The end of 'offline': beneficial, or bad?

Will a world of digitally connected people help or hurt society? Experts debate at the Techonomy conference in Tucson.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

MARANA, Ariz. -- Thanks to always-on mobile devices and the ubiquity of Internet connectivity, our lives are increasingly plugged into the network.

Few can say that this isn't changing everything, from the way we pay for goods to the way we get places to the way that we elect public officials. (Nate Silver, I'm looking at you.)

There are seven billion people in the world. When we are all fully connected, will it unite us, or divide us? And how will we relate in that environment?

That was the topic at hand for the opening panel discussion at the Techonomy conference here in Tucson, where industry leaders assembled to assess the merits (and shortcomings) of the connected life.

Microsoft chief economist Susan Athey, Ericsson's Douglas Gilstrap, the U.S. Department of State's Bob Hormats and Greylock Partners' David Sze  -- with Techonomy's David Kirkpatrick moderating -- disagreed on whether the outlook was more positive than negative, and had a few data points to back up their views.

A few highlights:

Mobile broadband subscribers will grow 10X in the next six years, Gilstrap said, driven by a need to access information, healthcare and education -- particularly in developing nations. (Seventy percent of that increase will be driven by the Asia Pacific region.)

Connectivity "will bring the world together, not push it apart," Hormats said. We're seeing that already: 25 percent of science and technology papers in the U.S. are written by authors from other countries. Roughly a quarter of U.S. patents are by foreign nationals. 

And let's not forget about the ways developing nations are using connected techology to catch up to a century of progress in developed nations -- mobile banking in Kenya, or sensor systems for agricultural efficiency in India. "It's bringing developing countries more and more into the game," Hormats said.

Ditto politics. "It's changed the way foreign policy is conducted," because the communication channels between nations are no longer intermediated by state departments. "Now every agency in government has its own state department," Hormats said.

Connected technology empowers people politically, too. "Even if they can't vote, they now have the opportunity to use cellphones and other things to put pressure on their leaders," Hormats said. "It's just not tweeting."

Finally, global healthcare efforts stand to benefit, such as initiatives to curb pandemics. With connected techology, we can see an outbreak occur in real time and quash it before it becomes a pandemic.

Some were bearish on the prospects, however. Athey said she was particularly concerned about the concentrated power of the companies who own and operate these channels. Sure, everyone seems to have a smartphone now, but Google -- that little company in Mountain View, Calif. -- controls 97 percent of mobile searches today. That's all because of device defaults. "We can think of mobile devices and online as democratizing everything, but there are a few key bottlenecks that remain," she said. 

It's a platform play we should be concerned about. "Lots of companies know about you," Athey said. "But knowing what you want to buy now -- that contextual information is so much more powerful." It's why search ads sell better than display ads. The problem? "If only one company has that data, we can't actually expect the benefits of that data to benefit the ecosystem."

And worse, the more control consolidates, the less need there is to listen to customers. It then becomes a revenue game. Competition is necessary to keep customers first in priority.

Sze, a venture capitalist, was far more optimistic. We're only in the "third inning, sort of fourth inning" of the unification through mobile technology. "There's going to be more value created in the next five years than in the previous 15 of the Internet," he said. "It isn't a linear progression. You get these breakpoints" that cause a "recombination of the pieces below" -- the prior technologies that accumulated over time to get us where we are today.

"The phone that we have in our pocket are so much more powerful than the computers I [first used] when I worked," he said as a proof point. Today, technology is increasingly seamless. You buy something at Starbucks with your phone. You obtain a boarding pass at an airport without talking to anyone. "You just couldn't even imagine that fifteen years ago," he said.

And it's accelerating across the globe. Nations are joining the global information system "at an increasing rate," Hormats said. "China now has more netizens than [the U.S. has] people."

And even though China controls its citizens' connectivity, freedom wins. "What happened with the Arab Spring was telling," Gilstrap said.

But the future isn't predetermined, Sze said. "Technology doesn't have a mind. It tries to spread, scale, and reduce friction. The interesting thing we're confronting isn't, 'Is technology bad?' it's, 'Can human beings interact at scale with less friction?'"

It goes back to the values society has had long before connected technology ever materialized. 

"Humans are most happy when there's less diversity and safety," because it prioritizes social stability, Sze said. "Philosophically, that would mean everyone should stay separate.

"But the conflict, interaction, learning, stress that comes from that engagement at scale actually causes really great things to happen over time. Technology is pushing that to happen, rapidly. In the end, I do think that's better. I do."

Photo: Andrew Nusca

This article originally appeared on SmartPlanet's "The Report."

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