MWC17 post-game: the next MWC should put consumers onstage

where have all the consumers gone?
Credit: GSMA

Every year MWC hard-sells its vision of a 5G Panacea for the benefit of humanity, but educating consumers on that vision should be a dialogue, not a monologue

MWC17 has come and gone. And if I’ve learned anything, it’s that the GSMA thrives on breathless hype over how advanced mobile technology is a revolutionary force that is the answer to all our problems.

Every year for at least the past few MWCs, each and every conference session kicks off with an opening inspirational video showing all the wonderful things mobile and digital can achieve for humanity by transforming the economy, industry, cities, governments and society for the better. But there’s an important element that gets lost in all the hype, rhetoric and demos: actual humans.

PwC global chairman Bob Moritz made this point in his keynote: the 4th Industrial Revolution and smart cities require smart humans – not just in terms of relevant skillsets, but also awareness of what’s coming down the pipeline. Digital natives get it – anyone born before (say) 1980 is going to need more education so they can be prepared for the resulting disruption and understand the overall benefits.

It’s an important point, because when it comes to explaining the benefits of the 4IR digital economy whatever, the mobile industry is a lot better at preaching to the choir than it is at educating people who don’t know a cloud RAN from a hole in the ground. When I tell my non-tech friends about artificial intelligence and big data analytics, the responses I get are usually something like this:

archer skynet

It’s hard to blame them, especially when you have SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son advising us to beware of a future 30 years down the road (or possibly sooner) where computers will officially become smarter than humans. He also reminded us that our efforts to connect everyone and everything – especially things that will be smarter than us – requires sufficient security, especially given the backdrop of cyberespionage and other digital shenanigans between nation states, anarchist hackers and organized crime.

This presents a major challenge in educating the populace – you can’t explain the benefits of technology without highlighting the risks. And not everyone will agree the former outweighs the latter, which could put a wrench in the 5G Digital Panacea the GSMA wants to promote.

The dark side

By coincidence, on the flight to Barcelona I watched Werner Herzog’s recent IT documentary, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, which is essentially a meditation on the impact of Internet connectivity on humans and society. The film was funded by NetScout, but Herzog is clearly wary of technology with the potential to dehumanize, and expresses more sympathy for MMORPG addicts and victims of internet trolls than for self-driving cars and robots that will one day be good enough to beat humans in the World Cup.

He has a point – look around today at concerns over data collection and privacy, the almost daily revelations of cyber attacks, and the emergence of social media as a platform for fake news, extremist ideology and disinformation, and that #Nexteconomy utopia video starts to look a bit naïve.

Herzog also correctly notes that Internet addiction is also happening on a macro level. The more we build the connected digital society, the more dependent every strata of society becomes on it. As the film points out, one Carrington-Event-level solar flare and human civilization as we know it will collapse.

All of these things represent the dark side of the 5G Digital Panacea that MWC and the GSMA should address more prominently than it does.

Of course I’m not suggesting MWC runs opening videos of doom, gloom and potential post-apocalyptic dystopia. And I’m not saying the GSMA is ignoring these problems. But the overall MWC message still amounts to a top-down declaration to consumers of the awesome future that the mobile ICT sector is preparing for them – without much input from the consumers who have concerns about that dark side.

For example, this year the GSMA has aligned its activities with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, to include a new partnership with the United Nations Foundation to leverage big data from mobile operators and service providers to support those goals. That’s a cool and admirable idea – but do the end users whose data is being leveraged get a say in that? And will the effectiveness of the program be limited if too many people opt out?

Educating consumers will go a long way in making such a program work, but it would arguably be more helpful if that education was a dialogue instead of a monologue. We hear all the time now about how important it is to put consumers at the center of your business strategy and technology roadmap. Why not put them at the center of MWC as well? Future MWC events should invite consumers on the stage to join the conversation.

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