Here we are then in Barcelona for another Mobile World Congress. 101,000-plus executives and business makers from across the globe showcasing (and chasing) the next wave of technology that will make us fitter, happier, more productive.
Weeks earlier at the World Economic Forum in Davos, economists prepared an agenda for the attending politicians business owners and journalists discussing the many challenges the current wave of technology is creating for we the citizens of the globe. At MWC these objections and cautionary tales are keenly absent; instead we are enthralled with the shiny new things.
In Davos economist professor Klaus Schwab described how we are experiencing the 4th wave of the industrial revolution driven by rapidly advancing mobile technologies, hyper-connectedness and AI. Where the 1st industrial revolution was coal–powered. The 2nd wave began with the oil age at the end of the 1800s and the computer driven 3rd wave began in the 1960s. Those gathered in Davos were warned that unless employed and regulated correctly our great technological advances (and they truly are great) have the potential for a negative impact that outweighs any gains we might hope to make. Before we readily dismiss this kind of sentiment as conspiratorial we should remember that each of the preceding waves of industrial revolution brought with them their own seismic social economic and political impacts that still characterise the world we recognise today (working classes, socialism, capitalism, credit & debt markets, the internet, nuclear power, the occasional conflict or two). So as I elbowed my way past the striking transport workers of Barcelona I wonder whether we will learn more of the 4th wave’s social economic and political changes outside the halls of MWC rather than within them.
Mobile World Congress is a gloriously slick, well–choreographed, high–budget event. No expense is spared showcasing to attendees the latest innovations products and accomplishments. If MWC is a glimpse of this 4th wave of industrial revolution then our lives will be cocooned inside VR headsets as we are followed, monitored and reported on by the “Things” of the internet with robot drones operating the assembly lines of the world’s factories, manufacturing and delivering every single one our consumer whims to our doorsteps. Don’t forget to debit our bank accounts on your way out.
At one stand I sit in the comfort of a high–tech connected car – a $160k Audi R8 no less. I am shown how you can browse the internet from the vehicle’s dashboard and notice news articles reporting European Central Bank interest rate cuts, turmoil in the Chinese stock market, and Russo-US negotiations over military interventions in Syria. I am concerned. An empowered and informed member of society. A patient better driver thanks to the Internet in the steering column of a 200mph automobile.
keep in contact with old friends
Mark Zuckerberg again gave the MWC keynote eulogising the great advances in VR technology and the opportunities it will afford us. Presumably those opportunities include distracting us from Facebook’s lax attitude (shared by so many other tech giants) to paying tax. In 2014 Facebook paid a grand total of £4,327 in UK taxes while being valued in excess of $250 billion. Perhaps Mark should take a cue from Jeff Bezos who takes a “1000 year” view of his business. Certainly in 1000 years there will be no parliamentary select committees asking awkward questions about corporate tax evasion.
Facebook and Google (currently paying the equivalent of 3% corporation tax in the UK) typify the standard practice of the globe’s biggest tech firms rather than exceptions to the rule. The litany of companies that pay disregard to the societies they claim to serve is long and numerous. Unemployment in Spain is still above 20% (45% in the youth demographic), interest rates in major economies flat–line at all–time lows, real wages stagnate, wealth inequality widens as tax haven bank vaults swell. At a time where the rate of change in technology is breath–taking inspiring and seemingly limitless the stagnation of the real economy becomes increasingly unacceptable. Paying as little tax as you can get away with is not an excuse. Remove your VR headset and open your eyes. Technology alone will not solve the world’s problems – that capability lies in the hands of people. It is time people like Mark Zuckerberg take responsibility for how they wield their tremendous power and influence.
a good memory
So as I pick my way through the protesters checking my smartphone for precious free WiFi signal it is always a pleasure to find myself in the city of Barcelona to enjoy fine, drawn–out meals of tapas and wine surrounded by colleagues and friends. Not drinking too much. Regular exercise at the gym. Eating well. Fitter, happier, more productive.