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Why do we bother with technology?

Give us a smile. Not a big, beaming smile but… let’s say, a slightly embarrassed one, like you remembered doing something you shouldn’t. Or an eyes-widening, still-can’t-quite-believe it smile, about a remembered piece of unexpected good news. Or a wistful shrug of a smile, as if you knew it was too good to be true.

So many smiles, so subtle, so different but each one distinctly recognisable. The human face has some 43 muscles in the face, from which we can represent a plethora of emotions to others, and indeed to ourselves.

The wonks who study such things have distilled our expressions into six categories — happiness, surprise, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust — but research a year ago acknowledged that at least 20 distinct facial states exist, distinguishable by computer at least. According to the report, computer analysis revealed compound emotions - for example, happy surprise was different to angry surprise.

Which, it has to be said, will come as no surprise to any human being. A kind of technological hubris exists around all such studies, which suggest that only compute-proven features of any complex system are real, or at least, worth thinking about. While such an attitude has its place, its nemesis is the law of diminishing returns — that is, any over-simplistic response will eventually prove inadequate.

And so, to digital. That overloaded, over-used word which seems to have taken the tech-business world by surprise. Not that long ago I was in a room full of journalists from a variety of countries, speaking to a software company that had ‘digital' written through its marketing materials like a stick of rock. One journo, a Russian, asked whether it was appropriate, “After all, isn’t it all digital?” resulting in a “Well, yeah” explanation from the otherwise well-briefed spokesman.

Digital is simply the latest attempt to define the world in technological terms. Sure, mobile and social technologies have fundamentally changed the way we interact; Moore’s Law and dark fibre have created a massively scalable processing bedrock upon which we can perform phenomenal numbers of calculations. It’s an absolute thrill-ride for anyone involved in tech; a genuine, global revolution.

But this does not mean that the old, ‘analogue' ways are done with, far from it. For one reason, the world is infinitely more complex than the processor power available to model it. While we are only scratching the surface of tech's potential, we are also still only scratching the surface of the complexity we are dealing with. But even more fundamental is that often-ignored question — why are we bothering with technology at all, in terms of the real benefits it brings?

One way we can look at tech is that it gives us super-powers — the ability to communicate across long distances or leap over tall buildings — capabilities that should not be ignored. In business terms they are directly and repeatedly leading to disintermediation, as some unassuming startup recognises that it can do something, supply a product, reach a customer base, in a way previously ignored by the incumbents. We’ve seen it from Amazon to, well, Amazon.

But what the information revolution has not yet done (and so far has not shown any potential to do so) is change what it means to be human, nor catalysed any desire among members of our august race to do away with the largely non-digital world we inhabit. A cup of espresso, served on a veranda on a balmy day in southern Italy, still gives more pleasure than watching the same in a YouTube video. The chances are, it always will.

Indeed, when things become too digital, people are just as likely to respond with a backlash. Consider the resurgence of vinyl records, for example. Retail analysts report that the high street is becoming a social space, where people like to meet and communicate, and that shops which offer both keen pricing and good service are more likely to thrive (a great UK example is John Lewis, with its JLAB initiative). Perish the thought that the shops of the future will be the ones that balance the power of digital with traditional mechanisms for product and service delivery!

As I write this, in a cafe on Denmark Street in London, a man walks past with a notebook in his hand. Around the notebook is an elastic band, perfectly tensioned using the laws of physics to hold the pages together without being too taut to remove. In much the same way, when the digital dust settles (and assuming we don’t mess up and turn the whole planet into grey goo) we will all get on with being human, without thinking too much about the technologies that surround us. Who knows, if we are still around, some of us might smile, wryly, in the knowledge that computers can finally recognise the subtlety.

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Jon Collins

Jon Collins is an analyst and principal advisor at Inter Orbis. He has over 25 years in experience of the tech sector, having worked as an IT manager, software consultant, project manager and training manager among other roles. Jon’s published work covers security, governance, project management but also includes books on music, including works on Rush, Mike Oldfield and Marillion. See More

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