South Africa: 60 years of tech but what's really changed?

Adrian Schofield discusses how despite all the changes tech has brought, many things still stay the same

The Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA) celebrates its diamond anniversary in November 2017 – 60 years of bringing together practitioners of computing and related skills to seek knowledge sharing and development of professional standards. 60 years of using the power of computing to enhance human activities in academia, in business, in government and, in the later decades, for the broader community. 60 years in which the world’s population has tripled to 7.6 billion.

Remembering that I have been a participant in technology-related roles for almost the same period (I passed the IBM aptitude test in 1963), I began to reflect on what has changed in those six decades and what has not. Back in the day, data was captured onto punched cards (80 characters per card) or paper tape. “Plug and play” meant knowing how to plug the leads on the control board of the Hollerith machine that would read the cards and print the data onto mountains of continuous paper. Input cards and output paper had to be transported by vehicle between the user premises (the accounting department) and the processing centre. A short while later, the arrival of an IBM 360 meant the data centre was in the same building as the accountants and magnetic storage replaced some of the shredded trees.

As conference speakers are fond of reminding us, there is more computing power in a mobile phone than was used by the Apollo programme to put men on the moon. The comparison is almost true of the Raspberry Pi and that IBM 360. Imagine running the financial reporting of a multi-million-dollar nationwide enterprise on a $30 device! 50 years ago, having an online connection from a “dumb” terminal in a branch office to the computer centre in head office was remarkable. Now, we take for granted that any worker can be connected by a “smart” device from wherever they are, on the move and at any time.

We have moved from bytes to petabytes, from calculation through computation to artificial intelligence, from 1200 baud to multi-Gbps, from telex to email, from analogue voice to digital video conferencing, from keyboard to voice activation. Despite the seemingly quantum leaps in speed and reach, our systems are still based on the foundation of 0/1 (off/on), storage and retrieval and, dare I say, garbage in/garbage out. But, hey! COBOL is still good for a few more years and the paperless office remains a myth… The art of programming is being learned at junior school, not just at university.

The common thread is connections. Faster and farther-reaching connections. The networks provide the platform for the enhanced applications and services that support so much of human endeavour.

So, what is really new?

More than half the world’s population is connected and most of them have access to massive information to be gleaned from others and can make their own contributions to that resource. Are we learning from this vast accumulation of knowledge? Has this contributed to more stable communities, lessened ethnic or territorial tensions? Have we reduced poverty and famine? What has not changed is our willingness to use violence for offensive and defensive actions between and within communities.

The infrastructure that we take for granted can (and does) track those connected individuals and record their activities. Are we using that ability to combat crime more effectively? Are we exposing and prosecuting corruption and maladministration with these tools? Does our enhanced capacity for spying lead to more, or less, paranoia?

We promote the introduction of e-government as the means to better serve our communities. How effectively are we measuring the relative changes in quality of life flowing from introducing and improving e-service delivery? Have we eradicated queues for access to government services? Are we holding our political leaders to account for using technology to control instead of support their citizens?

The networks have enabled the creation of global enterprises based on gossip. What used to be shared across the neighbour’s fence or around the village well is now shared around the world in milliseconds. In the same way as one person’s whispered misinformation to another became the village scandal over the course of a few days, fake news now hits the global headlines in a few minutes. What has not changed is our willingness to believe the worst ahead of checking for the truth. What has not changed is our willingness to follow leaders along patently erroneous paths for the same reason.

60 years on, we have walked on the moon, explored (remotely) Mars and taken a close look at Saturn. We know so much more about the components of the detectable universe but have no idea how infinite it might be. Flying in commercial planes is safer than driving on roads but the inefficiencies of getting to and from the airports can result in no reduction in overall journey times. We can order online for just about anything to be delivered to our door or to our device, instead of walking or riding to the store. We disrupt traditional services (taxis, accommodation and currencies come to mind) but often fail to build trust in the new models by managing change effectively.

60 years on, half the world’s people are beneficiaries of innovation, of the geometric increase in the lifestyle support systems built on the digital platforms of the 21st Century. But the other half are the victims of the same phenomenon. And that needs to change.