Sunday, June 21, 2015

How Digital can save the world

It was 25 years ago, in school, when I saw my first BASIC program on a Macintosh. Leaving aside PAC-MAN I did not understand what the device was doing; few classmates like Salim and Kishore did. Ten years later my father bought me a computer which he could barely afford. With my repressed hormones raging, I promptly connected to dial up internet, fired up a text only browser and searched for actresses’ pictures. So, I was not a prodigy in area of computers, by any stretch of imagination.
But for the next 15 years I worked in the Information Technology (IT) industry, travelling the world, developing, testing, supporting and selling software products and services. Few did well, few blew up spectacularly. But some great innovative individuals in the IT field helped transform one industry after another. Digital revolution slowly engulfed each and every industry and made businesses and life more efficient.  But, having said that; are we also happier now, than before? I think the answer to that, unfortunately for most people, would be a No; and the one thing I believe this revolution lacks is: A digital rebellion on a wider scale. I will come to what I mean by it.  
But first, let’s float in a little bit of technology bliss! 
In this post industrial, Digital age, we don’t need to go to banks any more, nor stand in queues to pay bills. We can telecommute to office; get service from e-government and municipal corporation portals more quickly. Any information needed is available at our service – on health, wealth, travel etc. We are connected like a web, getting news, entertainment, from people and information outlets all over the world. We can shop, sitting at home from a big inventory available to us. Lot of efficiency and automation has been created.
This revolution has made our life easier, but still old habits from industrial age have been hard to break; digital is still not a way of life on a wider scale. Telecommuting is not as widespread as it can be, nor is teleconferencing and video conferencing. Majority still read newspapers, magazines and books the old way on printed paper: which has been sourced from cutting trees. Unless they are printed for a community place like a library, for shared use; does, printing a hard copy of the above items, for individual use, make sense in this age? Does anyone really need a wrist watch – other than as an ornament- to just see time, when we can see it on the computer screen or mobile phone?
Meanwhile world has come to this: An unprecedented rise of carbon and other harmful gases in the atmosphere due to human activities with unwelcome climate change
Who is going to absorb the greenhouse gases spewed by those stuck in the industrial age? How can we transition to a saner new world and not have economic and technology development coincide with increase in Greenhouse gas emissions; as has been the case so far? A digital way of life has the ability to affect many sectors positively – Industry (Media, Entertainment, Publishing, Finance etc.), Transport, Buildings and Electricity and other energy production (through Smart City initiatives by suppliers and individual digital demands from customers.
On the other hand, those who have leveraged digital to some extent, have a different issue; of being overwhelmed by technology. With more time on their hands, they have tended to do more unessential things. Multi task, do more irrelevant shopping, read more irrelevant updates or news, living in a distracted state, doing unessential things. Staying glued to screens, reading messages pushed to them, or watching entertainment broadcast on the idiot box from 100+ channels is a common sight.
So on one hand significant part of the world has stuck to old habits, on the other, there are many folks using technology in a not so aware way. Till one year ago I was reading news both from the one printed and delivered to my house and one from the internet. It was a prolonged mental struggle for me to tell the newspaper vendor, to stop delivering the paper to my doorstep; which he was doing without fail, every morning since my childhood, and which had got bulkier and bulkier even though I was reading it lesser and lesser. 
According to me, like in case of any development, if our awareness does not develop as much or more than the technology, we are going to be used by the automation in technology, rather than we using it to run or even better our lives. Getting overwhelmed one push message at a time, by big data, by too many options and too many needless things to do; harming ourselves, harming the environment in the process. My solution to the problem is 3 fold:
  1. Analyse current state: After saying no to the newspaper vendor, I created a list of all items used by me in daily life, and re-evaluated whether; I really need them, need to replace them with something else or stop using them altogether. Here is a link to my analysis. I suggest you create a list of your own if not already done so and keep it updated.
  2. Introduce digital in life: Be it work, or leisure – telecommuting, telecommunication, eBooks, digital movies, services, all have low carbon footprint compared to the old equivalents. Most paper can be replaced by digital equivalents. If you check my spreadsheet above, I have gone for a minimalist approach, avoiding packaged products and non-digital products, reduce travel, preferring low carbon footprint way of doing essential activities.
  3. Control: One needs to stay alert to prevent technology from overwhelming us. Turn off needless push notifications. Turn off all technology when not needed. Being the master, treating technology as just a tool and prevent technology itself from becoming a problem.
I would like to conclude by inviting people from different sectors to be a part of this digital revolution and rebellion; as a worker and as a user. 20 years back, only computer engineers could work in the technology sector, and then it was turn of those with any engineering background, than turn of those from non engineering background. Now with advances like Software as a service (SaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS), any rational human being can jump in and be part of this juggernaut. It’s a world where standards are defined collaboratively, technology created in a community environment. Where any kind of skill you have – be it logical, analytical, design, architecture, communication, artistic etc. – will be put to good use if one is ready to change, keep learning and collaborate. Let’s all go digital with awareness and save our world, before time runs out. 
Please share your views, on how we can use new technologies with awareness to better our lives, in comments below.