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Digital technologies are changing our lives – and raising some issues to think about

One of the constants of modern life is the extraordinary rate of change of technology.

Today just about every Australian sees a mobile phone as an essential part of life - indeed there are around 130 mobile phone services for every 100 Australians, so many of us have more than one.  Yet a mere twenty five years ago, a mobile phone was a very rare high end, luxury service, unimaginable for most people.

Another example is the central role of social media services in the lives of most Australians - with over 12 million Australians checking Facebook at least once a month, for example.  Ten years ago, social media services were in their infancy and very few people used them; today the majority of us do. 

The very rapid, and near ubiquitous, adoption of these technologies has occurred without much time for reflection about the consequences.   But it has certainly led to some profound changes in social behaviour – many very positive, and some less so.

Recently I spoke at the launch of a new report, commissioned by Intel Security (formerly known as McAfee), which looked at these issues.  It discusses some of the likely technologies we will see being used in the home (extensive use of sensors, robots in the home to help with domestic chores); in social media (with some people choosing to log every moment of their lives, and with opinions shared over social media increasingly influencing shopping decisions); and at work (with ever more tasks being completed using remote networking by people physically a long way away; and with more people working independently rather than as employees.) 

Some of the most interesting parts of the report concern the attitudes of Australians to the rapid rate of change of technology, and the social implications of that change.  While 32 per cent of Australians in the survey conducted for Intel say they feel safe and secure in the increasingly digital world, 21 per cent feel unsafe and unsecure and 44 per cent say they are neutral. 

When asked more specific questions about some of the likely implications of technological change, the discomfort rate seems to rise somewhat.  For example, 54 per cent of respondents said it would be unfair for your credit rating, or the job opportunities open to you, to be based on your online reputation; and 44 per cent believed that robotics and intelligent technology would make their quality of life worse.

This report has some important public policy implications.  First, if we are to capture the full economic and social benefits of digitisation and connectivity, we need to make sure that Australians are confident about going online – and they understand the risks and how to manage them. 

Secondly, there will be community concern over various aspects of the changes that connectivity is bringing (some of which are canvassed in the report): the implications for privacy, the greater intensity of competition for jobs and business, and guarding against online dangers such as fraud and bullying.  In some cases a public policy response will be needed – such as the measures the Abbott Government is introducing to enhance online safety for children.

Third, the march of new technologies will continue to be extremely disruptive.  Already, whole industries have been disrupted to actual or near collapse – ask Encyclopaedia Britannica or Kodak or the many newspapers that have gone out of business around the world. 

But the report highlights new disruptions.  Will personal service robots replace workers in aged care or hospitality or many other industries?  Will Australian lawyers and accountants and architects lose out to cheaper competitors in India, serving their Australian clients online? 

The world is changing extremely fast: this report is a timely look at some of the implications of those changes.