Harnessing the power of technology in a changing world
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I remember the first time that I began to really understand the broad impact of the internet across all of our lives. Several years ago, I rang at the front door of a geeky friend of mine for a meeting we’d arranged. No answer. I kept trying with the same response. Eventually, I called him to come down to answer the door.13 October 2021
“Oh, so sorry about that. My internet is down so my doorbell doesn’t work!”.
It was the early days of what we now call the Internet of Things (IoT) where more and more devices are wrapped in a digital layer of hardware and software to allow them to gather data, run algorithms to infer what’s happening, and communicate to other enabled devices. In his enthusiasm for all things digital, my friend had begun connecting everyday services to create a network of shared data. As he did so, he was also learning that the digital world brings a host of new challenges and threats.
Having to wait for a friend to answer the door is one thing. But what happens when the “things” connected to the internet now include not only household appliances and entertainment devices, but also critical services that are essential to businesses, government, health, education and much more?
The technical advances and adoption of “smart devices” has been one of the cornerstones of the current digital revolution. By some estimates, the number of IoT devices deployed is currently between 25 and 40 billion. There are estimates of more than 80 billion within the next 5 years. The data that they generate, store, and share is now vital to all aspects of how we work and live. The collective technologies supporting our digital interactions have become part of our planet’s critical infrastructure. They are now as essential to us as the electricity that powers our homes, and the roads and rails that allow us to move around.
Consequently, ensuring it works consistently and effectively is of great concern. Not only must it keep working, but it also must do so for the benefit of all of us. We are waking up to the significant challenges raised by the digital technologies that form the backbone of our lives. And most importantly, deciding what happens when they don’t live up to our expectations and needs.
We gain insight into these challenges by considering the current situation with Facebook. From its original roots as a social media platform for individuals and groups, it has become an essential part of many aspects of our lives. It is a core communication tool in business, it is used by key groups across our society to coordinate and share important information, it is a significant news channel, it is messaging platform, and much more. In addition, through its acquisition of 91 companies, it now is responsible for a critical instant messaging platform (WhatsApp), a widely used photo and video sharing platform (Instagram), and a set of virtual reality solutions (Oculus).
In many ways, Facebook is an example of a digital infrastructure that is now too big to fail. We rely on it too heavily for people to say at any point that “this isn’t working for us”. Certainly, from a technical perspective it should not fail. Service interruptions are far too costly when our lives have been restructured to rely on its highly touted always-available status.
But just as importantly, we must insist that it works in a way that is fair, effective, and appropriate. From a societal perspective, it must not fail us. Availability and access to a critical service imply much more than a technological fix. It also implies a greater level of transparency and trust in the management principles that govern its current operation and future directions.
But, in both areas there are growing concerns.
The technical challenges in maintaining and managing critical digital infrastructure cannot be underestimated. The internet is an immense feat of engineering. It is impossible not to be in awe of this achievement when you read detailed accounts of what is required to deliver the scale, speed, and effectiveness of the complex technology stack forming the backbone of today’s online world. Yet, despite this digital wizardry, the truth is that it does fail.
The recent outage at Facebook is a case in point. Several hours of interrupted service caused severe disruption to many businesses, organizations, and individuals who rely on it for their everyday activities. Unpicking this crash took some time and was eventually diagnosed as a simple error when upgrading a core address mapping table at the heart of the system. A routine system upgrade soon turned into an operational nightmare as the Facebook domain name servers were unable to resolve the translation of names to IP addresses. It appears that one of the consequences was that the Facebook engineers were themselves locked out of their own systems!
Eventually the error was fixed, and operation restored. Yet, the experience has brought into focus that despite the protections put in place, these critical infrastructure solutions are big, complex, and constantly evolving. Furthermore, they rely on a lot of people and manual processes to work correctly. Consequently, they will fail.
For many people, the more concerning recent stories about Facebook relate to the strategy and governance models that guide its operation and direction. In a “60 Minutes” TV show on 4th October 2021, Frances Haugen, formerly part of Facebook’s “civic integrity team”, accused Facebook of disregarding the company’s own internal research which warned executives at the company about the problems caused by the platform in disregarding the spread of false information, bullying, and other harmful behaviours. She strongly suggested that Facebook executives were willing to place company profits and personal gains above these responsibilities.
The accusations from Haugen are important because they amplify ethical concerns at the heart of widespread adoption of digital technologies. While immensely powerful tools for advancing society, they can be seen to tip the balance further in favour of a handful of organizations in powerful positions. The fear of a growing “digital divide” has long been a concern. Now these latest accusations raise additional questions about the motivations and responsibilities of those guiding decision making about these essential capabilities. Furthermore, it also highlights potential frailties in the governance systems currently in place to ensure such decision are transparent and appropriate.
As we see with other critical infrastructures such as energy supply, there are complex forces at play. No-one would deny the importance of profitability to maintain the sustainability of companies to ensure continued operation, pay employees and stakeholders, and invest into new products and services. But we now also recognize that when companies such as Facebook become too big to fail us, they must be prepared to submit themselves to the moral and ethical scrutiny required of all critical infrastructure.
The struggles experienced at Facebook are not unique. Similar issues are being addressed at other BigTech companies, government agencies, and national institutions as they transform to be digital organizations. They are engaged in creating complex technology infrastructure capable of delivering the digital products and services we require to address the key challenges of our age. But by placing themselves in this critical position, their responsibility is not just to advance the technology, it is also to ensure we build a fair and sustainable world for all.
At the same time, governments around the world are increasing looking to investment in skills, additional regulation, and new laws as ways to drive commerce, ensure a more equitable society, and protect their citizens. Their relationship with technology providers and their role in driving change is essential. How they will establish the right balance in this task remains to be seen.
In the end, perhaps the biggest lesson from the Facebook situation is that we now are even more aware that the digital transformation of our society is too big to fail.
Professor Alan Brown is Professor of Digital Economy from the Initiative in the Digital Economy at Exeter (INDEX) at the University of Exeter Business School.
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