icm2re logo. icm2:re (I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything) is an  ongoing web column  by Brunella Longo

This column deals with some aspects of change management processes experienced almost in any industry impacted by the digital revolution: how to select, create, gather, manage, interpret, share data and information either because of internal and usually incremental scope - such learning, educational and re-engineering processes - or because of external forces, like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring goals, new regulations or disruptive technologies.

The title - I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything - is a tribute to authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields that have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years, explaining how we think - or how we think about the way we think. The logo is a bit of a divertissement, from the latin divertere that means turn in separate ways.


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Beyond the illusions of push

About the long wave of Information and Communication Technologies

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2019). Beyond the illusions of push. About the long wave of Information and Communication Technologies. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 8.10 (October).

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2019). Beyond the illusions of push. About the long wave of Information and Communication Technologies. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Online)], 8.10 (October).

London, 29 September 2019 - I have recently had the sensation of dropping bucketloads of ice on a warm professional conversation. It was in the aftermath of an event organised and sponsored by a leading provider of cybersecurity solutions - I will not name it but please feel free to send an offer if you would like to be named: I am still looking for a literary agent or advertising agency to deal with these matters.

One of the experts - acquaintance of mine since long - was arguing that the future of cloud cybersecurity will depend on the willing of people and organisations to share real time data, location first of all, and to invest in products that make the most of a technology known as push notifications. Implemented with some differences by Apple and Google, this is at the heart of the current ideas and designs of communications through mobile devices.

The name of it sounds like the re-heating of a leftover from another age, heard thousands of times. But current implementations of push communications are surely different from the ones marketed in the 1990s and in the 2000s. First of all, nowadays there are added features, copied from industrial automation systems, that enable sharing of a massive volume and variety of details about the way in which machines are performing and in particular about any authentication episode or any cyber security "incident": these exchanges should make the feedback received in response to pushed messages more reliable or credible. I burst out laughing.

Few young people genuinely turned to me waiting for a comment. One asked if I had a theory about push. Most of the discussion was on the vulnerabilities of push notifications as a number of recent incidents involving the technology are still unsolved, waiting for experts' analysis. So they were - inexplicably but by the social psychologist - expecting me to say something "fun". I thought I could quote Bob Dylan. I said that I am actually out of range, because I do not understand too much of these technicalities; if it is true that I was used to care about their architecture and their underlying business model - that I actually never understood properly, of course - it is also true I have not had recent occasions to work on any project or product involving push notifications of any sort. So I just do not know what to say.

Slightly disappointed, another one asked if I would like to work on a project involving push technology. Certainly yes, of course. For sure, push notifications referred to human interactions mediated by mobile devices are, to the best of my understanding, a weak solution in terms of both security (integrity and privacy of the data) and viable business models (cheap processes and poor data quality do not generate per se trustworthiness). But this does not mean that we should not try to make the most of the technology we have available and see how to improve it or to substitute it with something better, especially for a fee. But. Perhaps it is too late. Perhaps we should ask ourselves - technologists, designers, innovators, engineers - if there is any other solution we can offer.

Notes for a succinct story of push

Various products and technologies have been developed since the mid 1990s around the metaphor and various techniques of "pushing" data to internet users.

The most remarkable of these, of course, consists of streaming video and films over the Internet. Who could have imagined this as possible in the early 1990s but me and few others (by the way, we went consensually and elegantly sacked by the media employers of the time for such troublemaking, vivid imagination and "problematic" way of thinking). But most of the other various software push solutions invented since then have not been so successful and have had a very short lifespan.

In the late 1990s, so called push platforms and applications were marketed as the future of publishing and broadcasting. Organised for a mass media audience keen on receiving branded, trusted news and media contents instead of searching for unknown subjects, such services quickly dominated the design of websites and e-commerce applications: they had names like Pointcast, Netcaster, Marimba's Castanet, Air Media, Microsoft IE 4.0 Active Channels, NewsCatcher Airmedia, BackWeb InfoFlashes, Diffusion IntraExpress, Downtown Incommon, Wayfarer's Incisa, Intermind Communicator and... many more could be listed. Where did they go? What did it happen to them?

Most of them where so successfully embedded in their customers' information feeds that rapidly disappeared after it emerged that standard open formats - RSS feeds, followed by the popular APIs technology - could be used for the same purpose of commercial push servers but with no other cost than packaging or editing user generated contents and other free, not copyrighted, materials.

The RSS parabola was so fast that there was not even time to agree once and for all the name of the standard: the acronym was used at the same time for different technical formats, considered equivalent.

Today RSS feeds have been mostly discontinued. Some have morphed into the current Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft or Google proprietary solutions designed to constantly inject and withdraw data from your devices in the background, for analytics or advertising purposes (you have given consent for such usages of your data and devices when you clicked on the "agree" link at the bottom of the Terms and Conditions pop-up page, the one you, I, everybody closes before understanding what is all about, in case you wonder).

But back in 2002, after the first dot com bubble, there was a terrific need to believe the internet promise was not over. The adoption of the popular RSS not-so-standard-but-it-works format by the New York Times and other large organisations favoured the idea that together with file-sharing services, like BitTorrent, there was no limit to the contents that broadcasters and others could repackage at very low costs and pretty much automatically deliver to the computers of masses of profiled users, with no need to ask permissions, consent or to make the process more transparent.

It seems another world now, thanks to a shift in perception of privacy issues and the fact there is an entire new area of legislation about it (with GDPR). But only fifteen years ago it was seen as normal to hack colleagues' computers. Accessing and stealing computer files and web pages of others was considered pretty much a learning and social experience at the time: nobody would possibly complain but... the girls! You know those unhappy female ICT consultants and experts that have always something to complain about? Those were the days in which several male colleagues of mine would respond to complaints and eyebrows just saying that "Boys will be boys" or "It is your fault if your computer is available". One could decide if joining the party with techno macho bullies and techno feminists or not. I have always been more interested in factual matters and embarrassing questions, for instance how to prevent vulnerabilities created by the RSS mechanism and theirs implementations through an intelligent design of products or workflows.

The present push

Not so dramatically different from the deluge of RSS feeds in the 2000s, the applications of push notifications technology during the past decade have developed from that first and second generation of "democratic" ways of producing and sharing free contents over the internet. Still without worrying too much about asking and genuinely giving consent to share personal data, but with possibly less trivial and more civic, business and commercial purposes and attitude.

To some degree, it is undeniable that everybody is now used to get reminders of forthcoming appointments, confirmations that wanted goods and services are on their way, or messages about social friends chatting about this or that, or about toddlers or elderly leaving their perimeters. Also, a concern for the possible risks and drawbacks of an overload of notifications at the wrong time is now cleverly embedded in innumerable designs - for instance, the nice reminders disable themselves from annoying you if the operating system guess you are driving (even when you are actually on a bus, a train or a pushbike pushed by someone else? that's... amazing progress).

Apple Push Notification or Firebase Cloud Messaging (successor of Google Cloud Messaging) are used to deliver all sorts of messages (the notifications) to users' smartphones, using responses, automatic receipts or click throughs for different processes and services.

Perhaps the threat and vulnerabilities posed by the technology of push notifications should be considered nowadays not just from the strictly technical point of view - easily counterbalanced by its often cheered and necessary functions - but because of its inner philosophy and business model that have turned out over and over again to be incompatible with "one to one" and "many to many" data flows. For these reasons, human beings tend to use and interact with whatsoever "push" technology in unpredictable, and sometimes dangerous, ways.

In spite of having changed scope and technical means over the last two decades, whatever internet related push technology we have been dealing with so far has been shaped around a substantially one-way or "one to many" communication paradigm. This implies the vision that information users are fundamentally... sheep. Vectors, carriers, eco-chambers. And so on and so forth. This is not the whole truth.

Beyond traditional broadcasting and religious congregations, such an idea is very useful in certain contexts, such as smart cities projects for instance, or crisis and emergencies services, where there is need to communicate with large crowds in real time: the dissemination of information happens in ways that maximise the availability of "digital volunteers", users that do not have to know or to do anything in order to receive messages and passively contribute to the diffusion of messages. They will help engaging widely with the public and connecting communities even when do no have any particular willing to do so or benefit in doing so (the field has developed its own academic literature, called "crisis informatics", but even this field of applications of push technologies appears to me very far from being safe and profitable in all circumstances and I would not recommend anybody to pursue a career around it. If you feel the vocation, prefer theology studies instead).

We can all be seen, indeed, as sheep by the pastors but we are not all sheep and not at all times. The context of usage makes a lot of difference for the success of push technologies. And with the context, of course, comes the design.

For instance, sophisticated applications have tried to reduce the risks of inaccuracies or data tampered that would make push technology solutions unsuitable in fields like driverless cars or authentication. Copying controls from the industrial world has quickly gathered lot of consensus. These attempts are very respectable engineering exercises. And yet, it is a quite hard task to justify their architecture in terms of information security because people interacting with each other or with machines behave in ways that are often totally unpredictable. The technology leaves both real time and cached or stored data (as well as sent and received logs) exposed to risks of interceptions, trivialisation, errors and interferences of all sorts. There is overall little chance that normal people have time and willing to learn more and engage with the technicalities of over engineered services, passing hours changing and testing settings, passwords etc etc. but it is also true nobody really wants to feel stupid, manipulated and abused by a machine or software that had pushed or pulled the wrong data.

The long wave behind push

To actually talk about these arguments is not an easy dialogue, even among experts. Few people have an interest for and an understanding of policies of technologies of information and communications as a field that requires appropriate, intentional and systematic work.

Would it be convenient to argue, again and again, against the philosophy, the abstract idea, or the equally abstract concepts of the architecture and business models of push technologies? I am not sure anymore.

Certain discourses simply do not please neither the professional nor the amateur or the end user. Or I am just too old.

For authoring The Major Economic Cycles, the economist Nikolai Kondratieff was imprisoned by Stalin in the 1930s. The communist dictator of the former Soviet Union did not like Kondratieff's theory, known as long-term cycles or long waves, later endorsed and developed by Schumpeter - who gets usually credited for it. Kondratieff implicitly suggested that public policy making has strong consequences and responsibilities in terms of shaping frameworks of use for new technologies because these will impact social development and distribution of wealth.

The theory promoted the idea that everything “new” in the economy and in society inexorably comes to an end due to recurrent, cyclical ups and downs of the economy and namely, Kondratieff argued, this has been happening every four to six decades during the last two centuries. It was not such an original observation after all. Similar considerations at the start of the XIX Century were coming from several other economists and statisticians who looked at the fluctuations of a number of historical series of socio-economic indicators and saw the cycles or waves confirmed again and again. But Kondratieff was unlucky enough to get imprisoned for just commenting on the data with a particular verve.

Shumpeter and his followers further documented and showed these dynamics of the economy, for the enlightenment of generations to come.

Watered down as spirited at first, the long wave theory has gradually permeated the mindset of economists and entrepreneurs. It did it up to the point that it has become a sort of interdisciplinary framework in which economic development is nowadays considered as a process of reallocation of resources between industries. That process leads automatically to structural changes and disequilibria, if only because of the uneven rate of technical change between industries, as plainly explained by Christopher Freeman in 1992.

We have become naturally and culturally incline to believe in the long waves theory, without too much thinking about economists' theories or to refer to statisticians' historical series. In my own working life, spanning four decades so far, I feel I have witnessed dawn and debris of many information and communication technologies.

In the early 1980s the sector was in its blooming Summer. I chose to graduate with a dissertation on the automation of libraries, that positioned me in a pretty much deserted niche of humanist technologists. That dissertation was picked up and published as one of the first Italian books on the subject. With a background in classics and a rare understanding of what was going on in several industries affected by the personal computer revolution, plus the passion for writing and teaching, I did not encounter any difficulty in finding work as a freelance first and then as an employee and as a consultant later.

The labour market and the demand for ICT skills forty years later is very different and pretty much non existent for people over 50. I feel the whole IT sector is now in its Winter, with a number of signals that the long wave of wealth driven by ICT is over. But you may be absolutely right if you think I am projecting on the whole sector my own personal parabola - and some long wave theory bias: any decisive economic growth in the forthcoming decades will not come at all from that “data oil” or the digital revolution we see everyday pontificated by media guru or even by stakeholders in the clergy! (indeed, I was impressed to hear the Archbishop of Canterbury recently talking about the power of data as new oil. Of course he is an expert on the subject).

Perhaps other innovations will drive social and economic change in the next decades, beyond the illusions of internet push technologies. Those innovations will hopefully lead new generations of technologists to prosperity in consistent, reliable, sustainable ways, for both pleasure and business, and with the background of an interdisciplinary education (that I have had the fortune to self-develop, but mostly by chance and errors).

And here it comes the question any parent and any young person is confronted with in these difficult times.

In such a context in which everybody eventually seems to be now able to hold the keys of the digital economy and have access to the marvellous opportunities of the data revolution, it may be very sad and confusing to realise there is actually no much money left in the internet bag but for advertising, mostly produced for free by "digital volunteers" and organised or exploited by someone else - often with various degrees of abuse of copyright and moral rights of authors. Let's fix this huge problem for a good finish - or for a fresh start!

Everything in the digital space can be seen today as a twin or a reflection of something that has reached the point of zero margin growth in the real economy. It's just over. But it still creates legitimate aspirations and useful ripples of technical and business development for some, and absolutely nothing at all for others.

It is hard work to decide in one's specific context where and when to stay engaged with very mature products and systems in the whole of the ICT sector and when to invest in something really new and different, what to learn, what to do next, what to study, where to go.

My first recommendation to young people and entrepreneurs is nowadays in many circumstances to look at everything connected with environmental technology. Biotechnologies and healthcare also seem very promising fields. In sum, if you can, do not waste time with push notifications, for Internet's sake! Forget the smartphones, the World Wide Web and the cybersecurity challenge, the streaming and the digital options and the like. We are all, in a certain sense, digitally doomed, but few very big global organisations that are in control of the absolute majority of data flows we generate every second. Unless you believe you are the Lancelot of the Internet, do try doing something else.

If you are in doubt, it is possibly convenient to see each sector permeated by the internet with Kondratieff's lenses and recognise that all technologies in human history come to an end, sometimes fusing or morphing into something else, sometimes earlier here and later there, sometimes just disappearing, even though they are still pontificated and publicised as the next kid on the block or the "oil" of the economy.

Conclusions

If you do not want to be disconcerted or to learn new things, do not embrace change and learning, do not ask questions, do not read icm2re!

The field of technological policies is a surprisingly unknown and yet divisive and politicised arena to think about, not greatly understood by the public opinion, not even in contexts - like the corporate or academic Research & Development worlds - where social scientists, technologists and economists are usually employed to study, prepare or forecast change.

In many western countries nowadays we do not get incarcerated, as it happened to Kondratieff, for just talking straight about what we observe and what we think of Information and Communication Technologies! But we can still become poorer and poorer in spite of being first class runners if we do not have the right sponsors, see colleagues raising eyebrows without any substantial reason any time we express divergent ideas disliked by the elites, have careers cut-off, shamed, blamed or marginalised because we do not think like the many nor we want to please the few, to paraphrase a popular political slogan.

Just because we describe, imagine, oppose or anticipate technological changes early on, talking about uncomfortable subjects or theories, this does not arise to any wrongdoing. On the contrary, the majority of the population twenty years on into the 21st Century is still very ignorant about the impact of technological change on individual and social life. Many still believe they know or they can know everything because they are hyperconnected, share data at all times, Google whatsoever and follow popular podcasters explaining new trends on social media.

For the consolation (or the despair) of all of us who have experienced stigmatisation for just unconventional thinking and pioneering technical and social change, it's worth remember that seasons keep changing in any case, for the atheists and for the believers: winds of new ideas are coming and going at all times. We all retire sooner or later, we all will die one day, our tools will always be seen as obsolete and superseded by somebody younger at some point.

Pushing the message even further is very likely to be worthless.