What is the most disruptive technology of the 21st century so far?

As technology is a major strand of our research network, we thought tit good to focus on it specifically for a week. Disruption is a bit of a buzz word in tech circles. It seems that everyone wants to focus on creating something disruptive! Disruption is a process whereby something is so good that it completely obliterates the market for whatever it is replacing. For example, Wikipedia has completely disrupted the encyclopaedia market. It has pushed the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Microsoft’s Encarta out of the market place by being better, more accessible, with a wider and deeper breadth of information, and all for free.

This post first goes through what we spoke about on this topic in our reading group and then goes into individual thoughts.

  • Biometrics – Although not quite as ubiquitous as they could be, biometrics have started to disrupt security protocols on consumer devices. Almost all new smartphones have the ability to scan fingerprints, or irises. Thus, totally transforming the way in which we verify our identities. However, that some people are uncomfortable with allowing tech companies to have our biometric data is preventing it from fully disrupting traditional passwords.
  • Drones – The use of drones for airstrikes does seem to have disrupted counterterrorism, but not war just yet. The technological feasibility that drones offer has allowed states to kill extraterritorially without risk, whereas without this technology the potential loss of a pilot or ground troops would have affected the feasibility calculation. Drones have therefore enabled a change in counterterrorism from either an exceptionally risky mission both in human and political terms, or hoping that a territorial state will act, to almost operations with much less risk.
  • Networked infrastructures – although networking has enabled great advances for communication for all sorts of people and organisations, it also makes them vulnerable to hacking. The compromising of one node in a network can affect all. So one vulnerability can result in a massive impact on all members. We’ve seen this most recently with the WannaCry hack that affected the NHS. Microsoft released a patch to prevent the hack weeks before it happened, but weak protocols to update systems in major organisations created vulnerabilities which allowed the attack to affect so many machines.
  • Social Media – This is quite disruptive, although it hasn’t relegated the phone call, letter and text message to the rubbish bin of history, it has relegated them to second choice communication technologies. The ease at which people can communicate with almost everyone they know enables far more access, and speed of communications that disruption was nearly inevitable.

Social media has seen an incredible growth since the turn of the century, with the likes of Facebook and Twitter becoming ubiquitous in the modern world. But these technologies have proven both a boon and a great burden on our society. While social media platforms have given a voice to the voiceless, and added a whole new dimension to news coverage and live-reporting, they have also turned into breeding grounds for hate, cyber-bullying and fake news.

Another disruptive technology I’d like to read alongside the trend in social media is the unprecedented growth in big data and machine learning. While we are all no doubt appreciate the boons offered by search engines such as Google and Bing, we often turn a blind eye to the technologies that makes these websites possible, and rarely if ever consider how these technologies actually work.

We should note that search engines work on confirmation bias – they monitor your activities and give you the content that you want. Because you are fed results that you want (and not necessarily that you need), you use the platform more, and so the cycle continues. This technology then spreads into advertising, and back into platforms such as Facebook and Twitter where you get caught up again in a web of interrelations that (in my opinion) are serving to undermine everyday life.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

We talk a lot of how computers have changed the world, suddenly almost everyone has access to all the information generated in human history. However, when this becomes hand-held it provides far more ability to tap into not only information but also communication because you can do both of these things all the time. You no longer need to wait until you get home to check a fact or upload something to the cloud in order to send it via e-mail. The smartphone therefore has massively increased the level of productivity for all who possess one. We would commonly think of business people and students as the main users of smartphones. But smartphones and similar devices are being used by our police forces, militaries, and even terrorists to communicate and access information, whether freely available or on secured databases. Thus, it has a disruptive impact not only the firms who make static computers, but also on those who require information as soon as possible. The fact that a violent actor can plan an attack and communicate with other units means that the operational tempo of conflict is increasing – far gone are the days of generals or admirals looking at model tanks and ships on maps, and long ago the days of terrorists needing years to plan an attack in secret.

The smartphone, or more accurately smart mobile devices in general, allow us to advance much quicker economically and socially, as well as in terms of security and the deployment of violence.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University.

If you’re also interested in technology, terrorism or armed conflict, get in touch and get involved!

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