I think that a lot of those that are being overlooked right now but will become very necessary, are the ideas of regulation and policy. I think that you can’t really have a society without regulation and policy. A lot of people think that those things give them away, but the moment that you change the word regulation into protection, suddenly things are very different.

So the restaurant that you go into — I always like restaurant because they are one of the the best examples of social trust — you go into a restaurant, you sit down in a place that you might have never been, people you have never met and you can’t even see them working, you just take what they put in front of you, and you put it in your mouth, and you just like eat it. And it’s fine! And in most cases it works out just fine unless there is a food poisoning or something like that. But those things are very very very rare examples on the number of meals that are served. But that would not be the case unless you had both a basis of trust, that as people we are going to behave like this, but also you had something governing the way that that trust is formed.

Todd Sieling and Me in Riley Park, Vancouver.

MK: Yeah, it sounds very complicated. Like we have a system — a model of trust — in our brains which we are trying to decode and understand so that we can incorporate it into technology.

TS: That’s a really interesting way to put it, to decode it; because I think we often just enact it. We do things that indicate trust or we receive actions or messages that indicate trust or build trust and then we form like a pattern that we use to make predictions, and the reliability of those predictions is what we call trust. And so the idea of placing that within technology, we have to be able to understand, how does it work with us naturally in order to teach machines how to do it.

If you design a machine to not trust anybody then it will act as if it doesn’t trust anybody. You design it where it requires trust, then it has to be able to create trust with people.

But the point is that we have to actually say to the design process, the machine is going to do it this way. A lot of people, they really think that machines are neutral. That they are just like “oh whatever you wanna use me for is fine” and that we are realizing more and more that that’s not the case. if you design a machine to not trust anybody then it will act as if it doesn’t trust anybody. You design it where it requires trust, then it has to be able to create trust with people. so I think that is going to become a major factor in design of technology and how we roll it out into the world. And how we adjust to things when it goes wrong or when it goes right too.