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Don't sleepwalk into the future

Cover of  by Dave Coplin

Summary: Is there a simple answer to the future of technology and the world of work? Probably not, but this thought-provoking book might help you relax and stop worrying about it so much.

Is technology still new and shiny and exciting, or has it become a bit boring, scary and overwhelming? Are you really too busy, or are you just checking Facebook so often you never get anything done? Are you going to be replaced by a robot, or is technology finally going to make your life easier?

Dave Coplin's second book, The Rise of the Humans: How to outsmart the digital deluge, looks at how we feel about technology, at work and on the move, from the myth of multi-tasking to whether we're about to welcome our new robotic overlords.

He argues that the way we're using technology and coping with all the information it delivers isn't helping us. Technology needs to be built to suit us better (and he's confident that will happen if we can stay out of the creepy valley of over-familiar surveillance), but if we're not careful we fall into inefficient ways of using technology that make things worse.

The research quoted should settle a few arguments, especially for parents. Yes, music can help us get into 'flow state' where we work better, but we're not nearly as good at multi-tasking as we think we are. After an interruption (from someone else, or from taking a break with the quick dopamine hit of a little 'digital snacking'), it can take from 15 to 23 minutes to get back to what we were doing ? and we only manage about 11 minutes of actual work at a stretch.

Coplin likens our behaviour to bad eating habits: we've gone from taking time to digest information to just acquiring it, alternately snacking and bingeing. Digital distraction might just be another sign of our modern toxic success syndrome, where we take pride in being busy (there's an interesting view of this in another recent book, Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte, which suggests that we abandon time management in favour of being realistic).

He has some suggestions, too, but realistically never assumes they'll solve the problem. Set the pace yourself; turn off some of the interruptions and notifications (Alexander Graham Bell refused to have a telephone in his laboratory because he didn't want to be interrupted); stop trying to achieve inbox zero ? or counting reading and replying to email as actually being productive; use filters and social recommendations, but make sure you know when things are filtered ? otherwise you can either end up in an over-personalised filter bubble where you never learn anything new, or you'll be freaked out by how much technology knows about you.

Rather provocatively, Coplin argues that understanding data is a more important skill than learning to code, because the 'handmade' software we rely on today is going to be replaced by machine learning and Cortana-like assistants that deliver useful information.
That's the counterpoint to telling companies that they need to adjust to the connected customer, get out of their organizational silos and mine the stream of data we all put out these days. Aa Coplin puts it: "for this to be a good thing we need to agree on the ground rules or we will stare at each other across the creepy valley" (between helpful and intrusive).

We need to get that right, he argues, because otherwise we'll be very unhappy as our big-data future turns into Big Brother. Companies can improve productivity as well as discover new markets or improve decisions by correlating what looks like unrelated information. If you buy scuff protectors for your furniture, you're a better insurance risk because you're also likely to pay bills on time. Or if you look at hospital readmissions based on wards and rooms, you might find a room that's reinfecting people. But is it creepy if companies track you closely enough at work to schedule coffee breaks and order bigger lunch tables because that helps collaboration?

Coplin makes an interesting argument about one of the weaknesses of big data, arguing that correlation can be useful even without understanding causation: do you need to know 'why' if you know 'what' in close enough to real time to use the results without understanding them fully? And no, he argues, you're not going to be replaced by the machine learning system that processes all that big data ? at least, not as long as you don't get distracted and cultivate the real skills like critical thinking and creativity.

Rather provocatively, Coplin argues that understanding data is a more important skill than learning to code, because the 'handmade' software we rely on today is going to be replaced by machine learning and Cortana-like assistants that deliver useful information. That will deal with the normal things and flag up the exceptions we still need humans to deal with; Deep Blue might beat everyone in your office at chess (as long as you move the pieces for it), but it can't even try to tackle a crossword. Learn to love ? and master ? technology, and we humans will remain in charge.

Microsoft 'CEO'
Coplin is the Chief Envisioning Officer at Microsoft UK ? a job title with no claim to being serious ("I always wanted to be CEO of Microsoft," he joked recently). This slim volume does some envisioning, giving you a more cheerful view of how to cope with the world of work and the flood of information than the usual headlines. It's also a good high-level survey of the research and writing on these areas, and it's written in a friendly and accessible style that doesn't assume you use any particular brand of technology, studded with personal anecdotes and discursions into what serendipity really means (it's more Sherlock Holmes that winning the lottery).

On the other hand, some of the extra material included should be skipped unread; the case study on Ted Baker plumbs the worst depths of corporate drivel, in contrast to the chatty but informative tone of the rest of the book. (We still can't work out what "Ted Baker is at the forefront of making each customer journey connected, seamless and unique" actually means, but it's probably something about shopping and we're charitably assuming that the Ted Baker PR team wrote it.)

Readers of Coplin's first book, Business Reimagined, can skip the précis, where he points out that if your employees aren't engaged and empowered to fix things, your customer experience is never going to get any better. Technology and business processes matter for that, but so does company culture.

There's another reason The Rise of the Humans is worth a read. Coplin hardly ever mentions Microsoft or Microsoft products (apart from consumer tools like Kinect and Cortana), but if you want to understand current Microsoft thinking this is a great overview. You'll come out of it with a much clearer understanding of the terms Satya Nadella throws around (like data culture and ambient information), the potential of machine learning and why the new Machine Learning service on Azure could be so important, and how Yammer and Project Oslo could help you get a handle on information flow inside your business. It's also a good way to see how Microsoft thinks differently from Google about tracking and privacy.

You might also be infected by Coplin's sense of optimism: the idea that technology should be an enabler and an amplifier, a rising tide that lifts everyone ? as long as we don't sleepwalk into our future.

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