The Downside of Tech Hype


Jeffrey Funk at Scientific American: “Science and technology have been the largest drivers of economic growth for more than 100 years. But this contribution seems to be declining. Growth in labor productivity has slowed, corporate revenue growth per research dollar has fallen, the value of Nobel Prize–winning research has declined, and the number of researchers needed to develop new molecular entities (e.g., drugs) and same percentage improvements in crop yields and numbers of transistors on a microprocessor chip (commonly known as Moore’s Law) has risen. More recently, the percentage of profitable start-ups at the time of their initial public stock offering has dropped to record lows, not seen since the dot-com bubble and start-ups such as Uber, Lyft and WeWork have accumulated losses much larger than ever seen by start-ups, including Amazon.

Although the reasons for these changes are complex and unclear, one thing is certain: excessive hype about new technologies makes it harder for scientists, engineers and policy makers to objectively analyze and understand these changes, or to make good decisions about new technologies.

One driver of hype is the professional incentives of venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, consultants and universities. Venture capitalists have convinced decision makers that venture capitalist funding and start-ups are the new measures of their success. Professional and business service consultants hype technology for both incumbents and start-ups to make potential clients believe that new technologies make existing strategies, business models and worker skills obsolete every few years.

Universities are themselves a major source of hype. Their public relations offices often exaggerate the results of research papers, commonly implying that commercialization is close at hand, even though the researchers know it will take many years if not decades. Science and engineering courses often imply an easy path to commercialization, while misleading and inaccurate forecasts from Technology Review and Scientific American make it easier for business schools and entrepreneurship programs to claim that opportunities are everywhere and that incumbent firms are regularly being disrupted. With a growth in entrepreneurship programs from about 16 in 1970 to more than 2,000 in 2014, many young people now believe that being an entrepreneur is the cool thing to be, regardless of whether they have a good idea.

Hype from these types of experts is exacerbated by the growth of social media, the falling cost of website creation, blogging, posting of slides and videos and the growing number of technology news, investor and consulting websites….(More)”.

Beyond the Valley


Book by Ramesh Srinivasan: “How to repair the disconnect between designers and users, producers and consumers, and tech elites and the rest of us: toward a more democratic internet.

In this provocative book, Ramesh Srinivasan describes the internet as both an enabler of frictionless efficiency and a dirty tangle of politics, economics, and other inefficient, inharmonious human activities. We may love the immediacy of Google search results, the convenience of buying from Amazon, and the elegance and power of our Apple devices, but it’s a one-way, top-down process. We’re not asked for our input, or our opinions—only for our data. The internet is brought to us by wealthy technologists in Silicon Valley and China. It’s time, Srinivasan argues, that we think in terms beyond the Valley.

Srinivasan focuses on the disconnection he sees between designers and users, producers and consumers, and tech elites and the rest of us. The recent Cambridge Analytica and Russian misinformation scandals exemplify the imbalance of a digital world that puts profits before inclusivity and democracy. In search of a more democratic internet, Srinivasan takes us to the mountains of Oaxaca, East and West Africa, China, Scandinavia, North America, and elsewhere, visiting the “design labs” of rural, low-income, and indigenous people around the world. He talks to a range of high-profile public figures—including Elizabeth Warren, David Axelrod, Eric Holder, Noam Chomsky, Lawrence Lessig, and the founders of Reddit, as well as community organizers, labor leaders, and human rights activists. To make a better internet, Srinivasan says, we need a new ethic of diversity, openness, and inclusivity, empowering those now excluded from decisions about how technologies are designed, who profits from them, and who are surveilled and exploited by them….(More)”

GovTech: a new driver of citizen participation?


Digital Future Society: “At a time when public trust in institutions is low, governments worldwide are seeking new ways to involve citizens in policymaking. But does technology help or hinder when it comes to participation?

GovTech refers to an emerging public innovation ecosystem in which startups and SMEs provide tech-based products and services to public sector clients.

In this third Digital Future Society report, discover the challenges and opportunities of applying GovTech to transform government-citizen relationships.

The report features 4 in-depth case studies of tech-based participation tools that show how a thriving GovTech ecosystem can facilitate collective problem solving and drive citizen participation at all levels of government….(More)”.

Timing Technology


Blog by Gwern Branwen: “Technological forecasts are often surprisingly prescient in terms of predicting that something was possible & desirable and what they predict eventually happens; but they are far less successful at predicting the timing, and almost always fail, with the success (and riches) going to another.

Why is their knowledge so useless? The right moment cannot be known exactly in advance, so attempts to forecast will typically be off by years or worse. For many claims, there is no way to invest in an idea except by going all in and launching a company, resulting in extreme variance in outcomes, even when the idea is good and the forecasts correct about the (eventual) outcome.

Progress can happen and can be foreseen long before, but the details and exact timing due to bottlenecks are too difficult to get right. Launching too early means failure, but being conservative & launching later is just as bad because regardless of forecasting, a good idea will draw overly-optimistic researchers or entrepreneurs to it like moths to a flame: all get immolated but the one with the dumb luck to kiss the flame at the perfect instant, who then wins everything, at which point everyone can see that the optimal time is past. All major success stories overshadow their long list of predecessors who did the same thing, but got unlucky. So, ideas can be divided into the overly-optimistic & likely doomed, or the fait accompli. On an individual level, ideas are worthless because so many others have them too—‘multiple invention’ is the rule, and not the exception.

This overall problem falls under the reinforcement learning paradigm, and successful approaches are analogous to Thompson sampling/posterior sampling: even an informed strategy can’t reliably beat random exploration which gradually shifts towards successful areas while continuing to take occasional long shots. Since people tend to systematically over-exploit, how is this implemented? Apparently by individuals acting suboptimally on the personal level, but optimally on societal level by serving as random exploration.

A major benefit of R&D, then, is in laying fallow until the ‘ripe time’ when they can be immediately exploited in previously-unpredictable ways; applied R&D or VC strategies should focus on maintaining diversity of investments, while continuing to flexibly revisit previous failures which forecasts indicate may have reached ‘ripe time’. This balances overall exploitation & exploration to progress as fast as possible, showing the usefulness of technological forecasting on a global level despite its uselessness to individuals….(More)”.

The promise and peril of a digital ecosystem for the planet


Blog post by Jillian Campbell and David E Jensen: “A range of frontier and digital technologies have dramatically boosted the ways in which we can monitor the health of our planet. And sustain our future on it (Figure 1).

Figure 1. A range of frontier an digital technologies can be combined to monitor our planet and the sustainable use of natural resources (1)

If we can leverage this technology effectively, we will be able to assess and predict risks, increase transparency and accountability in the management of natural resources and inform markets as well as consumer choice. These actions are all required if we are to stand a better chance of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

However, for this vision to become a reality, public and private sector actors must take deliberate action and collaborate to build a global digital ecosystem for the planet — one consisting of data, infrastructure, rapid analytics, and real-time insights. We are now at a pivotal moment in the history of our stewardship of this planet. A “tipping point” of sorts. And in order to guide the political action which is required to counter the speed, scope and severity of the environmental and climate crises, we must acquire and deploy these data sets and frontier technologies. Doing so can fundamentally change our economic trajectory and underpin a sustainable future.

This article shows how such a global digital ecosystem for the planet can be achieved — as well as what we risk if we do not take decisive action within the next 12 months….(More)”.

The Practice of Civic Tech: Tensions in the Adoption and Use of New Technologies in Community Based Organizations


Eric Gordon and Rogelio Alejandro Lopez in Media and Communication: “This article reports on a qualitative study of community based organizations’ (CBOs) adoption of information communication technologies (ICT). As ICTs in the civic sector, otherwise known as civic tech, get adopted with greater regularity in large and small organizations, there is need to understand how these technologies shape and challenge the nature of civic work. Based on a nine-month ethnographic study of one organization in Boston and additional interviews with fourteen other organizations throughout the United States, the study addresses a guiding research question: how do CBOs reconcile the changing (increasingly mediated) nature of civic work as ICTs, and their effective adoption and use for civic purposes, increasingly represent forward-thinking, progress, and innovation in the civic sector?—of civic tech as a measure of “keeping up with the times.”

From a sense of top-down pressures to innovate in a fast-moving civic sector, to changing bottom-up media practices among community constituents, our findings identify four tensions in the daily practice of civic tech, including: 1) function vs. representation, 2) amplification vs. transformation, 3) grassroots vs. grasstops, and 4) youth vs. adults. These four tensions, derived from a grounded theory approach, provide a conceptual picture of a civic tech landscape that is much more complicated than a suite of tools to help organizations become more efficient. The article concludes with recommendations for practitioners and researchers….(More)”.

From City to Nation: Digital government in Argentina, 2015–2018


Paper by Tanya Filer, Antonio Weiss and Juan Cacace: “In 2015, voters in Argentina elected Mauricio Macri of the centre-right Propuesta Republicana (PRO) as their new President, following a tightly contested race. Macri inherited an office wrought with tensions: an unstable economy; a highly polarised population; and an increasing weariness towards the institutions of governance overall. In this context, his administration hoped to harness the possibilities of digital transformation to make citizens’ interactions with the State more efficient, more accountable, and ‘friendlier’.

Following a successful tenure in the City of Buenos Aires, where Macri had been Mayor, Minister Andrés Ibarra and a digital government team were charged with the project of national digital transformation, taking on projects from a single ‘whole-of-government’ portal to a mobile phone application designed to reduce the incidence of gender-based violence against women. Scaling up digitisation from the city to the national level was, by all accounts, a challenge. By 2018, Argentina had won global acclaim for its progress on key aspects of digital government, but also increasingly recognised the difficulties of digitisation at the national scale. It identified the need, as observed by the OECD, for an overarching strategic plan to manage the scale, diversity and politics of federal-level digital transformation. Based on interviews with key stakeholders, this case discusses the country’s digital modernisation agenda from 2015 to 2018, with a primary focus on service provision projects. It examines the challenges faced in terms of politics and technology, and the lessons that Argentina’s experience offers….(More)”

Information, Technology and Control in a Changing World: Understanding Power Structures in the 21st Century


Book edited by Blayne Haggart, Kathryn Henne, and Natasha Tusikov: “This book explores the interconnected ways in which the control of knowledge has become central to the exercise of political, economic, and social power. Building on the work of International Political Economy scholar Susan Strange, this multidisciplinary volume features experts from political science, anthropology, law, criminology, women’s and gender studies, and Science and Technology Studies, who consider how the control of knowledge is shaping our everyday lives. From “weaponised copyright” as a censorship tool, to the battle over control of the internet’s “guts,” to the effects of state surveillance at the Mexico–U.S. border, this book offers a coherent way to understand the nature of power in the twenty-first century…(More)”.

Hacking Corruption


Paper by Tamar Ziff and Maria Fernanda Pérez Argüello: “Across the Americas, corruption scandals have eroded citizens’ trust in their governing officials and institutions, leading elected leaders to promise they will root out graft. Against this backdrop of a growing citizen backlash against corruption, the Peruvian government designated “Democratic Governance against Corruption” as the central theme of the 2018 Summit of the Americas—the triennial meeting of heads of state from countries in the Americas. The Summit produced a Lima Declaration with 57 concrete actions to strengthen the fight against corruption in the Americas, including one–Commitment 17–specifically dedicated to promoting the use of new technologies to promote transparency and government accountability.

A new report by the Inter-American Dialogue’s Peter D. Bell Rule of Law program and the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council aims to advance Commitment 17 by examining the promise of tech solutions to assist the fight against corruption, specifically in public procurement. The report provides examples of a number of such solutions, as well as identifying obstacles to their more widespread adoption and proposing appropriate policy responses….(More)”

Government support is a key factor for civic technology


Blog Post by Rebecca Rumbul: “Civic tech is on a huge growth curve. There is much more of it about now than there was ten years ago. At the same time, it is changing the scope and reach, and becoming much more mainstream. Ten years ago civic tech was hardly spoken about by anyone. It was largely the domain of ‘outsiders’, by which I mean campaigners and data specialists working outside the mainstream. Today civic tech is an accepted, respected and widely used form of engaging citizens.

The movement over that ten years has mostly been gradual, but over the last couple of years, there has been a really significant shift in how civic tech is viewed both by those within and outside the sector. A wider range of funders are more interested in supporting projects, government seems to have woken up to how civic tech can really be a spur to public engagement, and the word is getting out there to people on the street. Quite literally. At mySociety our FixMyStreet app now garners in the region of six thousand citizen reports of things like potholes and fly-tipping every week.

This maturing of attitudes towards and use of civic tech is wonderful to see. Those pioneers who saw a problem wrote a bit of code and put it online as a way of immediately finding a way to fix the problem have seen their often locally focused efforts contribute to the growth of a global phenomenon in a really short space of time.  And we are in a process here. There is no doubt that civic tech continues to grow and continues to make an impact way beyond its humble beginnings.

But the way civic tech develops is not uniform around the world, and it does need a number of circumstances to converge to make it really sing. That coming together of citizen awareness, government buy-in and funding support is crucial to its success. And there are other important factors too.

We’ve been researching the impact of civic tech around the world, and one of the most interesting things we’ve learned is that the movement is working with institutions much more today than it did five or ten years ago…(More)“.