How to stay afloat in the sea of Technology

Practical ways to avoid total immersion

Technology is clearly a vast subject: we’re all being affected by many different technologies, without being aware of them. What’s really alarming is that the motive behind most of the rapid change affecting us is simply profit, and the regulatory frameworks which should steer these changes, and make them visible to us, are generally very weak.

Here are the headlines for my practical tips, which I’ll expand on later in the blog:

  • Use simple, understandable technologies to mitigate the complex overwhelming ones.
  • Create redundant systems with back-ups, so you’re less vulnerable to cyber-attacks and system failures.
  • Make keeping informed a priority.
  • Support small, independent operators who are counterweights to big business.
  • Evolve habitual delights and seek natural fascination to reduce your addiction to screenworld.

There are already numerous technologies having a big impact on our lives: this impact will grow rapidly over the next 10-15 years, and will accelerate because of the cumulative effect of multiple changes. Exploring all this is well beyond the scope of one blog, so I’m going to focus on a couple of major issues:
– The remarkable extent to which our communications, purchases etc., are already being used to monitor us and to customise (manipulate) a lot of the communications we receive. We know this is happening with Facebook, Google and Amazon, but who else is already doing this?
– Addictive aspects of spending many hours within screenworld, and its effects on our physiology, feelings and values.
– The potential impacts of everyday life becoming swamped by AI, robots, smart everything, which could well make the data-gathering and manipulation described above a lot more pervasive still.

Broadly speaking, it’s these three areas that my five practical tips are intended to help. I should point out that I am in no sense a technology expert, what I’m sharing is a mix of personal common sense, careful reading of The Guardian, and some web research.

Create redundant systems to raise resilience

Few of us realise how vulnerable are the complex systems we take for granted in everyday life. This applies to personal technologies, like your mobile phone and internet, and to the mass of complex systems which control essential supplies like power and water. The most obvious threat is cyber-attack. What we see in the news is the tiny tip of the cyber iceberg: it shows that the capacity for major disruption is now well established. The probable Russian disruption of the US and other elections is one example, another striking one is the high probability of cyber-attacks by China on the US navy: 2017 saw four collisions involving American warships in Asian waters.

Over the next 10 years, we have to expect that there will be widespread capability to disrupt and incapacitate communication and control systems, not only by the super powers, but by protest groups, terrorist teams, and crazy individuals. Beaming, a provider of internet services for businesses, reported that on average, British firms each suffered 231,028 cyber-attacks during 2017, or 633 per day. You may recall the impact of Wanna Cry in May 2017, which disrupted businesses and public services worldwide.

We can’t expect to prevent such disruption, but there are some simple steps we can take to mitigate it considerably. A crucial element of this is to create redundant systems. Redundancy is a classic element of systems design to increase the resilience of the system. It means that for vital elements, you have an alternative or back-up. For example, if your computer access is really important, ideally have two computers, running on different software, and two internet providers. Another valuable piece of redundancy which I advocate is to have some sort of back-up power supply. In my house, I have a small sealed battery cabinet plus an inverter (to convert DC to AC mains) which will power the freezer, fridge, heating pump and a couple of power sockets in the event of a mains power failure.

Use simple technologies to mitigate complex ones

My experience of many technologies these days is that they are hard to understand, and disempowering. This could be a deliberate ploy to leave us feeling helpless and more easily manipulated. One way to mitigate this is to seek out simple technologies which enable you to use or side step the complex ones. One example of this is the re-introduction of very simple, ‘brick’ mobile phones for people overwhelmed by the bells and whistles of smartphones.

You may need to do some web searching or even look for a techno expert to help you, but it’s well worth investing some effort to find simple systems which you are happy to use. I retain my naïve faith that if demand exists for something, someone out there will be trying to meet it!

Keeping informed is a good time investment

Bear in mind that many of the services and possible technologies you’re aware of are those being promoted by big business, because they have huge budgets and clever methods to get their message through to you. In contrast, the alternatives to the techno giants are likely to be small outfits with almost no promotional budget, and guess what, the techno giants will do their utmost to keep you in ignorance of small, low-cost, independent alternatives. I still have faith that The Guardian newspaper is a fairly independent, reliable source of information, and I have learned quite a lot from it and friendly experts about alternatives to big tech. Here are a couple of websites you could try:
– (useful, readable, selective guidance on a range of tech issues).
– (this is more technical, more political, but very interesting: a co-operative global network aiming to reach genuinely shared networks which are not dominated by large business).

Support small independents as a counter to big business

It is clear that the internet era offers great potential for peer networks, and egalitarian, often free sharing of knowledge. The early pioneers themselves are now lamenting the way that so much power and influence has been grabbed by a few huge multinational businesses. There are a lot of small, independent players around the world seeking to offer antidotes to this, and to help the internet fulfil its true potential: but you may not easily find them on Google!

The Guardian on February 1 2018 ran a fascinating two page feature about some of these small initiatives. For example, a couple based in Sweden have launched an app for smartphones called Better Blocker which disables the tracking devices which gather and share information about your web activity. They also have a vision for a new kind of internet, called the Indienet, in which people control their own data, and cannot be tracked by others.

In Scotland, a small business called MaidSafe is working on a similar idea, the Safe network, in which data is stored in widely distributed locations, not in huge central locations which are more vulnerable to cyber-attack and misuse of data. To read the full feature click here…

Positive alternatives to screenworld addiction

 Family day out at Hazel Hill Wood’s Conservation Weekend.  Family day out at Hazel Hill Wood’s Conservation Weekend.

A fascinating book by two Harvard Medical School specialists, Your Brain on Nature, gathers a lot of recent research on the problems caused by spending so many hours in front of screens: tablets, smartphones, computers and TV. Symptoms include low emotional intelligence, reduced levels of empathic concern, and greater self-preoccupation. And if you suspected that screenworld is addictive, this book confirms it: “we are wired to crave information – big time…The brain uses dopamine to reward information seeking.”

It’s pretty clear that heavy use of social media and screens has a close relationship to the very large increases in mental health issues among young people in the UK and elsewhere. The book also explains that these long hours with screens (around 12 hours per day in the US) mean that people are in a constant state of over-stimulation and anxiety, which makes it hard for them to relax, and reduces sleep quality. For my blog on the book click here…

Just willing yourself to reduce your screen hours is unlikely to help for long. In an excellent recent documentary on BBC 1, The Truth About Getting Fit, Michael Mosley was told by a sports psychologist that mere willpower has very short-lived effects on behaviour changes such as getting fit, or reducing screen time. We need to make the desired behaviour actually desirable. So if you want to spend less time on screens, think of some things you’d really like to do and set them up as a more attractive use of time.

Research quoted in Your Brain on Nature shows that one of the best antidotes to screen world and its addictive appeal is time in Nature. A key aspect of nature experience, is that they have “intrinsic fascination” and hence they are an affective counterbalance to many modern stresses including screen time. Being out in nature actually induces positive feelings and physiological benefits, which can offset stress and anxiety.

This blog is only a short exploration of a huge subject, but I hope it helps you to believe that you do have some power of choice to avoid being drowned in the rising tides of technology!

Read this interesting article “You Need a VPN, and Here’s Why”