The Vanguard of Technology (or, The Worst Title Ever)

Yesterday I had to speak at a conference entitled The Vanguard of Technology. You can roll your eyes now. Ok, I didn’t “have” to, I chose to, because I have a huge respect for the organizers, I’ve worked with them before. And I would like to point out that they did not choose the title, it was imposed on them by the main sponsor who was very keen to show everyone how they were way ahead of everyone else when it comes to knowing about technology. You’ll notice that I’m not naming names, and that will continue.

I do want to take the opportunity to talk about how the choice of this title indicates (alright, “in my opinion”) a complete lack of understanding of how profound societal change takes place. Not that I know much more, you understand, but I am aware that using words like “vanguard” is a step in the opposite direction.

by Mikkel Schmidt for Unsplash

by Mikkel Schmidt for Unsplash

“Vanguard” means, according to Google definitions, “a group of people leading the way in new developments or ideas”, or “a position at the forefront of new developments or ideas”. Which is fine, you go ahead and blaze the trail and hack through the undergrowth and forge a new path (and any other metaphor you care to add), and let me know when it’s safe to follow. You’re smarter and braver than I am. In case it’s not obvious, I find that word condescending and elitist, when applied to technology. And especially to conferences.

Why? Three main reasons: 1) it creates an “us” vs “them” mentality. I’m vanguard, you’re not, and you’re lucky to have me to test the way. If that doesn’t sound slightly arrogant, what does? What are you trying to achieve? Were those that imposed this title trying to get more people to join the vanguard? But then it stops being the vanguard. You can’t have a heavily populated vanguard. Vanguard, by its very definition, is elitist and excluding – “leading the way”, “forefront”, etc. It’s more likely that what they were trying to achieve is to show everyone how some people are more aware, smarter and ahead on the innovation curve than everyone else. While that may be true (although I am certain it’s totally relative), it does entrench the digital divide: those that are inventing and implenting, vs. those that are not. Those that are aware of the potential impact, vs. those that are not. The divide exists, I’m not pretending that it doesn’t. But isn’t it our obligation to show people how the new technologies can improve their efficiencies and overall quality of life? Isn’t it our obligation to engage everyone in dialogue, to identify risks, use cases and emotional barriers to adoption? How are we going to do that if we are already labelling our knowledge and research as “vanguard”?

2), it simplifies and reduces the definition of “technology”. There was no mention in the conference of medical technology (except an interesting discussion of the potential damage connected medical devices could wreak), engineering technology, and quantum physics exploration. “Technology” has been reduced to the Internet. That is what technology is, according to the new use of the word. All recent progress that has to do with the new communication and the new connectivity is “technology”. We’re losing sight of the fact that a book is the result of technology, a pencil is the result of technology, the key that opens your front door is the result of technology. I’ve been to so many conferences to hear inspiring talk about the technology that delivers oranges directly from the tree to your front door, to give one example, but by “technology” they don’t mean the van that actually does the delivering, or the lift that helps the delivery person get it from the entrance to the door of your apartment. The agricultural innovations that reduce the use of toxic pesticide and help to improve the picking conditions aren’t even mentioned. No, the “technology” that they’re talking about is the web page on which you can place your order or sign up for a subscription or whatever. It possibly also refers to the handheld devices that receive the order and set it up for processing. But the systems, processes and hardware that make the product and the delivery possible are usually beyond (or beneath?) the scope of conferences like this. Possibly because it’s not “vanguard” enough?

And 3), it overlooks the fact that we don’t need to spread the word about “vanguard”. In fact, we shouldn’t. Because then it stops becoming vanguard. And it misses the point. We need to talk about how this can improve your life, and the risks involved. We need to talk about how you can subtly or radically change some processes, at whatever pace suits your budget or your requirements, and enjoy the increased efficiency and connectivity. We need to talk about whether a certain technology offers more than it takes away. We need to talk about you and how this change can affect you.

Ok, true, there is a certain research and entrepreneurial elite that is at what we could call the vanguard. Oodles of respect, hats off, applause and accolades, because society needs innovators, inventors, blue-sky thinkers and those that do crazy things and often open the door to new inventions and innovations. And because of their creativity and intelligence, they will probably always be ahead of the adoption curve. But they do what they do to make the world better for us. I am sure that they would love to see their ideas adopted by the masses, because that would be a validating technological leap forward. I’m sure that they dream of profound positive societal change thanks to their work. But I’m also sure that they know, as do you, that profound positive societal change requires the participation of not the vanguard, but of everyone else.

So, a more inclusive and interesting conference would be called “The potential of tomorrow”, “New technologies and new horizons”, or “What’s next in technology?”. Those are fairly banal titles, true, but they cover the same broad swathe of concepts as the Vanguard option and they sound more inclusive, more interesting and less condescending. Even better, in my opinion, would be more a specific focus, such as “The impact of new technologies on our relationships”, “Will technology steal your job?”, or “Why new technologies scare you”. Sector-specific implementations would also have huge potential in terms of interest and significance: “Smart cities and you”, “The Internet of Things and the world of finance”, or “The impact of new technology on media”.

I have the deepest respect for the technological vanguard of our society. Brilliant people, to whom our generation and those that follow have a huge debt. But we can’t sell “vanguard” as a concept, not with a straight face, and certainly not in conferences aimed at a wide audience. Not if we want people to accept the idea of change, to be willing to try new processes and ways of doing things, and at the same time to keep a cynical and critical eye on where we’re going, why and how.

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