The story so far…

 

Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash
Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

It’s hard to believe that this year is the 30th anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee’s great invention, the World-Wide Web, and that much of the technology that enabled his creation is still less than 60 years old. Here’s a brief history of the Internet and the Web, and how we got to where we are today, in ten significant events.

 

#1: 1963 – Ted Nelson begins developing a model for creating and using linked content he calls hypertext and hypermedia. Hypertext is born.

#2: 1969 – The first message is sent over the ARPANET from computer science Professor Leonard Kleinrock’s laboratory at University of California, Los Angeles to the second network node at Stanford Research Institute. The Internet is born.

#3: 1969 – Charles Goldfarb, leading a small team at IBM, developed the first markup language, called Generalized Markup Language, or GML. Markup languages are born.

#4: 1989 – Tim Berners-Lee whilst working at CERN publishes his paper, Information Management: A Proposal. The World Wide Web (WWW) is born.

#5: 1993Mosaic, a graphical browser aiming to bring multimedia content to non-technical users (images and text on the same page) is invented by Marc Andreessen. The web browser is born.

#6: 1995 – Jeff Bezos launches Amazon “earth’s biggest bookstore” from a garage in Seattle. E-commerce is born.

#7: 1998 – The Google company is officially launched by Larry Page and Sergey Brin to market Google Search. Web search is born.

#8: 2003Facebook (then called FaceMash but changed to The Facebook a year later) is founded by Mark Zuckerberg with his college roommate and fellow Harvard University student Eduardo Saverin. Social media is born.

#9: 2007 – Steve Jobs launches the iPhone at MacWorld Expo in San Francisco. Mobile computing is born.

#10: 2018 – Tim Berners-Lee instigates act II of the web when he announces a new initiative called Solid, to reclaim the Web from corporations and return it to its democratic roots. The web is reborn?

I know there have been countless events that have enabled the development of our modern Information Age and you will no doubt think others should be included in preference to some of my suggestions. Also, I suspect that many people will not have heard of my last choice (unless you are a fairly hardcore computer type). The reason I have added this one is because I think/hope it will start to address what is becoming one of the existential threats of our age, namely how we survive in a world awash with data (our data) that is being mined and used without us knowing, much less understanding, the impact of such usage. Rather than living in an open society in which ideas and data are freely exchanged and used to everyones benefit we instead find ourselves in an age of surveillance capitalism which, according to this source, is defined as being:

…the manifestation of George Orwell’s prophesied Memory Hole combined with the constant surveillance, storage and analysis of our thoughts and actions, with such minute precision, and artificial intelligence algorithmic analysis, that our future thoughts and actions can be predicted, and manipulated, for the concentration of power and wealth of the very few.

In her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff provides a sweeping (and worrying) overview and history of the techniques that the large tech companies are using to spy on us in ways that even George Orwell would have found alarming. Not least because we have voluntarily given up all of this data about ourselves in exchange for what are sometimes the flimsiest of benefits. As Zuboff says:

Thanks to surveillance capitalism the resources for effective life that we seek in the digital realm now come encumbered with a new breed of menace. Under this new regime, the precise moment at which our needs are met is also the precise moment at which our lives are plundered for behavioural data, and all for the sake others gain.

Tim Berners-Lee invented the World-Wide Web then gave it away so that all might benefit. Sadly some have benefited more than others, not just financially but also by knowing more about us than most of us would ever want or wish. I hope for all our sakes the work that Berners-Lee and his small group of supporters is doing make enough progress to reverse the worst excesses of surveillance capitalism before it is too late.

What Are Digital Skills?

Photo by Sabri Tuzcu on Unsplash
Photo by Sabri Tuzcu on Unsplash

There have been many, many reports both globally and within the UK bemoaning the lack of digital skills in todays workforce. The term digital skills is somewhat amorphous however and can mean different things to different people.

To more technical types it can mean the ability to write code, develop new computer hardware or have deep insights into how networks are set up and configured. To less digital savvy people it may just mean the ability to operate digital technology such as tablets and mobile phones or how to find information on the world wide web or even just fill out forms on web sites (e.g. to apply for a bank account).

A recent report from the CBI, Delivering Skills for the New Economy , which comes up with a number of concrete steps on how the UK might address a shortage of digital skills, suggests the following as a way of categorising these skills. Useful if we are to find way in which to address their scarcity.

  • Basic digital skills: Businesses define basic digital skills in similar terms. For most businesses this means computer literacy such as familiarity with Microsoft Office; handling digital information and content; core skills such as communication and problem-solving; and understanding how digital technologies work. This understanding of digital technologies includes understanding how data can be used to glean new insights, how social media provides value for a business or how an algorithm or piece of digitally-enabled machinery works.
    Basic digital skills: Businesses define basic digital skills in similar terms. For most businesses this means computer literacy such as familiarity with Microsoft Office; handling digital information and content; core skills such as communication
    and problem-solving; and understanding how digital technologies work. This understanding of digital technologies includes understanding how data can be used to glean new insights, how social media provides value for a business or how an algorithm or piece of digitally-enabled machinery works.
  • Advanced digital skills: Businesses also broadly agree on the definitions of advanced digital skills. For most businesses, these include software engineering and development (77%), data analytics (77%), IT support and system maintenance (81%) and digital marketing and sales (72%). Businesses have highlighted their increasing need for specific advanced digital skills, including programming, visualisation, machine learning, data analytics, app development, 3D printing expertise, cloud awareness and cybersecurity.
    It is important that a good grounding in the basic (core) skills is given to as many people as possible. The so called digital natives or “Gen Zs” (at least in first world countries) have grown up knowing nothing else but the world wide web, touch screen technology and pervasive social media. Older generations, less so. All need this information if they are to operate effectively in the “New Economy” (or know enough to actively disengage from it if they choose to do so).

The basic skills will also allow for a more critical assessment of what advanced digital skills should be considered if making choices about jobs or if people just need to understand what social media companies they should or should not be using or how artificial intelligence might affect their career prospects.

I would argue that a basic level of advanced digital knowledge is also a requirement so that everyone can play a more active role in this modern economy and understand the implications of technology.

What is Blockchain Good For?

Blockchain?
Photo by Hitesh Choudhary on Unsplash

The genius of Tim Berners-Lee when he invented the World Wide Web back in 1989 was that he brought together three arcane technologies (hypertext, markup languages and internet communication protocols) in a way no one had thought of before and literally transformed the world.  Could blockchain do the same thing?  Satoshi Nakamoto in his paper that introduced the world to bitcoins 20 years later in 2009 also used three existing ideas (distributed databases, public key or asymetric cryptography and proof-of-work) to show how a peer-to-peer version of electronic cash would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution.

Depending on your point of view, and personal agenda, blockchain the technology that underpins Bitcoin, either promises to do no less than solve the world’s refugee crisis and transform the management of health supply chains or is the most over-hyped, terrifying and foolish technology since Google Glass or MySpace.  Like any new technology we need to be very careful to separate the hype from the reality.

The documentary The Blockchain and Us made by Manuel Stagars in 2017 interviews software developers, cryptologists, researchers, entrepreneurs, consultants, VCs, authors, politicians, and futurists from around the world and poses a number of questions such as:  How can the blockchain benefit the economies of nations?  How will it change society?  What does it  mean for each of us?  The intent of the film is not to explain the technology but to give views on the it and encourage a conversation about its potential wider implications.

Since I have begun to focus my architecture efforts on blockchain I often get asked the question that is the title of this blog post.  According to Gartner blockchain has gone through the ‘peak of inflated expectations’ and is now sliding down into the ‘trough of disillusionment’.  The answer to the question, as is the case for most new technologies, will be it’s “good for” some things but not everything.

As a technologist it pains me to say this but in the business world technology itself is not usually the answer to anything on its own.  As the Venture Capitalist Jimmy Song said at Consensus earlier this year*, “When you have a technology in search of a use, you end up with the crap that we see out there in the enterprise today.” Harsh words indeed but probably true.

Instead, what is needed is the business and organisational change that drives new business models in which technology is, if required, slotted in at the right time and place.  Business people talk about the return on investment of tech and the fact that technology often gobbles up staff time and money, without giving enough back.  Blockchain runs the risk of gobbling up too much time and money if the right considerations are not given to its use and applicability to business.

If we are to ensure blockchain has a valid business use and gets embedded into the technology stack that businesses use then we need to ensure the right questions get asked when considering its use.  As a start in doing this you could do worse than consider this set of questions from the US Department for Homeland Security.

pisa-reassessing-expectations-blockchain-figure1

Many blockchain projects are still at the proof of technology stage although there are some notable exceptions.  The IBM Food Trust is a collaborative network of growers, processors, wholesalers, distributors, manufacturers, retailers and others enhancing visibility and accountability in each step of the food supply chain whilst the recently announced TradeLens aims to apply blockchain to the world’s global supply chain.  Both of these solutions are built on top of the open source Hyperledger Fabric blockchain platform which is one of the projects under the umbrella of the Linux Foundation.

What these and other successful blockchain systems are showing is actually that another question should be tagged onto the flowchart above (probably it should be the first question).  This would be something like: “Are you willing to be part of a collaborative business network to share information on a needs to know basis?”  The thing about permissioned networks like Hyperledger Fabric is that people don’t need to trust everyone on the network but they do need to agree who will be a part of it.  Successful blockchain business networks are proving to be the ones whose participants understand this and are willing to collaborate.

* As discovered in the Medium.com post Firms need business model change, not blockchain.

Software is Eating the World and Some Tech Companies are Eating Us

Today (12th March, 2018) is the World Wide Web’s 29th birthday.  Sir Tim Berners-Lee (the “inventor of the world-wide web”), in an interview with the Financial Times and in this Web Foundation post has used this anniversary to raise awareness of how the web behemoths Facebook, Google and Twitter are “promoting misinformation and ‘questionable’ political advertising while exploiting people’s personal data”.  Whilst I admire hugely Tim Berners-Lee’s universe-denting invention it has to be said he himself is not entirely without fault in the way he bequeathed us with his invention.  In his defence, hindsight is a wonderful thing of course, no one could have possibly predicted at the time just how the web would take off and transform our lives both for better and for worse.

If, as Marc Andreessen famously said in 2011, software is eating the world then many of those powerful tech companies are consuming us (or at least our data and I’m increasingly becoming unsure there is any difference between us and the data we choose to represent ourselves by.

Here are five recent examples of some of the negative ways software is eating up our world.

Over the past 40+ years the computer software industry has undergone some fairly major changes.  Individually these were significant (to those of us in the industry at least) but if we look at these changes with the benefit of hindsight we can see how they have combined to bring us to where we are today.  A world of cheap, ubiquitous computing that has unleashed seismic shocks of disruption which are overthrowing not just whole industries but our lives and the way our industrialised society functions.  Here are some highlights for the 40 years between 1976 and 2016.

waves-since-1976

And yet all of this is just the beginning.  This year we will be seeing technologies like serverless computing, blockchain, cognitive and quantum computing become more and more embedded in our lives in ways we are only just beginning to understand.  Doubtless the fallout from some of the issues I highlight above will continue to make themselves felt and no doubt new technologies currently bubbling under the radar will start to make themselves known.

I have written before about how I believe that we, as software architects, have a responsibility, not only to explain the benefits (and there are many) of what we do but also to highlight the potential negative impacts of software’s voracious appetite to eat up our world.

This is my 201st post on Software Architecture Zen (2016/17 were barren years in terms of updates).  This year I plan to spend more time examining some of the issues raised in this post and look at ways we can become more aware of them and hopefully not become so seduced by those sirenic entrepreneurs.

What Have we Learnt from Ten Years of the iPhone?

Ten years ago this week (on 9th January 2007) the late Steve Jobs, then at the hight of his powers at Apple, introduced the iPhone to an unsuspecting world. The history of that little device (which has got both smaller and bigger in the interceding ten years) is writ large over the entire Internet so I’m not going to repeat it here. However it’s worth looking at the above video on YouTube not just to remind yourself what a monumental and historical moment in tech history this was, even though few of us realised it at the time, but also to see a masterpiece in how to launch a new product.

Within two minutes of Jobs walking on stage he has the audience shouting and cheering as if he’s a rock star rather than a CEO. At around 16:25 when he’s unveiled his new baby and shows for the first time how to scroll through a list in a screen (hard to believe that ten years ago know one knew this was possible) they are practically eating out of his hand and he still has over an hour to go!

This iPhone keynote, probably one of the most important in the whole of tech history, is a case study on how to deliver a great presentation. Indeed, Nancy Duart in her book Resonate, has this as one of her case studies for how to “present visual stories that transform audiences”. In the book she analyses the whole event to show how Jobs’ uses all of the classic techniques of storytelling, establish what is and what could be, build suspense, keep your audience engaged, make them marvel and finally  show them a new bliss.

The iPhone product launch, though hugely important, is not what this post is about though. Rather, it’s about how ten years later the iPhone has kept pace with innovations in technology to not only remain relevant (and much copied) but also to continue to influence (for better and worse) the way people interact, communicate and indeed live. There are a number of enabling ideas and technologies, both introduced at launch as well as since, that have enabled this to happen. What are they and how can we learn from the example set by Apple and how can we improve on them?

Open systems generally beat closed systems

At its launch Apple had created a small set of native apps the making of which was not available to third-party developers. According to Jobs, it was an issue of security. “You don’t want your phone to be an open platform,” he said. “You don’t want it to not work because one of the apps you loaded that morning screwed it up. Cingular doesn’t want to see their West Coast network go down because of some app. This thing is more like an iPod than it is a computer in that sense.”

Jobs soon went back on that decision which is one of the factors that has led to the overwhelming success of the device. There are now 2.2 million apps available for download in the App Store with over 140 billion downloads made since 2007.

As has been shown time and time again, opening systems up and allowing access to third party developers nearly always beat keeping systems closed and locked down.

Open systems need easy to use ecosystems

Claiming your system is open does not mean developers will flock to it to extend your system unless it is both easy and potentially profitable to do so. Further, the second of these is unlikely to happen unless the first enabler is put in place.

Today with new systems being built around Cognitive computing, the Internet of Things (IoT) and Blockchain companies both large and small are vying with each other to provide easy to use but secure ecosystems that allow these new technologies to flourish and grow, hopefully to the benefits to business and society as a whole. There will be casualties on the way but this competition, and the recognition that systems need to be built right rather than us just building the right system at the time is what matters.

Open systems must not mean insecure systems

One of the reasons Jobs gave for not initially making the iPhone an open platform was his concerns over security and for hackers to break into those systems wreaking havoc. These concerns have not gone away but have become even more prominent. IoT and artificial intelligence, when embedded in everyday objects like cars and  kitchen appliances as well as our logistics and defence systems have the potential to cause there own unique and potentially disastrous type of destruction.

The cost of data breaches alone is estimated at $3.8 to $4 million and that’s without even considering the wider reputational loss companies face. Organisations need to monitor how security threats are evolving year to year and get well-informed insights about the impact they can have on their business and reputation.

Ethics matter too

With all the recent press coverage of how fake news may have affected the US election and may impact the upcoming German and French elections as well as the implications of driverless cars making life and death decisions for us, the ethics of cognitive computing is becoming a more and more serious topic for public discussion as well as potential government intervention.

In October last year the Whitehouse released a report called Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence. The report looked at the current state of AI, its existing and potential applications, and the questions that progress in AI raise for society and public policy and made a number of recommendations on further actions. These included:

  • Prioritising open training data and open data standards in AI.
  • Industry should work with government to keep government updated on the general progress of AI in industry, including the likelihood of milestones being reached
  • The Federal government should prioritize basic and long-term AI research

As part of the answer to addressing the Whitehouse report this week a group of private investors, including LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, launched a $27 million research fund, called the Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Fund. The group’s purpose is to foster the development of artificial intelligence for social good by approaching technological developments with input from a diverse set of viewpoints, such as policymakers, faith leaders, and economists.

I have discussed before about transformative technologies like the world wide web have impacted all of our lives, and not always for the good. I hope that initiatives like that of the US government (which will hopefully continue under the new leadership) will enable a good and rationale public discourse on how  we allow these new systems to shape our lives for the next ten years and beyond.

Clouds Over Europe

uk and eu flags

This is meant to be a blog about technology not politics but forgive me if I deviate slightly from the norm to comment on probably the most dramatic event in the UK since the war. At around 6am this morning it was officially announced that 51.9% of the UK had voted to leave the European Union. Within minutes the pound went into free fall and the FTSE 100 index fell by more than 8%. Just before 9am the prime minister, David Cameron, resigned saying he would step down in October by the time of the Conservative party conference.

As I sit here typing this, I look out of the window at my garden, the sun is shining and nothing much seems to have changed since yesterday. For my generation, the one that had free university education, final salary pensions and the ability to fairly easily get on the housing ladder probably not a lot will change. In the short term our investments will go down, our houses may decrease in value and our German cars may become more expensive but in what time we have left on this earth I’m pretty sure we will not find ourselves starving or homeless.

For the millennial and subsequent generations however this may not be the case. This is the generation that is already drowning in student debt with little ability to buy their own houses and have a secure future. As a parting blow to that generation* we have now taken away their right to the freedom of movement to live and work in 27 other European countries. We are about to remove the protections they have from European laws covering their human and working rights and we are threatening to cut off the free flow of immigration that has contributed both economically and culturally to the lifeblood of this country, certainly in my lifetime. All for what? To save ourselves £8 Billion a year which for even a higher rate tax payer only equates to something like £100 a year in income tax and National Insurance.

So what to do? As my friend Jeremy Walker says in this post let’s use this time to take stock of where we are and where we want to go as a nation. Let’s not allow the nationalists and “little Englanders”to dictate our future. As this referendum has shown, politics is important and impacts all of our lives. One week ago a British politician was murdered because what she believed in did not tie in with the beliefs of someone else. Hopefully that is an isolated incident that will not be repeated. As a nation we now need to work together more than ever if we are to navigate our way through the choppy waters we are all going to face for the coming months and years.

Just a few short weeks ago I and several hundred other people attended TEDx Brum where the theme was the Power Of Us. In both the speakers and the attendees it was heartening to see such an array of ages, gender, race, genre and opinions – diversity in every spectrum that all fed into the aim of the conference. After yesterdays historic and game changing referendum result we now need more than ever “the power of us” to pull together as a nation and to work with, rather than against each other.

Please can we do that.

61% of those over 65 voted to leave whilst for the 18 – 24 year olds 75% voted to remain.

TEDx Brum – Power of Us

IMG_0346

Last Saturday (11th June) Birmingham held its very own TED conference, TEDx Brum – Power of Us, at its Town Hall in Victoria Square. To say this was one of the most incredibly well organised events I have ever attended is a major, major understatement. Everything about TEDx Brum was just superbly well designed; from the beautifully laid out and printed program of events (below) to the military like precision of the event itself where a continuous stream of speakers and performers came out on stage and wow’ed the audience with their passion and the power of their messages.

DSCF1087

Lauren Currie, one of the speakers at this years conference, has summarised why this event was so different and greater than its #PowerOfUs hashtag here. For me, her point ‘no painting-by-numbers’ really sums up why this was such a different conference from ones I, and I’m sure many others at the event, have attended before.

“It was a conference that wasn’t about ‘meeting new people’ or ‘learning new things’ – which are very middle-class objectives for actions. Nobody had an objective of getting new business cards. No speaker had slides full of ‘tweetable wisdom’. These weren’t presentations that had been done a thousand times before to a thousand different conference halls – this was new and real. There was no existing structures justifying themselves. Only the new, the vibrant and the experimental – at a stage where we can start to test and adjust and adapt and copy.”

Anyone who has watched a TED talk at ted.com will know that the presentation skills of the speakers are absolutely top-notch and something any of us that does public speaking, no matter how small or large the audience, aspires too. I can honestly say that every single one of the speakers and performers at TEDx Brum could easily have presented at a full blown TED and exceeded the very considerable speaking skills of those presenters. Whether it was @AdnanSharif1979 telling us about the horrors of forced organ donation (and why we should all sign up to be organ donors), @AnisaHaghdadi, founder of @beatfreeks telling us we needed to “build the thing that builds more things” or the heartfelt and incredibly brave talk by @JayneHardy, founder of Blurt who got a standing ovation for speaking about her own struggles with depression, everyone spoke with total and absolute passion and dedication to their own cause as well as the wider one of unleashing the #PowerOfUs.

As @ImmyKaur the curator of TEDx Brum says in her introduction to this years conference:

“Birmingham is an archetype of the future many cities face. This future will not come without hard work, disruption and genuine collaboration. We will need to come together across our traditional sectors and divides to create, imagine and build the future together. We must unleash the true #PowerOfUs to catalyse this transformation.”

There are lots of truly amazing things happening in Birmingham right now. I was part of an event a few weeks ago whose aim is to pull together the tech community in Birmingham and its wider surrounds. All of these strands need to come together to make the change that this great city deserves and which is long overdue. Here’s to the #PowerOfUs and all the great people in Birmingham that are making this happen.