A big name in the tech world, O’Reilly has consistently put forward interesting ideas about the role of technology in industry and society. He sees COVID-19 as an opportunity to create real change.
Tim O'Reilly has played a critical part in framing some of the most influential conversations about the role of technology in economies and across society since the early 1990s. Concepts and movements such as open source software, Web 2.0, Government-as-a-Platform and the WTF Economy are all well known and referenced widely within the technology industry. In other words, when O'Reilly speaks up about something, people tend to pay attention.
Given the fundamental shifts we are seeing across the economy now and the rapid escalation of using digital tools to counter the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, it's unsurprising that O'Reilly has some opinions.
Just as a disclaimer, the following ideas have been selected from a wide-ranging conversation that covered a variety of topics (including at one point, O'Reilly wrangling some chickens - no, really…). But I feel that almost all the talking points played into the same overarching theme - COVID-19 has shown us that drastic change is possible when there is enough will and force used. With this in mind and knowing that the status quo doesn't have to be sustained, what sort of society would we like to build going forward?
I think the impact of the pandemic is sort of meta, in that it has simply told us, loud and clear, that the way things are can change. We've had this big resetting of the Overton window in politics in recent years and now we're having this big reset of the Overton window in the economy. This is just the beginning of changes, not the end. A lot of people frame this up as ‘What happens post pandemic?'. I don't think that's the right way to think about it. This is the century of things that we can imagine could happen but never really took seriously and never prepared for actually happening. And that's a big deal.
O'Reilly said that people and commentators always point to the ‘digital revolution' over the past decade or so as a period of unprecedented change. However, he believes that this is not accurate and there have been similar disruptive developments in recent history, for example the period between 1890-1930. In fact, O'Reilly argues that the digital change we have been experiencing, whilst meaningful, was pretty continuous with what went before.
But COVID-19 is different, and because of that, we now have an opportunity to build a collective consensus on how to shape society and the economy going forward. He said:
I think we in the developed world are facing our first serious period of change in a way that we have not seen before, for a very long time. And because everything is up for grabs, I think there is a real opportunity and a requirement to shape that. Instead of just taking whatever we get.
Social, racial and economic equality are front of mind for O'Reilly. So too is the urgency around climate change. O'Reilly spoke about capitalism being the best of the worst economic systems, but argued that we don't have to accept it in its current form and we can use the technology we have available to us to build something better (more on that later). However, it will require a conscious effort to drive the change we want to and ought to see. This will come eventually, he said, but it would be better that it happened sooner rather than later.
This is why I'm excited in a way because it's breaking the old paradigm. I don't think it's entirely going to go away and I don't think it's going to go away easily. I say to people, look we can have a positive 30/40/50 years, or we can have a really negative one before we wake up. We can rise to the occasion and put the machines to work alongside us or we can keep building this fundamentally trivial consumer economy, where we are making stuff that nobody really wants and throws away.
The Power of Persuasion
But how do you build this consensus for change? That's not an easy question to answer, particularly in a world where divisions between ideas and fields of thought are growing wider by the day and lines are being drawn left, right and centre. O'Reilly is of the view that we can't expect society as a whole to just understand what ‘truth' is within the context of swathes of information being distributed online, via often unknown sources. People are influenced easily and we need to develop tools and educate ourselves on discerning truth from fiction. He said:
We can't just let people go off into these disjunct realities and then hate on each other. I'm not sure how we get back to that, but we are going to have to. I do think that through the power of, in some sense, persuasion - for example, in America Donald Trump persuaded a group of people that a set of feelings were okay to express. And now a group of people associated with Black Lives Matter has persuaded a different group of people to express and to have solidarity. What you see are these vast contests for human belief. These media idea storms are the future.
I think one of the most important technologies that we're going to have to develop, is that you can't rely on people to be media literate. You can't rely on people to sort out truth from falsehood. A lot of people say Facebook's algorithm is the problem - yes, Facebook's algorithm is the problem today, but it's also the solution. I feel very strongly that there has to be more curation, not less.
These are all big ideas and it can sometimes seem difficult to pinpoint exactly what kind of change we should be striving for. One area of particular interest for O'Reilly, unsurprisingly, is intelligent machines, AI and algorithmic systems. He is adamant that the fundamental skill that society has to get better at in the 21st Century is partnering with intelligent machines - instead of driving out human capital to reduce cost, we need to think about how these intelligent systems can be used to reshape the economy (where the driver isn't just share price).
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