Sunday, 21 January 2018

Digital Platform: Your Operating System

Windows, OS X, Linux, Android and IOS: we are all familiar with at least some if not all of these names and they have come to play a large part in how we think of a computer these days ...  e.g. a Windows PC, an Android smartphone. Windows, OS X, Linux, Android and IOS are all computer operating systems ... the essential layer between computer hardware and software that made the general purpose computers we use today possible. Operating systems are key middlemen in the computer - they isolate and abstract the complexities of resources and present them as simplified and standardised managed services for people and applications Without an operating system each user and application would need to understand the intricacies of control for every resource they wanted to use. Put simply operating systems mediate access and control between resources, people, applications.

Computer Operating System

Access to the complexity of things in a simple and standardised way makes life so much easier, its no wonder operating systems have become so successful and so essential to our experience of computers - can you imagine having to know the detailed controlled codes for every printer you wanted to use when you want to print something ... nope ... just click print and let the operating system take the strain.

The herd instinct andsSafety in numbers

Access to the complexity of things in a simple and standardised way makes life so much easier - its a natural attraction and once the number of users of something reaches a critical mass we happily follow the herd on to the expanding platform. Everywhere we look we see the human herd instinct for safety in numbers and companies that grow big by herding them.

The spaces where people gather become places for interaction and human activity ... the town square is a classic traditional meeting place and where markets develop. In recent times the high street became the meeting and market place and this in turn is being replaced by the shopping mall and even more recently out of town shopping malls.

Today the computer in all its forms, from PC to smartphone, plays a major role in our lives and it is the computer that is becoming our meeting and market place. We can see the same human herd instincts for safety in numbers and the easy life through standardisation and  simplicity and the rise of big companies that herd them onto their expanding platforms.

Digital platform operating system

Where Windows, OS X, Linux, Android and IOS are operating systems for computers Google, Amazon, and Facebook are becoming operating systems for people - isolating and abstracting the complexities of resources and presenting them as simplified and standardised managed services for people. Why bother shopping around when you can just shop around in Amazon - like an operating system Amazon provides all the mechanisms needed for supply and demand to satisfy our herd instinct for safety in numbers and the easy life.

So why is this a problem ... why are the meeting and market places of today different from those of the past.

The digital platforms of today started off OK and seemed to start off with good intentions ... Amazon sold books, Google was a search engine and Facebook was a college on-line community. However, the founders of all these companies are geek businessmen - highly ambitious systems thinkers who see the world as a game to be engineered ...  some tech entrepreneurs are even funding research into the idea that we live in a computer simulation. Once these systems-thinking engineering geek entrepreneurs discovered human biases they started pushing our buttons hard to game us and herd us onto their platforms.

The problem with tech platforms is their scale, scope and ambition. These days Amazon wants to be "earth's most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.Google wants to organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful" and Facebook wants "to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together."  These days its global .. its all about the world if not world domination.

Today's meeting and market places, the tech platforms are global in scale and all embracing in scope - they want to become the interface through which we access the world ... "OK Google ... where am I", "Alexa ... what should I buy today". Google want to anticipating your every need in a  sticky web of intention and they are maybe half way there ... search has become suggestion - truth and fact have become a populist blend with your cookies - especially for you.

Take for example my Google search for "What was the first operating system" ... although the search surfaces the detailed Wikipedia article the snippet and the search page itself suggests computer operating systems started with the PC ... CP/M, MSDOS and Microsoft - its a popular answer but clearly wrong.

Trust, dependency and the way tech platform's business models, data and algorithms mediate our access to the world has become a big issue for society in our era of fake news.  People on these platforms have become the product and herded comfortably numb like lambs to the slaughter - forget operating systems ... tech  platforms have become more like operating theatres - dissecting your data at every move and selling it off like lamb cutlets to whoever will pay.

The idea of social networks being operating systems is not new - Tim O'Reilly wrote about The Social Network Operating System this as long ago as 2007 but these days the idea of tech platform as operating system extends a lot wider and a lot deeper. Amazon's appetite now includes government - it's marketplace machine is so effective that governments are considering using it .... the “Amazon amendment” would effectively hand government purchasing power over to amazon.

So dominant and so large are the tech platforms today that they seem unstoppable it their quests to assimilate everything and become the operating systems of the world - the only fly in their ointment is that they haven't been able to join all the dots by themselves yet but not for want of trying.

Tech capture of the state is not enough they want it all - they want to be on your desk, in your pocket, in your home, on your skin, under your skin, on your head, in your head and in your mind.

If perception is reality then digital platforms want to shape your reality by mediating your perception. Physical meeting and market places like shops might attempt to shape your perception and tap your biases by manipulating the environment - using of colour, texture, lighting and music for example or by the way they curate things. Digital platforms can take shaping your perception to another level - they become the fabric of the environment in which interact - you can't experience something directly but have to experience it through the platform. Digital platforms mediate your reality, they become the fabric of your experience ... they become the matrix - its no wonder Facebook and Google are so interested in virtual reality.

If we aren't already living in a computer simulation then Google, Amazon and Facebook want to build one for us - a virtual world where the the geek god is omnipresent and omniscient - a world where we are mere actors on their platform, peripherals in their system and just more things in their internet of things.

But wait ... there's more.

"We are the borg you will be assimilated resistance is futile ... your life as it has been is over from this time forward you will service us"

The geek gods don't just want to put your mind in their matrix ... they want to want to hijack our minds and assimilate us - its no wonder Facebook is working on brain-powered technology and Google wants to be the third half of your brain and their are those among us, the tech fanboys, who somehow think this would be wonderful - to have Amazon read your mind sell you what you wish for. But be careful what you wish for .. once we integrate with digital platforms and they become our operating system ... what becomes of us - is the brain-computer interface one way? In the operating systems of the future will we become mere peripherals ... dispensable once our data no longer useful?

Is resistance futile?

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