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The Future Societal Impact of Digital Devices and Constant Connectivity

Julie Albright - Book Cover.jpg

A Note from Portman Partners Director, Bruce Taylor:
Anyone pretty much worldwide who hasn’t yet heard Dr. Julie Albright speak about her research or read her book (pictured here) or related with her in some fashion through her work on behalf of Infrastructure Masons is missing her unique perspective on Digital Transformation at the speed happening now at the speed of light. Based on how effective she has been in senior-most briefings with technology leadership teams over the past two years, Peter Hannaford and I invited her to allow us to represent her for corporate boards/advisory boards seeking her research-based awareness of digital transformation trends. We all know the statistics, what a lot of us struggle with is the scale and speed and what that means to the world of the edge-to-cloud infrastructure. Her cover letter that accompanies her CV is presented here, so that you might get a flavor for what she’s about.

Author: Julie Albright, PhD

We live in a complex world – a world where digital technologies have arguably created the biggest generation gap ever known. A world where corporate missteps can quickly be amplified, as the Internet enables self-organizing behaviors to grow overnight in strength and number. Connected and empowered, everyday people have toppled governments and scuttled company’s bottom lines.

Understanding these complexities is a must, particularly how the intertwined “double helix” of behavior  and technology is enabling new behaviors, changing digital natives’ values and expectations, creating both new opportunities and new challenges for businesses. Many technologists ignore the social and psychological factors of these changes. This creates blind spots that diminish their ability to foresee and plan for the negative or unintended consequences of new technologies. This lack of visibility is often at the root of business and project failures. Inadequate communication with key stakeholders exacerbates these failures, playing a part in the halt of many large technology projects like the smart grid. A diversity of expertise, views, and experience might have mitigated or avoided such failures altogether.

I am a digital sociologist who has studied the impacts of digital technologies on society for my entire career at the University of Southern California and have documented my unique insights in my new book: “Left to Their Own Devices: How Digital Natives Are Reshaping the American Dream.”

Here's a bit from the Introduction:

“Our reliance upon and embeddedness within technological systems is growing. I have developed a theoretical framework for understanding the phases of these changes, which I am calling the Triad of Technological Immersion. It is an organizational scaffolding for the stages of technological and behavioral development. These stages are not sequential but, rather, operate simultaneously as each technological phase makes its appearance at various points of time and spreads, from its introduction as “the new shiny” adopted by early adopters through to becoming a fully mature technology with widespread adoption by the general population. The stages behave like a symphony, where the strings come in, then the woodwinds rise up, then the brass joins in, while all eventually operate together in (hopefully) a harmonious way. Yet while these technological systems may operate as intended, there are also unintended and disruptive consequences of each that will have widespread impact on society and on human lives. These are the three stages:

The first stage is the Untethered Society, which we are in now, where there is a ubiquity of digitally enabled mobile devices. During this stage, there is an increasing desire for a digital interface; behaviors revolve around connectivity and there is a simultaneous unhooking from traditional social structures/processes and institutions (like marriage, buying a house, having children, buying a car, having a long-term career—all aspects of what many have considered the American Dream). This is our current stage of technological immersion. All this connectivity has fueled a plethora of social behaviors, from online dating to the formation of social movements (e.g., the Arab Spring, #OccupyWallStreet, #MeToo, etc.) and has allowed many old friends to reconnect to one another via social networks. All this connectivity has a dark side, however: As more behaviors are conducted and documented online in social media and other places, more and more data is gathered, allowing computerized behavioral models to be developed that can be used in increasingly sophisticated ways to persuade or even manipulate audiences based upon their likes, fears, and psychological profiles as seen in the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal with Facebook.

Next to emerge is the Internet of Me (some call this “The Internet of Self ”). This is happening now with the “Internet of Things” (IoT) and “smart” systems in which there is an increasing intersection between physical systems and an array of objects—from light bulbs connected to your smartphones to Alexa and Google Home to connected automobiles and smart homes—all connected via digital and information technologies. Examples include the Smart grid, an array of sensors and smart home technologies like the “Nest” thermostat that can be controlled from your smartphone. In the Internet of Me, environments are customizable to your preferences—the temperature and lighting are adjusted to the way you like it when you come home; perhaps your favorite music is playing when you walk through the door. This is the stage that is now beginning to emerge on a larger scale and will continue to do so with smart, connected cities in the future, where more and more things become “digitized” and connected to the Net. The Bolt light bulb from Misfit is one example: taking cues from a clip-on device on your body, it simulates a slowly brightening sunrise based on your sleep/wake patterns.

The last stage on the horizon is what I call “The Internet of Them.” In the prior stages, humans were in the loop, in terms of controlling the technologies (e.g., pushing a button on your app to hail a cab or have dinner or groceries arrive, or in setting one’s preferences for the lights to come on or the proper temperature for the AC/Heater at a certain time of day). In this stage, intelligence becomes embedded in devices and acts autonomously, spinning away from human control. It is human out of the loop. An increasing number of “things” have their own embedded artificial intelligence. They can “learn” and get smarter without human intervention, and they make decisions on their own. They will increasingly “talk to” and coordinate with other intelligent objects and agents, like autonomous cars communicating with one another to coordinate driving on the road. Examples include chatbots that will simulate their owners or others through “synthetic personalities,” intelligent robotics, and automated workers. Eventually, as some researchers believe, these intelligent agents will achieve what has been called “the Singularity,” a stage at which they exceed human intelligence and capabilities for certain tasks. For example, IBM’s computer Watson recently was able to diagnose a rare form of cancer that had stumped a panel of human doctors. In the Internet of Them phase, intelligent agents are linked and interoperative, working alongside and cooperatively with other intelligent agents, interdependent with other smart systems. The social and human impact of this range from the positive, like artificial intelligence enabled robots that can help tend to our increasingly greying population, to the more troubling, including mass layoffs and “the end of jobs” for many workers in those parts of the economy in which automation can replace human labor. These impacts may well span beyond the factory walls and into white collar sectors including law, medicine, accounting, and other fields. A key factor differentiating this from earlier technological innovations, which many people fail to account for, is the exponential increase in the pace of change…. For example, compared to the time it took steam power on average to saturate a country (about a hundred years) or electrification (about sixty years), it could take only about sixteen years for the internet to fully saturate a country.

Technological disruption is faster now making it more difficult for people to keep up with and adapt to these new technologies. With the spread of robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence, some are simply bound to be left behind, the detritus of the digital divide.

The aim of this book is to start a conversation about the impacts that digital devices and the constant connectivity to them is having on society. This book will begin to explore in more depth the various social and psychological impacts of our increasing technology-embedded lives, and the fractures taking place because of it, focusing on the first of these stages, the Untethered Society. I’ll attempt to address a number of questions about the impact of ubiquitous, connected digital technologies on our social world and lives, to begin the conversation.”


Dr. Julie M. Albright, Ph.D. has years’ of experience around infrastructure, data centers and IT: She co-wrote a winning grant for the Department of Energy’ $121 million smart grid demonstration project with Dr. Don Paul, the former CTO of Chevron, and researchers from UCLA, JPL, Cal Tech, and the L.A. Dept of Water and Power. Julie has developed and taught classes for the USC Viterbi School of Engineering on Sustainable Infrastructure; Energy, Infrastructure and Society, and a course on the Psychology of Interactive Media for Applied Psychology. She is now developing a syllabus for a new course on Digital Infrastructure. Previously the Managing Director of the USC Energy Institute, she now sits on the board of Infrastructure Masons. Julie was shortlisted for Woman of the Year in IT from Information Age.

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