Futurist Gerd Leonard Predicts Humanity is at a Tipping Point

September 17, 2014
Min read

I was fortunate enough to attend the ACCAN National Conference in Sydney recently to hear the compelling vision of futurist Gerd Leonard in his talk "The future of connectivity and consumer rights”. This was followed by a hearty discussion on “The Privacy Catch” including Meeco CEO, Katryna Dow.

The Formalities

Attendees where officially welcomed by Uncle Allen Madden, Cultural Representative, Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land  Council, who warmly welcomed attendees to the land on behalf of the Gadigal people.

The welcome address by ACCAN chairperson Johanna Plante celebrated the success of the past five years and reinforced the organisations remit to represent consumers in the converging areas of telecommunications, the internet and broadcasting. ACCAN should be commended for keeping the communications industry accountable and for providing a resounding voice for the disconnected and disadvantaged communities of Australia.

Lastly, the official opening speech by The Hon Paul Fletcher MP asserted the important work being done by ACCAN and then proceeded to congratulate his government in their work with the NBN, plus the obligatory stab at the former elected government (full speech here). That said, the government are making strides to connect disparate communities in an effort to bridge the growing digital divide, a reoccurring theme of the morning.

The speech by @PaulFletcherMP was a standard exposition of the government’s telco policy and plans. Nothing to report. #ACCANConference— Stilgherrian (@stilgherrian) September 15, 2014

The Exponential Digital Transformation


Once the formalities were completed the audience was treated to a highly engaging presentation by Swiss futurist Gerd Leonhard. By focusing his efforts on predicting the immediate future to the next five years, Gerd successfully compared the change in our global economic reality as a switch from Big Oil to Big Data. This massive economic shift will change from a world that runs on oil, fossil fuels and natural resources to one that runs on data, software and algorithms.

“The data we are putting out into the world is building a very powerful picture of who we are and what we are likely to do. Everyone and everything is becoming a source of real time, deep data.” - Gerd Leonhard

The presentation took the audience on a journey through the technological advances in machine learning, the inevitable adoption of wearable devices and the Internet of Things - the result of which is the externalisation of our brains to mobile devices and cloud processing.

Gerd then highlighted the world is at a tipping point, where the exponential growth and influence of these technologies will surpass our wildest expectations. Although these technologies can enhance our lives, if we’re not able to quickly grasp the ramifications, society will be quickly be on the back foot.

“There is not enough runway to wait and see - we can never return to our analog past” - Gerd Leonhard

From my perspective, Gerd’s overarching message was that the marriage between humanity and technology is delicately poised on our ability to balance technology with trust, mixing the yin with the yang.

“Big data, artificial intelligence and the intern to of things will have a huge impact on our lives. Data and rights standards are paramount” - Gerd Leonhard

It is increasingly clear that "Paying with our personal information has become the standard” and that although there are incredible benefits for allowing the machines to do the thinking, we (the humans) need to be asking the right questions. You can download the slides from Gerd’s session in the tweet below.

Future of connectivity, big data, consumer rights: my slides 2day's #ACCANconference ‘connecting today’s consumer’ http://t.co/59SnATh7B1 — Gerd Leonhard (@gleonhard) September 16, 2014

The Privacy Catch


The panel that followed shared their different perspectives on what current privacy policy and legislation has had on the rights of consumers and the subsequent responsibilities of business and government. The panel consisted of:

  • Malcolm Crompton, Managing Director, Information Integrity Solutions
  • Jon Lawrence, Executive Officer, Electronic Frontiers Australia, Inc
  • Gerd Leonhard, CEO, The Futurist Agency
  • Liz Snell, Law Reform and Policy Co-ordinator, Womens’ Legal Service NSW
  • Katryna Dow, CEO & Founder, Meeco

On the topic the ECJ’s "Right to be forgotten" ruling, Jon Lawrence believed that the decision was not a good example of policy making with more work required to establish how the right should be implemented.

“Taking it to the search engine level is an easy way out - it presumes that the paradigm of search driven research will continue into the future. Where the information is defamatory or untrue, the data should be removed. A lot more should be done to continue the processes for removal. The other danger is that people can use it to re-write history.” - Jon Lawrence, Executive Officer, Electronic Frontiers Australia, Inc

Malcolm Crompton proposed a hypothetical situation where a child is digitally born the moment their mother shared ultrasound photos on Instagram. Katryna Dow referenced a recent Meeco blog post "Are your digital decisions disadvantaging your children?” and proposed a future where the child might attempt to reclaim their constitutional rights about the data and information shared without their consent.

(from the perspective of the child grown up) “actually, I have the right to be forgotten so that I can have the same serendipity and opportunity that you (parents) have had to realise and explore life.” - Katryna Dow, Founder and CEO of Meeco

When the matter of the adaptability of the legal system and it’s ability to keep up with the rapidly changing nature of the laws to protect us against the misuse of technology, the panels beliefs were mixed. Malcolm asked the panel "Is it the enforceability of the law that is the real issue? How can we make the legal system move fast enough?”

Jon pointed out some changes to sexting laws that had recently been changed to allow police to make ruling that did not require young adults to be tried under more onerous laws. Liz Snell lamented the “patchwork of legislation” across different legal jurisdictions. Katryna introduced the idea of contextual privacy and that hard and fast laws did not take into consideration the context of our modern relationships. What might be appropriate within the duration of a relationship is no longer appropriate in the passage of time.

When the conversation turned to the issues of privacy statements and terms and conditions there was general agreement that we have become so accustomed to giving up our rights in exchange for convenience that we have become less inclined to assert our rights.

Panel seems to #agree that giving away #privacy in clause 412 on page 30 is a #fail #ACCANConference— Narelle (@nazzer) September 16, 2014

Gerd referred back to his earlier presentation and reminded us of the Faustian Bargain (the legend of Faust who traded his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge) effectively stating that if we are not paying for a service, we are the content.

The business model of the internet is an advertising supported model which allows us to get access to a variety of news and online services for free. Where the trend of the argument was shifting towards how technology can alleviate the need for rapid law making, Gerd reflected that  "we shouldn’t be using technology to solve social problems”. Toward the end of the debate Katryna proposed that it is time to flip the existing model whereby we are able to issue our own terms and conditions to the businesses and services that would like our custom. This resonate with the audience and resulted in a round of applause - clearly a future that we would all like to see.

@gleonhard "Don't design future based on yesterday's logic - can't go back to past because we want old business models" @ACCAN_AU @meeco_me— Katryna Dow (@katrynadow) September 16, 2014

All in all it was a great panel discussion that raised some interesting questions and could easily have been fleshed out into multiple debates. However, the panel was in agreement with Gerd, who earlier in the day had said that efficiency and convenience is not more important than humanity - we need to reinsert ethics.

Special thanks to the team at ACCAN for the work they do in representing the Australian consumer and a special thanks to Katerina Pavlidis for inviting me to attend and cover the two sessions.

Kain Tietzel
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