What will the future look like? Consumers may decide

Last week, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) hosted a panel discussion on IT and disruptive innovation featuring the authors of Code Halos: How the Digital Lives of People, Things, and Organizations are Changing the Rules of Business.

The discussion focused on the way in which consumers leave a code trail, or “halo” in virtually everything they do from personal finance to fitness pursuits to enjoying music. Thanks to the internet of things, predictive sites such as Pandora and Netflix, and industry-disrupting services like Uber and Airbnb, user data can be generated across the span of our day-to-day lives. This data can reveal surprising patterns about us; panel moderator and President of ITIF Robert Atkinson shared the example of how music preferences accurately predict political leaning. If you listen to Garth Brooks, apparently you are overwhelmingly likely to vote Republican, and Pandora has realized that selling user data on music preferences to political organizations can be a profitable business.

But what about the role of government policy and the protection of privacy? The panelists differed on the necessary approach to regulating the market in the digital age, though they agreed on one key point: legislation will not keep up with the rate of technology, and this will require placing a huge amount of trust in corporations to “not be evil.” To some, that may sounds like quite a paradox, but the panelists were overall enthusiastic about innovation possibilities outweighing privacy dangers. They suggested that because companies will rely on acquiring user data, they have an incentive to be transparent and play by the rules in order to maintain their customers’ trust and interest.

To assume that everyone can equally understand and navigate the internet and the growing wealth of digital information is a narrow and inaccurate perception

One argument presented stipulates that disruption actually gives consumers more freedom and privacy by facilitating their ability to quickly communicate with each other. It is easier than ever for individuals to collect and share information about products and services, and through sites and apps like Yelp and Tripadvisor, they can market successful businesses to one another. Could this be a way for consumers to regulate new emerging digital markets faster and more efficiently than government, which is slow to keep up?

Another argument is that while disruptive innovation makes consumers less able to remain anonymous to data-collectors, it actually allows them to enjoy more privacy from their neighbors. In small towns, for example, seeking online health information eliminates the concern of buying a book when the salesperson knows your mother-in-law, or calling your doctor who you will then see tomorrow at the PTA meeting.

However, many important policy questions remain. While the benefits of disruptive innovation are giving consumers more for lower costs, what becomes of jobs in sectors that are disrupted? What happens if the government were to digitize services to maximize efficiency (like customs offices at airports) and cuts thousands of jobs, often for working class citizens? Will these displaced workers benefit from IT innovation and new services, or will they be unable to afford access?

During the Q&A the topic turned to the digital divide. Questions from the audience focused on how those who are disconnected from the world of tech efficiency will fit into the new business frameworks that are being created by disruptive innovation. Panelists’ answers indicated that like any emerging innovation and infrastructure, IT will diffuse slowly from concentrated markets outwards, just as electricity, cars, telephones, trains, and film have in the past.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the conversation centered on consumers and industries. Libraries were not discussed as “third space” providers and access points to technology when discussing the digital divide. When I raised the question of how the authors saw libraries being impacted by disruptive technologies, they lauded the valuable public space libraries provide, but debated whether we will need librarians, assuming everyone will be able to find information online. Another thought that in the future libraries will downsize, getting rid of the stacks and just having computer access.

This fairly uninformed view of what librarians really do indicates the growing need for libraries to amplify their voices in communicating all that they offer, curate, and make possible in both print and digital resources. The E’s of Libraries, ™ facilitating education, empowerment, employment, entrepreneurship and engagement, are growing increasingly more important for a public in which digital literacy is still a significant challenge. To assume that everyone can equally understand and navigate the internet and the growing wealth of digital information is a narrow and inaccurate perception, as is assuming that librarians will not be needed in playing the role of information enablers and knowledge curators.

While there are many potential benefits in the decisions being made now in the “early days of the new era of commerce” it is clear that many more diverse discussions on the value of privacy, regulations, algorithm analytics, censorship, and security will need to happen to ensure positive development and social value added.

Libraries support the public interest in ways that the tech industry and market cannot, and going forward into an innovative, disruptive era could leave many trapped on the wrong side of the digital divide. Libraries are vital because they are institutions not driven by profit, and are thereby the best actor suited to teaching digital skills and helping the public understand the benefits and tradeoffs that come with using new industry-disruptive services. The unique space libraries fill in providing training and equal access to new tech will remain highly relevant, timely, and necessary as the digital revolution reinvents major sectors of society.

Margaret Kavaras is the 2014 Google Policy Fellow working with the American Library Association (ALA), and a recent graduate of George Washington University.

Posted in Digital Divide, OITP, Privacy & Surveillance Tagged with: ,
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