Rachel  Coldicutt  OBE 

Rachel Coldicutt is an expert on the social impact of new and emerging technologies. She was previously CEO of responsible technology think tank Doteveryone. Here, she led an influential and ground-breaking programme researching how technology is changing society, and developed practical tools for responsible innovation.

Prior to that, Rachel spent almost 20 years working at the cutting edge of new technology for companies including the BBC, Microsoft, BT, and Channel 4, and was a pioneer in the digital art world.

Rachel was recognised as one of 50 Most Influential People in UK Technology in 2019, and was awarded an OBE for services to the digital society.

She is an advisor, board member and trustee for a number of companies and charities, and is currently writing a book about the impact of climate crisis and the fourth industrial revolution on gender equality.

We are all technologists now!

Rachel will come along with a challenge for our audience, and to help us think about how technology could be better for people and the planet.

Hello. This is nice. I'm aware that probably everyone here might relate to this maybe more than people at large, but what I'm going to be talking about is how like technology is now something we're all able to do things with. It's no longer just a special thing that only experts do. So, we're going to have a think about the purpose of that and what it means for possibly changing the world. So, firstly I'd just like to see how everybody is, how are we feeling? We in the mood? I think I've done, in the last two and a half years, this is my third talk in a room, so, it's both exciting and slightly nerve-wracking. We're gonna have a very gentle meander through, I hope something that is quite interesting. Firstly, what I am going to talk about is the fact that, it used to be the case that to make a tool to change code, you had to be an expert and I think something that we've seen is that lots of the things we use all the time, we we don't use for the purpose they were made. What I'm really interested in is how can we start to liberate things from the real reason they were made to do, something maybe more exciting, and when i was originally asked to do this in 2020, I'd not long ago done a talk about the idea of just enough internet. That was about a kind of a goldilocks approach, 'let's not go crazy digitising everything, but let's not make the world harder than it needs to be' and of course like quite a lot has changed in the interim, so my thinking on that has moved on, however it is still possible to buy a pink shirt, the kind of the thinking of that still kind of runs through. So the first thing I'm interested in is who here would actually describe themselves as being a technologist? I'd of expected a few more. Would anybody like to tell me what that means to them? Do you think you've got any particular skills that help you do that? Is there anything about you that's special? Anyonegot another want to add? No okay. So, what I wonder though is, we're all here because we make products and services and tools, but what if we actually have enough technology now? What if after today we didn't make anything else and what we had to do for the rest of our lives, or the rest of eternity, is live with what we have now? What would the opportunity of that be? I go to lots of talks and lots of government things where everyone's always talking about 'more more, 'new new' and actually there's a lot that we've made that we haven't really worked out what it can offer us. I would like everyone while I'm talking for the next half an hour to be thinking about what's the favourite thing that is made for one thing that they've end up using for another? I can give you an example, when I was traveling here yesterday there was a woman on the train putting her makeup on who was using the edge of a little circular pot to curl her eyelashes, which I thought was really clever. People do those kind of things all the time, when we're thinking about digital we tend to think it has to be new, different, more, not looking in the box that we already have and working out how to do a different thing. I'm really coming to this from a place of love, I've worked on the internet now for 25 years, when I started it wasn't really a problem job, I spent a long time working out how to digitise things, make things different, yank very old organisations into the present. After about 15 years of that I started to think, "maybe this isn't working out the way I'd hoped". I've stayed working in technology trying to improve it because there's loads of things I love, I love the fact that I can walk around with hundreds of pictures of my cats in my pocket. I love being able to make things really easy. I love being able to look everything up. I love being able to speak to people I would never
normally meet, and I particularly love people who make videos about how to mend things at home. These are like the saints of the internet, right? This is a whole thing nobody knew they needed but if this hadn't happened...there's loads of things on YouTube I love, but this is the best. I love all those things, but I don't only love those things, I love equality, I love justice, and I think sometimes when we're making things we don't think about that, we think about 'more more', 'new new, we don't think about actually what it means to love each other and look after each other. If we're not here to do that, what's the purpose really? I think something that is really true is a lot of the time when technology feels like amazing it's actually probably the easier something is to us, the more likely it is to be causing harm elsewhere. I think we've got really accustomed to things that are easy for us not having consequences, but they do, they have all kinds of consequences that we're really encouraged not to look at. So whether it's the person who's delivering your package who hasn't had an opportunity to go to the loo for 14 hours. Whether it's the mining of the resources to go in to your phone. Whether it's the people who don't have water because of the server farm. These are all the sort of the 'long tail' of the things that happen to us when we're having a lovely time looking at the pictures of cats. It's kind of sounds ludicrous, but this is sort of what the digital world does, it distracts us over here with something really nice. It distracts us with something when actually something more important is happening, and what I'm really interested in is can we think beyond that? I go to meetings with people constantly where we talk about how we create an ethics code? How can we improve the product? What can we do to make it better? Then there's this like horrible pause where they look at me and they say, "...but capitalism?" Unfortunately that is the problem and a lot of the time we feel like we can't move beyond it. But, if we can't now, when we don't really need to talk about all the terrible things that are happening in the world, if we can't take the current moment as an opportunity to think about how to do things differently, I think we don't deserve it! So what can we do together that we can't do alone? What I'm going to talk about in the next half of the talk is how we can take technologies that were made for one thing and get them to do another. I think that is actually a really rebellious act. I saw this about a month ago during the jubilee i couldn't really believe it and I felt I had to recognise it. This is a drone, drones were made to do all kinds of things which were not this! [image of lot of drones at the Queen's jubilee creating images in the sky] I was camping in a field over the jubilee and I was traveling home and I was looking on Twitter and I was like, "oh what's been going on? Okay there's been a hologram of The Wueen, obviously, and the drones have turned into a Corgi." So, if we were thinking about taking technology that was meant to do one thing and using it for another, this is quite out there. A lot of the time the way tools are adapted, I definitely don't need to tell people here how analytics work, but there's a thing that happens with digital tools when nobody gets a manual, nobody is told how to make them work, we have to make it up. And while we're making it up the people, like us, who are making the tools, are looking at the analytics working out how to improve it.If you work at a Facebook your analytics will be driven by engagement time on the
site. If you're working on a public service it's likely your analytics might be doing a different thing, they might be trying to get people off the site as fast as possible because they're there to do a job. I think this creates a really interesting opportunity. There are people there looking at what we're doing and changing things to work, it seems like a great chance to take over, to start using things for not overtly the purpose they were made for.If we go back to this Facebook example there's a really interesting article by Karen Hao that talks about understanding the Facebook algorithm andhow the end game of keeping people on the site as long as possible and coming back is definitely leading to polarising. They know and they don't really care because the thing they're interested in is making money by getting people to look at ads and that feels to me to be the kind of thing we should take over. So I know that it might feel like slightly ludicrous to be thinking "Oh if I mouse over this thing I shouldn't be i'm being like really rebellious." It's kind of more thinking about what can we do ina coordinated way together that we can do alone how could we turn the technologies that we have into something more helpful. One I think really tangible example of how this really works is if we go back to April 2020 when suddenly loads of people were on Zoom, who'd never been on zoom before, if you remember, there was this thing that constantly happened, a meeting would be meant to end and then people would just be looking at each other afterwards for ages trying to work out how to leave. Clearly what happened is, there was lots of movement in the bottom right hand corner with people's mouses because it went from, I can't remember where it was but it suddenly went from being quite discreet to being a big red button. I think that's a really good indicator that actually our behaviour kind of does genuinely change things, and maybe if we think about the people you're creating things for, as everybody is on the product team now, it's not like you're a group of experts and you're making it secretly, everyone who's out there changing it, doing slightly different things is making a change.One of the things I really believe and nobody's really interested, when I go and try and talk about this in government for instance. We've made technology all about money and killing people but it's actually not really about that. The reason we all have a smart phone in our pocket isn't because we're thinking 'I must make more money for Mark Zuckerberg', it's because we want to hang out with our friends, but when we go to the bigger picture and the strategies and things, business and military get all the credit. A lot of the time when you look at strategies and that kind of thing it looks like technology is a machine for economic rationality. This is a video that CMS, the Government department who represent us all, have made. [Shows video]Great! Certainly happy that my tax money has contributed towards that. So basically, it's like when you're either making a product, or using a product, or whatever, are you are you thinking about it like that? I think it's unlikely. But like that is, the strategic framing of what technology is there for us to do, or to do for us, as a country, as individuals and it becomes all about money.

I was very sad to see last week as part of London the tech week there was an announcement of global data experts who are going to fire up the digital economy. They all work in business, there's no recognition there that we use we use the internet to find our life partners, to speak to our parents, to be entertained, to find out knowledge, to have a good time. It's not all about money. So to go back to what I was talking about previously, it's not just that, as I'm about to show, love and friendship aren't just there to help us innovate. Because they're such kind of innate drivers within us, I think they're one of the things that lead how we adapt things. Compassion particularly and basically because this is the only time I'm ever going to have an opportunity to do a talk that features not one but two dogs and drones here's another dog and a drone. So Millie, this is a dog who wandered out to sea, got lost. The tide came in and the search and rescue people, tie some sausages to the bottom of a drone and flew it out to sea and dangled them. Then the dog ate the sausage and came home. Pretty amazing right? But as I was touching on, drones were not made for this, drones were made to kill people quickly and easily, that is the reason we have them. This is in 1848 this is a picture of the of the first unmanned aerial attack which was in Venice. It's amazing right? We got from that and I think that this is a really good example of what I'm going to call top-down rating. It's like innovating as a way of asserting power over things of bringing dominance mastery. I'm kind of wondering if we're thinking about how to tweak things, how to adapt things, I'm really interested in if we've got people exerting top-down influence and they have the money and the power and the videos of unicorns? Maybe we can adapt as a means of resistance. To be very serious for a moment we've seen a huge amount of that happen this year in the Ukraine where many consumer technologies that were made to do fairly trivial things, have been used as ways to either raise money or spread awareness as means of kind of actual active resistance. It seems to me very likely that what the Ukrainian government is doing, I never thought I would see the day when a government minister was on Twitter shilling a BitCoin to raise money for a country to help it be liberated. I mean that's like a series of words that make no sense basically and yet that is what is happening now. I think it the shows that actually many of the tools we have that might look very trivial actually are very important. This is a a Tick Tock video of someone showing you how to take over a Russian tank. This is the most invaluable field information but it's happening on the app that parents are not really into. So I think it's really worth thinking about how much, when we think about both making and using technologies, we presume the serious problems need serious technologies but actually if we go back to this idea that maybe we never need to make anything again we can only use the things that we have now I think we can see there's lots of potential there that is is not um realised. Of course everybody had this experience and there were good things and there were bad things about it, some of them were sort of absolutely miserable. But in 2020 and 2021 a lot of us had to spend a lot of time doing things we had never expected on Zoom or other video calling things and used technologies that were definitely made for like having meetings to have yoga classes, choirs, cabinet meetings. This is absolutely tragic, this is a graduation ceremony where the students bodies have been replaced by present robots and there are little screens with their heads. So, all kinds of things are totally possible and maybe none of these would seem super fun, but if we go back to one of my most favourite things that happened, that gave me so much happiness, in the early pandemic was the artist Marie Foulston threw a party in a Google spreadsheet. It was amazing! And what that took was creativity,
intentionality, it took about thinking of the affordances. It was basically a bit like having a party in the office and eating a cheesy hedgehog in accounts, but in a document. I think it's really interesting that if we stop feeling like we have to use the thing that comes with this specific label for the reason it was made, what could we liberate? I'm going to take you back in history now to like the 1870s to think about when the telephone was invented. The telephone is a really interesting example of something that was made to do one thing, that was made to another, and that everyone was surprised by. The reason they were unsurprised is because this was a piece of technology made by men for men who hadn't really realised that a lot of trouble was starting to happen when they handed itover to women. I think that's the story of all kinds of things. Very often when we think about product teams, management teams, they are not representative of the people who are using it, who are likely to be using, or need to use the product, which meansthat no one can imagine really the total extent and opportunity of what it's going to turn into. What's really interesting is if we go back to the 1980s both of the quotes I have up here are taken from a book that was written in the 80s about women and the phone. These are all things we would think instinctively about the internet right? But that actually have been very normalised ways that people have used technologies to respond to power. The minute you give people something that has potential, if they don't have the power, they're able to exploit it for other things.T his here is Alexander Graham Bell using the telephone and all these people behind him, are people who had been invested in telegrams. So the cabling that went in, and the ways that people were using that was perceived to be the thing the phone was likely to turn into. What was imagined back in 1870s was if they rolled out phones to largely white neighbourhoods in the U.S., what would happen is that women might use the phone in the day to ring the butcher, organise their husband's activities, it was very much perceived to be a business tool. What actually happened was very different, women were talking to each other on party lines, they were taking up all the space. They were getting into less trouble, they were doing things like supporting each other through difficult personal things, they were calling each other up to get expertise. And everybody hated this because they weren't supposed to do that, they weren't supposed to bend it to their own ends, what they were meant to do was call the butcher. Sadly we no longer have party lines, but it's really interesting that actually these women who were calling each other in the afternoon, when no one was meant to be, without that happening I don't think we wouldn't be here now, we wouldn't be making products and tools into things that allow people to connect and communicate. Another example that I have, again relating to telephones, is how the SMS message, which I think has been most influential in terms of the digital revolution, began to do something completely different. Now i'm going to be honest with you, I heard this story about 20 years ago when I worked at BT and i've been trying really hard to find evidence. For the reason I don't understand, the only person who's actually written about this Thomas Dolby, who most people here are probably too young to remember, but he was like a pop star in the 80s. In the 1980s Nokia invented SMS
as a way for engineers who are out doing important things up telephones lines to communicate. So it was meant to be like a field tool. They left it on one of these phones here as a hidden capability. Of course, while I think it's very important that people who are up phone lines endangering their lives are able to talk to each other, it's not as important as 13 year-old boys talking to each other when they're meant to be doing their homework. Because what happened is Nokia left this capability on some phones and of course what happened is a group of kids worked out how to use it and started exploiting it as a back channel. That in turn led to that being rolled out onto a hand set, which led to the birth of SMS which led to everything else; the smartphones, twitter. That didn't come about because someone had thought, "What we really need to do is allow people to type messages to each other over the phone." Anyone here who's got kids, who are allegedly doing their homework in Google docs will know that actually that's not what's happening, I think it's really important to remember if you're a teenager, particularly, you will find any way possible not to do the thing you're meant to be doing and do another thing that is more fun. That is generally regarded as naughty, right? But actually I think it's how a lot of progress is made. If you think about kind of the weird avenues that these kids, and all of us now, have to express themselves, where it's possible to spend hundreds of pounds dressing up in Animal Crossing, it's like there's no difference really between who we might be digitally and who we might be in the real world and that when we think about lots of things we do online, they're really there to reach out. So like Wordle, which everyone went mad for earlier in the year, wasn't really about everybody loving to do a puzzle, I mean it was a bit, it was equally like we're showing off, being in a club, looking at everybody else's results wondering, "Oh my god, what was the word that they had at the beginning?", like it looks like a word game but it's actually kind of secretly a tool that is bringing us together. There are loads of technologies that have changed in much more big picture ways. This is one of the schematics of Arpanet which was created as a military tool just after World War II, and then through the 60s which is now the basis of everything we will do online. This was the very first version of what is now Facebook. which is possibly credited with bringing down governments, began as a hot or not rater, so there's no way that anybody was thinking for a long time, "Oh this is actually going to be one of the most important means of distributing health information the world has ever known" because it was about Who's more attractive? which is obviously gross. So I think what we need to think about is that we've been told again and again and again in strategy documents in meetings and those kinds of things that technologies are tools for economic rationality, but actually, I think now, more than that. The telephone in particular has not just been a tool for business, it's a tool for bringing us nearer to each other, for doing other things and I guess i'm going to end with the idea that we are all technologists now. I brought Millie back to say bye because I thought it was just too cute. But like many of the things that were given, which we're meant to be being more productive, more efficient, more oppressive, maybe we can turn them around? Maybe we can turn them around and turn them into instruments of love in the nicest possible sense? And on that, i'm done, thank you very much