Wednesday 12 June 2013

How to tell useful IT projects from useless ones

I’ve spent the last two days in a couple of seminars at the European Commission in Brussels about the future of work, and it was fascinating. I was there to talk about time banks across Europe and how they are developing, but I also heard about the developments in crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, micro-finance and online volunteering.

All this is developing extremely fast, and it was good to chat to Wingham Rowan, the founder of Slivers of Time – the website that allows people to work very flexibly for a few hours a week, when they can.

In this case, incidentally, they have been frustrated by benefit rules that want people either to be in jobs or not, but hopefully this conundrum can be broken by the new universal credit, which positively encourages people to work where and when they can.

It took a little while to strip away the heroic West Coast rhetoric about the internet being a brave new world, and to realise that – in nearly all these cases – they are making possible local interactions which had become too difficult before.

People wanting to work flexibly. People who want to raise local finance from friends and family for a business idea (and in practice crowdfunding usually is from friends and family). People who want to use their life skills to help out in a local health centre. All these are made possible by these innovations.

What they are not is internet-driven disappearances into virtual reality, where nobody meets. They enhance geography, they don’t try to make it irrelevant.

This is the truth about the internet, when it is used effectively. It can’t in the end subsume human needs for real face-to-face connection – that is a California fantasy. But it can make possible local institutions which had become impossible before.

In lots of ways, the internet brings back a world where a man in a van delivers groceries to your door (as they used to deliver to my grandparents’ door - Mr Botting, he was called).

It brings back a world where local people could pool local savings to create a friendly society to provide themselves with revolving loans.

Or it does potentially. We are not there yet on any scale.

And what gets in the way, apart from the wrong kind of regulation – or officials who want to describe and circumscribe precisely what these innovations are, so that they stop innovating – is the rhetoric of virtualisation.

It all goes wrong where the internet mega-corps think you can somehow measure digitally and replace vital human components like trust or love.  When they believe they can digitise human skills, and pretend that the complexity and care with which we deal with each other as human beings is somehow irrelevant.  

When public services fall for this stuff, the result is services which don't work very well - or which don't work for any non-standard cases which, as the systems thinker John Seddon points out, simply locks in costs.

So I feel a little justified in my continuing scepticism by my visit to Brussels, and finding that - where these internet innovations really work - it is by making local institutions possible, where people are more able to meet or work together.

So, for me, it is social innovation plus technology that matters. Not thinking machines that are supposed to keep an eye out for lonely old people – would you want to replace human interaction with a thinking machine? 

Instead, we have technology making it possible to gather money and people to that they can do something effective again.

You will get bizarre side-effects of this stuff. Online programmers in Bangalore mending your computer in Brighton, but that si just back-office work.  Or, more worryingly, Chinese factories paying semi-slave rates to do online gaming – creating online ‘gold’ that can be sold to rich American gamers (there are supposed to be 400,000 of these, and that was years ago, doing what is known as 'gold-farming').

But don't let's pretend this is a whole new work paradigm/  And don’t ever forget, the internet works most effectively when it makes real life, real geographical life, better – and begins, by the way, to replace our lost local financial institutions.

1 comment:

skintnick said...

Keep this line of enquiry active please, it's the future of our economy - balancing demand and supply at a social level - what being human is all about if only we had the time and resources to see it.