It's time to tame Big Tech: Here's how we get started

Changing our relationship with technology is about much more than changing the law.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

Understanding something is key if you want to change it.

Kerkez, Getty Images/iStockphoto

The first PC revolution was the work of tinkerers and enthusiasts who built their own machines from kits, or from the ground up. But for most people, that connection between technology and the make-it-yourself ethic is long gone.

That's understandable; once a product reaches mass-market status it's much cheaper and easier to buy the finished item rather than build it. Who wants to worry about which components fit onto which motherboard?

Also: From paper tape to a patched-together Altair 8800, the story of my first computers

Of course, this isn't just a tech issue: many of us own cars without knowing how to do much more than fill them up, and maybe pump up the tyres.

But the danger is that, where once we were actively involved with our devices, we have now become passive consumers of the technology that's playing an ever-bigger role in society.

We use technology constantly, but generally pay very little attention to how it's made, what's inside it or what else it might be doing apart from what we've asked of it. Only when things go badly wrong -- as in the recent outcry over Facebook data -- do we start to pay attention.

The problem is broader than just social media: we've left the details of our PCs and other gadgets to the big tech companies, who have provided a steady set of updates and improvements. But one downside is that PCs and other devices have become increasingly hard to repair, or even open; these are often now sealed units with no possibility to fix or upgrade. That's great for the tech makers; the less you can see inside a device the more likely you are to believe the marketing and the hype. Less good for customers, perhaps.

Wake-up call

"The revelations of recent weeks involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica and others have been a wake-up call. People care about what happens to their data," said the UK's data protection chief last week. But while people may care about their data, it's very hard for the average person to understand what's going on and what they can do about it.

One factor is better regulation. The arrival of GDPR is making many organisations review the data they hold on customers and decide which pieces they really need to retain. And with its potentially huge fines for non-compliance, GDPR should also make data security a priority for managers and executives, and not just for the techies.

We also need to embrace and encourage that maker spirit. The Raspberry Pi, for example, is a great platform to allow old and young to experiment with technology and better understand how it works. Plenty of other companies understand the importance of this sort of technology literacy, UK start-up Kano being one example. CEO Alex Klein argues that while there are billions of connected devices in the world, few understand how they work or how to program them -- something he describes as "as big a societal gap, as big an information asymmetry, as there's ever been."

We need to encourage that spirit of discovery as much as possible -- not necessarily to create a generation of coders, but to create a generation that understands and is willing to control the technology around them, rather than the other way around.

One way to envisage a model for a better relationship with technology is food. We need schools to teach children about how technology works and how to use it wisely, just as they are told about good nutrition and healthy eating. We need to understand the flow of information and manage it to ensure that privacy and accuracy is maintained, just as we manage the food supply chain to keep it free of contamination. And just as we are willing to roll up our sleeves and cook a meal from scratch rather than always relying on ready meals, so we would benefit from the ability to code, fix or at least upgrade something.

One thing is for sure: if we really want to ensure that technology is working for us, we need to think harder, understand more, push back against the assumptions of the big tech companies, and take more responsibility for our usage of it. Understanding something is the first step to changing it.


The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.


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