Hannah Berrisford
May 20, 2018 · 7 min read

Technically, we can live without technology. But can you imagine going back to the inconvenience of a life without Google at your fingertips? For most of us, technology is providing a lazy route through life. We no longer need to know how to do things like read a map because a Sat Nav will direct us to our exact destination. In fact soon enough, we won’t even need to learn how to drive because we’ll have self driving cars.

“Recharging Danbo Power” flickr photo by Takashi(aes256) https://flickr.com/photos/htakashi/9754012931 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

We could argue that these skills no longer have a place in our society. Why learn to spell when you’re always going to have a spell checker to hand?

70 billion IoT devices are expected to be connected to the internet by the end of 2025, but we need to ensure that we are fully equipped with the skills to deal with a digital future. This also includes being prepared for when it all goes wrong.

“It Just Works” flickr photo by Xurble https://flickr.com/photos/xurble/244671618 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

When technology lets us down

Living in a digital society requires putting our trust into the hands of a computer system, but we’ve seen many times when these systems have let us down. Last month, 1.9 million TSB customers were locked out of their bank accounts for over 24 hours, leaving them unable to pay bills or access their own money.

The Fake Restaurant That Was London’s Top Rated on Trip Advisor | Good Morning Britain

Another interesting abuse of trust comes from a writer who scammed TripAdvisor into believing that his back yard shed was the top rated restaurant in London. Oobah Butler created a fake restaurant and had his friends spam the page with fictional reviews, eventually brining him to the top of the list.

These examples prove that we’re not yet ready for a digital future, as even the most trusted of websites can let us down. However this is not the only problem that we are facing.

Digital exclusion at work

A report predicts that up to 800 million jobs could be lost worldwide due to automation by 2030. This may seem alarming at first, however MIT economist David Autor quite bluntly raises the argument:

“Automation is simply replacing jobs that no one really wanted in the first place”.

On one hand, I agree that the development of technology means that machines can be left to do the boring, tedious jobs, while we focus on the creative and more fulfilling career opportunities.

“Innovation” flickr photo by Thomas Hawk https://flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/185472365 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

However as automation continues to grow, the skill sets needed for newly created jobs will increase in complexity, taking humans longer to train. The real question is, can we keep up? To overcome this concern, our society has the responsibility to keep up with the rate at which technology is advancing, and invest into education to prepare younger generations for a digital future.

The price of going digital

Some describe the Internet of Things (IoT) as the fourth industrial revolution. Soon enough, everything from your toothbrush to your refrigerator is going to be connected to the internet, however it is surprising how little control we have over the data that our devices are giving away.

“Free wifi in Jedburgh town centre, Scottish Borders” flickr photo by Karen V Bryan https://flickr.com/photos/europealacarte/6368568497 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license

If someone came up to you in the street and offered you a free car, would you accept it? Probably not. You’d search for a catch and wouldn’t trust the car once you got in it. That free wifi you connect to every time you’re out? It’s the exact same principle, yet for some reason we don’t question it. Social media websites like Facebook and Twitter allow us to use their services for free, providing us with 24/7 entertainment at no charge. Does this seem too good to be true?

Our online activity, whether it be our status updates or browsing history, can be collected and analysed by these social media giants. Rather than paying for their services, it is clear to see that in fact our valuable data is the product to be sold. So why aren’t we as concerned about what happens to us online, as opposed to what happens in ‘real life’?

The Helsinki Privacy Experiment

An experiment was conducted by a team of researchers from the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology involving ten volunteering households.

“Under Surveillance” flickr photo by xomiele https://flickr.com/photos/xomiele/10233650114 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

For six months, each house was equipped with video cameras, and use of electronic devices was logged. Researches found that constant surveillance was a cause for anxiety amongst the subjects. Some tended to spend more time in rooms which weren’t covered by cameras, whilst others would leave the house completely for private conversations.

Interestingly, the study doesn’t mention much about the subjects’ concern for their data being logged. If people are unwilling to have their privacy invaded at home, why are we willingly giving away our precious data online?

Victims of the ‘Ashley Madison data breach’ know all too well about the dangers of sharing personal information online. In June 2015, a group of hackers publicly shamed over 30 million users who were signed up to the dating website that encourages affairs between married individuals.

Ashley Madison was hacked- The Late Late show with James Corden

Many ethical questions were raised regarding this event. Should the user data have been exposed to inform their other halves of the affair? Or is this a breach of user privacy? Maybe we should take more care regarding what we post online. However had this been my bank details published, it would be a very different argument.

A smart future

The future isn’t all bad news, and the collection of our data can be used for the greater good. An interesting experiment is being undertaken at the moment using ‘The BBC Pandemic’ mobile app. Users are being asked to share their location for 24 hours, which will be analysed by the BBC to reveal how we travel and interact with others. This data is then used to simulate the spread of a highly infectious flu across the UK and predict the outcome to such a catastrophe.

Imagine what else this type of data could be used for?

  • Spotting patterns in the behaviour of criminals to prevent future crime.
  • Providing optimal public transport services by directing travellers towards certain routes in real time, to minimise congestion.
  • Lifestyle habits could be analysed by medical researchers, to track individuals with a certain illnesses and work out a cause.

Man and machine working together

The future is arriving faster than we thought, and technology is here to make our lives easier and more efficient. However we have a responsibility to be aware of how we’re contributing to our digital society by being careful about what we share online.

Once we learn to accept that man and machine can work together responsibly, then a beneficial smart future will evolve.

My journey

After completing a software development industrial placement last year, I came back to University aware of the skills that I needed to pick up before beginning a career in the technology field. I decided to take this course in order to pick up these types of skills, and my expectations have definitely been met throughout the semester.

  • In order to become a well rounded team member I need a creative, collaborative mindset. To reach this goal, I have taken part in group activities to come up with innovative ideas. I particularly enjoyed the session on Smart Cities, where our team generated a creative plan for a futuristic smart city.
  • I’ve also been able to work on my communication skills, by delivering my Pecha Kucha assessment. This proved quite challenging as I wasn’t able to keep up with the fast pace of the exercise. Being able to convey ideas quickly and concisely is a crucial skill in a busy environment, so I will be looking for more opportunities to perfect this skill.
  • This module has also allowed me to practice critical and creative writing through the publication of blog posts. Whether it be putting together a report or simply sending out an email, writng will always be a crucial skill to have. With little opportunity to write creatively on my course, I have found it beneficial to improve upon this skill throughout the assessments.

As a Computer Science student I wasn’t expecting to gain much new knowledge from this course. I came in with very positive views and couldn’t see any disadvantages to living in such an efficient era. I found it challenging to agree with some of the negative views raised in discussions, such as Melissa Woodley’s view on smart cities:

However as the course progressed, I began to step back and understand the issues that arise within a digital society such as the ethical decisions behind data collection on the web, and the dangerous impacts that social media is having upon our society.

One of the most interesting things that I’ve taken away from this unit is the opinions of students who are not from a technical background. The opinions have changed my mindset to consider the social aspects of a digital society, which will be very useful to have when designing software throughout my career. This course has been one of my most enjoyable units, and I have certainly found myself taking extra precaution with sharing my data and being aware of how I portray myself online. Finally, this course has exposed me to Medium, a very useful source of information that I can continue to use to keep up with advancements within our digital society.

Digital Society

Exploring how digital technologies shape society: challenges, themes and implications. Featuring student and staff writers. Views expressed are those of their authors and not necessarily the University of Manchester.

Hannah Berrisford

Written by

A final year Computer Science student at the University of Manchester.

Digital Society

Exploring how digital technologies shape society: challenges, themes and implications. Featuring student and staff writers. Views expressed are those of their authors and not necessarily the University of Manchester.

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