09/01/2010 03:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Technology at a Crossroads: A Brief Snapshot of the Current and the Future

In advance of Ideas Economy: Human Potential, a conference organized by The Economist for later this month, I had a brief discussion with Tom Standage, online and digital editor of The Economist on emerging technologies of the 21st century, technology and democratic transformation, and the future balance between personal and professional life in the digital age.


Rahim Kanani: What are the most promising technologies currently deployed or in their initial stages of development that will have the greatest societal benefit in the next 5 to 10 years?

Tom Standage: Globally, I'd have to say mobile phones have had the biggest impact in the past decade, since they've provided the first access to telecommunications technology for billions of people in the developed world. And there's a clear link between mobile-phone penetration and economic growth, because phones make markets more efficient, substitute for travel, save people from making wasted journeys, and so on. In the rich world, of course, the Internet has been the big story. What's going to happen in the next 5 to 10 years is that wireless networks will bring the Internet to billions of people in the developing world, too.

Rahim Kanani: What technologies are especially good at promoting democratic transformation?

Tom Standage: Access to a free press, and to the Internet, can help promote democracy. But the extent to which Internet access can make a difference is easy to exaggerate. Most of the Twitter traffic during the protests in Iran was people in the West talking to each other. Social networks are good places to organise protests, until the police show up and use the social network to identify the protesters. Evgeny Morozov has done a great job of puncturing the widespread belief that Internet access in and of itself can promote freedom and democracy. One example he gives is from Belarus, where the state-run internet-access providers provide lots of pirated material to download. The idea is that free access will keep people busy and make them less likely to become politically active. [Read Evgeny's article here on "Why Dictators Love the Web"]

Rahim Kanani: With the advent of social media and 'constant connection', what is the future of our personal and professional lives intersecting?

Tom Standage: Like any technology, social networks and always-on connections have advantages and drawbacks. On the plus side, they help us keep in touch with friends and colleagues, make it easier to network when looking for work, and have made the ability to share information, ideas, pictures and videos almost universal. (You could do all this using blogs, but blogging tools are too complicated for a lot of users.) Facebook, in particular, is the kind of thing advocates of "groupware" have been trying to build for years: an amazingly powerful collaboration system that requires zero training. Facebook-style collaboration is much more efficient than e-mail, so it's only a matter of time before Facebook (or someone else) applies this approach to business collaboration.

There are also several drawbacks, of course. It's harder to maintain separation between work and home life. What should you do if your boss 'friends' you? Do you want your co-workers to see your holiday pictures? Some people have lost their jobs because they denigrated or embarrassed their employers with remarks on social networks. Another problem is that it becomes difficult to switch off. When you check into your social networking, you may see work life mixed in with personal life. There are also concerns that this constant "snacking" on morsels of data and social interaction undermines our ability to concentrate more deeply. I think those concerns are overdone, and the benefits mostly outweigh the drawbacks. But I don't think we should pretend the drawbacks don't exist.

Rahim Kanani: Any other thoughts?

Tom Standage: I'd like to add one more thing. The use of social media by young workers is often denigrated as "social networking" by older bosses. But there are great opportunities for companies to use social media to engage with their customers and increase collaboration internally. As I say, Facebook is the kind of thing that designers of business software have been trying to build for years. Facebook may look like a waste of time, but something like it could in fact be the future of work.

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