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Could The World’s Technology Affair Be A Rose Tinted Illusion?

Is our obsession with technology blinding us to its real impact?

31Aug

From ordering meals and taxis on a smartphone app, to browsing and renting properties with the click of a button, there is no doubt that technology has made it easier to live our lives and improved everyday conveniences.

But at a recent conference organized by Sigma, the question was asked by Co-op Digital’s technology engagement lead Emer Coleman if we are actually paying close enough attention to the impact of technology, or whether we are far too eager to just accept the benefits without a second thought.

Hilary Stephenson, managing director of Sigma, explores Emer Coleman’s talk and takes a closer look at the impact of new innovations like the 'gig economy' and how customer data is being used by some of the world’s biggest businesses and brands.

The impact of the 'gig economy'

Brought into the public eye by the likes of Uber and Deliveroo, the gig economy is technology driven and populated by self-employed or casual workers on short-term contracts.

While technology has resulted in the rapid expansion of this type of work it has in some way existed for a much longer time in the form of contract workers who are not tied to an employer long term and worked from project to project.

However, it is now much easier to take up this kind of casual work and essentially all you need is access to your own transport and an app and you can start making money.

On the face of it, this seems like a good thing as it is making it much easier for people, who may not be able to commit to long term contracts, to get flexible work, not to mention the increased convenience for consumers.

There are some detractors, though, of this developing industry, who say it exploits workers while making money for employers.

At Camp Digital this was the point Emer conveyed by asking if we are really considering how ethical a business can be if it claims not to have 'employees' – and avoids the benefit and employment rights that go with it – and rather label its workforce as self-employed contractors.

There is also the economic impact of this new industry with the TUC claiming that the UK is losing almost £4 billion a year as a direct result of the gig economy – mostly due to the lower wages and reduced tax bills of those working in it.

It is clear there are benefits to the use of technology in this way but more attention needs to be paid to see exactly how it works and what the impact might actually be.

Technology and the property sector

Another part of the sharing economy that was examined at Camp Digital was the rental property sector and how new online marketplaces like Airbnb are changing how people use their home as an investment, or look for places to stay on holiday.

These new marketplaces have been praised by users for having helped millions of people find cheaper short-term accommodation, or for helping homeowners make some extra money while they’re away.

But, again, is enough focus being put on exactly how this market is being operated and what the longer term impact on the housing market will be?

A major problem with these platforms is that landlords have taken advantage of them and many are now letting properties through online marketplaces, and many are letting more than one property.

In fact, research has found that about 41% of properties listed on Airbnb belong to landlords who are listing more than one property on the site.

The inevitable result is that supplies of properties remain low, causing rental prices to increase for the end user. While the technology behind these marketplaces is innovative and beneficial in theory, more attention needs to be paid to how they run in practice.

Big brands and your data

There are nearly 2.5 billion social media users in the world right now with some reports suggesting that, on average, people have as many as five active profiles across a number of different networks.

With so many people active across so many networks the amount of personal data we are giving away has grown substantially and some technology companies have been quick to see the commercial value of this data, whether through selling it to third parties or using it for advertising purposes.

Our online consumer profile is so detailed that businesses and brands are now able to offer much more personalised shopping experiences online, which can be highly beneficial in some cases.

But it is also increasingly intrusive and Emer’s talk highlighted that we should be a bit more concerned about the information we’re giving away than we currently are. Afterall personalised experiences are great, but this is our personal information being freely traded and sold to make it happen, often without us knowing.

House cleaning company iRobot recently caused a stir on this topic after suggesting it could start to sell floor plan data – collected by its floor cleaning robot – to the likes of Amazon, Apple or Facebook.

What’s interesting about how we think about our data online is that 67% of consumers are actually concerned about how their information is being used online, according to research, yet just 40% have a good understanding of online privacy regulations.

Are we dealing with the problem of data?

What we’ve seen so far is that on the whole we are too ready to accept the benefits of new technology without questioning the potential impacts or downsides and, when it comes to our data, we do have concerns but are not taking any action to see how our data is or should be being used.

There are however some efforts being made to improve the problem, particularly over the issue of data use, and that is in the shape of the new general data protection regulations (GDPR) which comes into force next May.

Replacing the existing Data Protection Act, GDPR will increase the protection of personal information and restrict businesses from simply passing information over.

And in the gig economy steps are being taken to create new levels of employee rights within the sector, most significantly a 116 page report by Matthew Taylor recommending that a new class of worker, the 'dependent contractor', be created to accommodate afford basic workers rights like sick pay and holiday leave for people working in these industries.

What is clear from Emer’s talk at Camp Digital is that there appears to be a lack of ethics in the technology sector in some circles, not all intended, but largely ignored by most because we are too fascinated with the benefits and new business models we are seeing.

The technology sector is an exciting and innovative sphere to operate in and it is clear from Camp Digital that there is an appetite to make things better, there just needs to be a bit more focus on making it happen.

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