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Welcome to the brave new digital world

Technology is revolutionising the way we live and work but brings challenges too

Staying entertained on their travels. Photograph: iStock

Staying entertained on their travels. Photograph: iStock

 

Technology is revolutionising the way we live and work. Anyone over 40 has lived a life that has more in common with their parents’ lives than their children’s. The digital revolution has radically changed our lived experience – and it starts young.

Where previous generations fretted about television as the “electronic babysitter”, these days the babysitter is mobile and ubiquitous. You see it working overtime in the back seats of cars, at restaurant tables and in supermarket trolleys. It’s not just pratfalls and face palms on YouTube however. Mobile devices are increasingly the means by which children receive their formal education too.

This offers enormous benefits in the classroom, including enabling children to work away at their own pace while the teacher monitors progress and gives individual support in a much more discreet way than previously. It should even do away with lumpen – and often self-fulfilling – ability-streaming of classes.

The use of gamer-style rewards systems helps build engagement, while with quiz-games like Kahoot, the kids don’t even realise they’re learning.

But there are downsides to the use of mobile technology in education too, not least that it comes when children are increasingly wedded to their phones, and playing Fortnite on their Xbox in their spare time. Given that many of the activities they use their devices for, such as social media, are designed to be addictive, leaving parents battling to limit screen time, it can seem wrong to send them off to do their homework on an iPad.

The world of work too is going through a similar series of digitally-driven transformations, many of which are to be welcomed. The advent of mobile working has enabled workers to break free from the grind of the daily commute, if only for one or two days a week.

It has enabled some to work from home entirely, while others access a rapidly emerging solution – locally based co-working spaces. These have proliferated throughout the country and though initially designed to attract the self-employed, are increasingly being seen as a way for enterprise employers to gain access to regional talent pools.

Meeting and project management software such as Slack and Teamwork ensures key performance indicators are met, without everyone having to clock in to the office to prove it.

Revolutionising training

For employers and employees alike, digital is revolutionising training. Education has traditionally been ‘front-loaded’, meaning we do our formal study and then launch into our career. But with the pace of change so rapid, particularly in tech and engineering disciplines, what you learn at the beginning of a four-year degree can be practically obsolete by the time you graduate.

Instead, the internet is facilitating a move towards ongoing, bite-sized education drawn down as and when it is needed throughout our working lives. This ranges from bespoke on-the-job training designed by employers to the rise of MOOCs (massive open online courses) offered by some of the world’s most prestigious universities.

As a result, enterprise employers are increasingly hiring not for qualification but for aptitude. They want a person’s CV to show evidence of agility and flexibility, an openness to change and a willingness to learn. The idea is not to keep hiring and, in times of recession laying off, in an endless cycle, but to hire people with the smarts to train up and help the employer move in new directions as fresh market opportunities are opened.

There have been digitally disruptive downsides to the world of work too, however. Calling the world of short-term, project-based work the ‘gig economy’ makes it sound like those involved are doing something hip and cool, like being in a band. In fact, they are trying to make a living in which they carry all the risk of the employment market, with few of the benefits.

For employers, the advantages are clear – having a pool of workers they can ramp up and down easily as required. To be fair, such flexibility will suit some workers too. But the laggards in this rapidly changing scenario are banks, which still insist that mortgage applicants be permanent and pensionable.

The banks are perhaps too busy being digitally disrupted themselves, in the form of online-only banking and the rise of crypto currencies.The advent of the EU’s revised payments services directive, PSD2, has already opened up their systems to third-party developers. For consumers, the result will be a raft of slick new mobile payment services of the kind that have already transformed commerce in China and Africa, where personal computers have been largely leapfrogged by mobile devices.

Internet of things

The advent of the internet of things (IoT), in which connected devices communicate with one another, is already having an impact on our homes, from smart thermostats like Nest to Amazon’s Alexa.

But all this is minor compared to the scale of advantages arising from Industry 4.0 – the use of smart devices in industry. Whether it is augmented reality holograms showing engineers how to replace a gas connection or autonomous forklift trucks retrieving goods from factory shelves, the benefits are obvious.

For consumers, the value is slightly more obscure. It’s hard to know quite where the push for autonomous driving is coming from, for example, but presumably is being driven by rapidly ageing populations. Much of the current interest is focused on autonomous trucks. But while stripping out the human labour element of one of the world’s most commonly held jobs is a no-brainer for bean counters bent on lowering costs, holders of one of the world’s most commonly held jobs may take a different view.

Much less ambiguous is the benefit that digital transformation is bringing to our healthcare services, from smart plasters that can recognise and treat infection to robotic telesurgery.

On top of these is the advent of apps that can, for example, enable patients to manage much of their own therapy, such as the exercises required after a hip operation, while their healthcare provider supervises and monitors remotely.

Such initiatives will increasingly enable people to get high-quality healthcare from the comfort of their own home. Again, there is a demographic imperative here. As populations across the western world age, with fertility rates falling below replenishment levels, existing healthcare infrastructure will come under increased pressure – with fewer taxpayers to build new bits.

Keeping people at home, and allowing only the most serious cases to be admitted to hospital, will not just save money but help defend against the spread of hospital infections too.

Regardless of the element of our daily lives that digital technology is disrupting, however, perhaps the biggest challenge is an overarching one. Even leaving aside cybersecurity risks, which are legion, perhaps the biggest challenge ahead is how we deal with what digital leaves in its wake – data.

In a world in which authoritarianism is on the rise, the biggest risk of all is surely that our data be weaponised and used against us. We’re already used to credit scoring but China has introduced social credit scoring, whereby your behaviour is ranked, and an array of freedoms permitted or denied you as a result.

As we cruise towards autonomous vehicles, to give a simple example, you’d like to think that when you call up that car on your ride-sharing app – having blithely given up the ability to drive years ago – that forgetting to renew your TV licence wouldn’t prevent it from coming to collect you.