2017 Review

The year was meant to be one that started with major change that were to happen, but it did not come together in the end. It was the year I felt most disconnected with the domains that I work in (media, healthcare, mobile) and it was also the year where I felt for the first time what it was like to be an old person in the working world. It was also the year where I felt it was absolutely necessary to take a firm stand against the blind use of technology in places where humanity matters a lot. It was the year where I felt that calling technology ‘neutral’ is problematic because all technology is eventually applied into various scenarios and that application is never neutral.

People First

The past decade has been nothing short of revolutionary for the tech industry. Every aspect of it — mobility, data analysis, data consumption — has undergone changes that were unthinkable when the new millennium rolled into view. The scale and quality of what has happened, which was previously only available as an expensive option to the really major companies, has meant how we use, perceive and get impacted by technology has changed.

The downside of this commoditization of high-quality technology at scale is that the rights of the citizens have been left far behind as important factor that governs the use of all of this technology. Everywhere in the world, both companies and governments are racing down the road to use the data generated by all this technology in ways that keep the human factor out of the consideration. 

Without the safeguards that protect the people against data-driven prejudice, we will widen rifts in the society and bring about a scenario where we will further reduce the opportunities available for the poorer parts of the society to move upward. They are, to start with, too poor to generate enough data and the data they generate will, in any case, point to them as not worth any consideration. This will lead to a scenario where the discrimination will compound (often silently & without the affected even being aware of it) and eventually take us back 50-60 years in time where social justice and fairness is concerned.

Algorithmic Apartheid

It was at an excellent Medianama event (#NAMAprivacy: AI, Internet of Things and Consent) that I first heard the idea that algorithms have bias built into them. If my memory serves me right, it was a point made by Beni Chugh that this warrants regulations or guidelines for how algorithms are implemented to ensure that the bias is not discriminatory. My first reaction to the concept was this was preposterous. How can an algorithm be biased by itself?

But, as I thought more about it, it began to make a lot of sense. Algorithms are nearly never written to ensure a level playing field in practice. Almost every implementation of any algorithm is designed to nudge a person into a particular activity channel or it aims to separate the wheat from the chaff. It is nearly never that you will see an algorithm that aims to see everyone as equal. An algorithm by itself is an inert entity. It does nothing. An algorithm that is implemented is no longer inert. 

If you take such an outcome-driven look at algorithms, it is not too difficult to make the shift that the implementation is the algorithm. And the implementations have far-ranging effects beyond missing out on a special discount in real life. When this is rolled out into technology that affects public policy, it affects lives of real people and their ability to live in a decent manner. Algorithmic exclusion and discrimination in our time is a major problem as customized experiences isolate people from having a shared knowledge of what is on offer.

The solutions are not easy for it, especially in the domain of private companies. But I do believe, that at least in the domain of public policy, we should have provisions for anti-discriminatory safeguards built into algorithms. Even though a popular theme these days is that governments should be run like businesses, I believe that is an entirely wrong notion. The goal for a business is to attain profitability and maximize it. For a government, the goals are to serve its citizens well and ensure that they get a fair shot at doing really well in life, while having a safety net for those who are unfortunate enough to not have the means/ability to do better.

Crypto

Even if you have been living under a rock, the odds are that you would have encountered the crypto currency storm in some format. The speed and scale at which that world has grown continues to amaze both the believers and non-believers alike. There is a lot of truth in saying that the growth is supported by an erosion in faith that people have in the traditional stores of value and manner in which that value is transmitted and exchanged. There is a lot of truth is saying that a lot of the growth is driven by fraud and sheer speculation.

The truth, as ever, is a mix of all that and the fact is that crypto is here to stay, in spite of its numerous problems with slow transactions, high transaction fees and extreme volatility. The technology that powers it is emerging at breakneck speed and it is not easy to grasp at all, and the conceptual frameworks require a fair degree of understanding of cryptography, advanced economic theory advanced computer science and sociology. 

I do not understand it well enough to even wager a prediction about the direction in which crypto will be headed. But it does not need a lot of expertise to predict that unlike previous attempts at something similar this one is here to stay and nobody can ignore it anymore.

Four Decades

With another year to go before I turn 40, it has not been easy finding my place in the natural order of things in the industry. An ill-fated attempt at rejoining the workforce as an employee did not work out too well. It is worth it trying to find the right team/organization to work with as the damage caused by the wrong one is long-lasting and in the end, everyone winds up being really unhappy about it. Thankfully, other than an exception or two, since 2008 I have been lucky to work with good people. The latest exception, though, has put me off working a regular job anymore for good.

So, it is back to a mix of consulting, working on a couple of projects and building products on the side again for me. But it is a puzzling though, that there is a lot I am able to contribute (pure technology, product, business etc.), but I cannot seem to find the right kind of people/projects to work on. Perhaps, it is the fact that over the past few years I have become the consummate outsider in the industry and outsiders do not form part of the network that is so important to be a part of, if you are to surface enough of these opportunities.

2018?

After the chaos of 2017, my only plans for 2018 are to keep up a steady pace of work and find interesting projects to work in. The domains are likely to continue as healthcare, mobile and maybe a bit of a poke at crypto. I would love to hear from you if you are doing anything in any of these domains.

The last couple of years have been hard on health, with an older body not taking too well to it being abused as well as the younger version used to. Health has become a worthwhile investment the last 4-5 months and I intend to continue that in the year to come.

2018 will also, hopefully, see more time outside of regular work that I can spend. With age, I do not particularly enjoy the line “I burnt myself out working hard” anymore. Good companies, products and businesses are made working at a steady, sustainable pace. Or at least that is what I want to do than chase hockey sticks. 

Here is wishing you all a lovely 2018.