You geeks have inherited the Earth, but what are you going to do with it?
Historians a thousand years hence will talk about us. Let's not muff it
Opinion It's the end of the year, when the tradition is to look back at what just happened. Let's not do that. Let's take a step back and look at the wider picture, because while we've been worrying about data breaches and OS updates, we've rather missed the point.
The world is living through an historically great technological revolution as huge as any that has gone before. Farming and settlement turned us from slaves to masters of life support systems. The printing press liberated thought and enabled the Enlightenment and science. The Industrial Revolution linked energy to society.
Now, the information revolution is doing the same for data, putting it to work, putting it in the hands of everyone, upsetting the status quo so fast we can barely see the shapes it makes.
And it is so incredibly fast. The first mass-market smartphone was launched in 2007. Now, at the end of 2021, there are 6.4 billion smartphone users worldwide. That's 80 per cent of humanity in 14 years, all connected to the internet and to each other. Other technologies have seen similar rates of growth – TV per-household penetration in the US between the 1940s and 1960s – but never simultaneously so global and so personal.
Nothing has shrunk the gap between wish and fulfilment so forcefully.
Of course there are growing pains, and they make all the news. There is nothing of culture, commerce, politics or society which is untouched by instantaneous worldwide thought teleportation, duplication, and storage. All of the great tech revolutions of the past came with new costs: disease, repression, pollution, upheaval, war. The environmental cost of the Industrial Revolution may claim us yet.
But in each inter-revolutionary period, people looked at the "before times" and couldn't see themselves going back. Even today, just a couple of decades into the internet being everywhere and 40 years after it was barely anywhere, it's impossible to imagine how the global pandemic would have played out without it.
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- Tech bro CEOs claim their crowns because they fix problems. Why shirk the biggest one?
There is an unparalleled revolution roaring ahead, and everyone's not so much invited as commanded to attend. It's easy to get lost in the numbers. Eight zettabytes of storage. Over a trillion processor cores (Probably: nobody's counting. Arm alone hit 100 billion chips – not cores – in 2017, five years of exponential growth ago). But those aren't what makes the whole thing work. Not what drives the revolution. That would be people. That is us.
Even for those who work at the heart of IT, it is easy to forget, when we stream a film or post a bad joke on Twitter, that every step of the way is enabled and tended by people. No matter how much automation is deployed or AI implemented, the amount of actual work that needs the full attention of eight fingers, two thumbs, and one brain never goes down, only up.
It doesn't matter where you live horizontally in the DevSecOps pipeline or vertically in the IT departmental structure, you are working harder than ever keeping the plates spinning and nearly seven billion people just a tap from instant wish fulfilment. You're not just part of it, you geeks, you are it. As a class, indispensable. And as a class invisible, even among yourselves.
There are two consequences to being the people who actually run the world. One is that, hey, you run the world and you should be damn proud of the fact. No emperor ever had your earthly powers, no magician the practical command of the mysteries you wield. Believe it.
The second consequence is that with power comes responsibility, not just for doing your job as well as you can – or as well as it needs doing, which if you're lucky will be the same thing. But for the wider consequences of your actions, or lack of them.
On the back of every technological revolution came other, more political ones. The power structures that grew up over agriculture also created inequalities that could be pushed too far – the very word "lord" comes from Old English hlāfweard or loaf-keeper: they who controlled the bread controlled the people. Until the people had enough of not having enough.
The printing press fed the Reformation, which fed 200 years of bloody European conflict, and every revolution since has been built on pamphlets and propaganda.
There is no doubt that if the IT workers of the world decided to unite to incite change, to say yes or no to this or that, the effects would be revolutionary. This may feel unthinkable, especially as the rewards of "being in IT" are substantial and stable, and as most geeks reading these words will be in liberal democracies, the beneficiaries of so many revolutions of the past. The boat is not for rocking, right?
Even for the apolitical, there is no harm in looking around you at the world and thinking it could be better. It is no sin to think that you could help make it so, if not for yourself then for those without your superpowers. It is certain that there are those who look at the world and wish it worse, and one day you may have to decide to help or hinder. These are thoughts we all must think.
The information revolution has shrunk the gap between wish and fulfilment, for societies as well as the individual. We must be careful what we wish for, more than ever, but we must wish. The world has given you great powers: consider that, and consider that well. ®
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