In 2010, I got my first smartphone. It was also my first cell phone. For years, I had been resisting the idea of having to be contactable anytime, anywhere. But work eventually prevailed, and — guess what? — instead of reading for pleasure when I travel, I now spend way too much time checking email, tweeting, writing, editing, etc. In other words, working ... OK, and occasionally playing online Scrabble or reading The Guardian.
I’m not alone, of course. According to the Pew Research Center, smartphone usage in the US increased from 35% of the population in May 2011 to 81% in February 2019. This ability to get online pretty much wherever and whenever we want represents a massive social and cultural shift — for better and for worse.
There’s no denying the benefits of, say, a doctor being able to quickly and easily check the correct dosage for a prescription, or a scientist being able to immediately share important results with colleagues. But unfortunately, the growth of mobile technology has gone hand in hand with a massive increase in misinformation, “alternative facts,” and fake news.
The combination of the two has been toxic and, in my view, much of the blame can be laid at the feet of another major trend of the last decade — the growth in the size, revenue, and power of the big tech giants. Amazon, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and the like have a lot to answer for. It’s quite extraordinary to me that any company can get away with knowingly targeting individuals with false information — about critically important issues such as health, politics, and the environment — or by exploiting our personal data in ways we don’t understand and haven’t agreed to. And that they are making literally billions of (seemingly mostly tax free) dollars in the process.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. There have also been some amazing advances in the past decade, with more to look forward to in the next one. For example, despite resistance from those same tech companies, in both the information community and the wider world, there is now a much better understanding of our right to online privacy. Legislation like GDPR has helped enormously, as has better education of users — much of it, in our community, thanks to librarians. That, in turn, should lead to increased trust in technology and (especially) technology providers. If we can be confident that they aren’t misusing the information they gather about us and that we have more control over how it is used, there are all sorts of ways that the big data being generated can be used to make the world a better and more sustainable place.
We are going to need all the data — and metadata — we can collect in order to achieve that. And we are going to need better ways of analyzing and utilizing that data — fast! Artificial intelligence, another trend from the last decade, is surely part of the solution. But only if it is combined with tools that recognize and address the risks it poses, which include bias, a reliance on quantitative over qualitative information, and more.
The increasing recognition, over the past decade, of the need for the world to be more diverse, inclusive, and equitable for all is another important trend, albeit not a strictly tech one. The progress made since 2010 gives me hope that we will make even more in the next decade. Tech companies can, should, and hopefully will play a significant role in this, prompted by initiatives like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, and following the leadership shown in the information community by organizations like INASP, SciELO, SSP, AUP, and others.