As I write this column, we are just days past the 2016 General Election with its surprise ending. The problem I have now is that my train of thought about technology developments, grounded in well-defined political, economic, and social behavioral patterns, is no longer viable. What I thought would be possible subjects for this month’s column do not work because we simply just do not know what changes are coming to the predictable worldview that existed up to Nov. 7, 2016.
It is not like we have a clear understanding of what changes we can expect after Inauguration Day on Jan. 20, 2017. During the campaign, issues (when discussed) lacked substance and positions on just about everything changed regularly. Threats against technology giants were voiced during the campaign, but sent shock waves through the technology community only after the unexpected happened on Election Day. If you are the leaders of Amazon and Apple, what do you now do when you are targets of campaign promises that threaten your business models and put your companies’ long-term viability in jeopardy?
Silicon Valley is just now coming to grips with the breadth and depth of the potential disruption to come.
At the level of technology itself, what do we make of the failure of sophisticated polling applications using big data, predictive analytics, and advance algorithms to come anywhere near predicting the actual election results? Just about every polling organization got it wrong. How does this inspire confidence in the technologies involved or the companies that develop and sell the polling applications?
How will the potential retreat from the U.S. commitment to global trade affect the growth of the IoT (Internet of Things)? What will the effect of increasing U.S. isolation have on IoT globalization initiatives especially for companies such as Facebook, Alphabet (Project Loon), and others that are funding extraordinary efforts to bring Internet connectivity to the two-thirds of the world population that has no connectivity at all? Especially if these pathfinding technology companies come under attack for being too large, too dominant in their markets, or too greedy because they seek to avoid paying massive tax bills, they will reduce experimental R&D investment to divert money to legal defenses that in the end have the effect of denying vital services to billions of people, and worse, create geopolitical resentment of the U.S. that will linger well beyond the next four years.
The pace of the path to radical reversals in U.S. policy may be swift in order to serve political expediency. This presents a significant challenge to companies that will be hard pressed to change business practices “on the fly” to adjust to the new world order. Companies plan, budget for, and execute technology product and services on a yearly basis and find it difficult to significantly revise plans during the year.
Take the healthcare vertical, which has taken years to adapt to the requirements of the Patent Protection and Affordable Care Act (commonly called “Obamacare,”) in which significant technological changes were mandated that dramatically affected how physicians organized their practices. My doctor for 25 years elected to retire rather than increase the cost to his practice of additional clerical staff needed to manage the documentation requirements of the Act. Many small practices merged into larger HMO groups to increase the patient base, as a means to cover the costs of technology changes. New data-management standards and applications to adopt and use them were created by myriad technology companies, many of which were startups seeking to exploit the new opportunity. In effect, a more technology-intensive healthcare ecosystem slowly emerged, one that is still evolving. This ecosystem is organized around the rules of the Act. What happens if the rules suddenly change or are eliminated wholesale?
It is possible that the ecosystem that arose in response to Obamacare could be repealed in 2017. What would replace it (not discussed in detail during the campaign)? If you are a healthcare ecosystem participant, how do you plan for sudden disruption?
Consumers and companies are in general risk averse, and spending slows when uncertainty arises. Do you buy a new home or car if you have concerns that the economic future of your country and the world is unclear? Does a company invest in productivity improvements typically related to increased sales volume when consumer sentiment translates into lower spending?
We are at an unprecedented moment in time when the world does not know what the U.S., will do in the year ahead. There remains no comfortable sense of predictability about U.S. behavior, especially its longstanding commitments to global trade and participation in partnerships such as NATO. We do know that with the instantaneity of communication between billions of people, poorly considered comments can shake nations and have unintended consequences.
This election has called into question some of the fundamental assumptions around the use of predictive analytics. We hear the growing claim that it wasn’t the technology, it was having the wrong data. Stop for a moment and think about this, especially in the context of the IoT.
If the data was wrong, then the origin points for the data were not in the right places. It means that assumptions were poorly made as to where to collect the data. The collected data was not wrong, it was incomplete. This means that there will be an urgent need to add collection points where none now exist to ensure all the relevant data is collected and analyzed. For polling companies and organizations, if this is not done, their poll results will be biased and untrustworthy. Who will want to pay for polls with this stigma?
Presidential historians write about “the first 100 days” where the shape of new policies emerge from the fog of the campaign, and legislative agendas are set. The 100 days starting on January 20 will define how nations, companies, and people will react with no predictable precedents to guide them.
In modern parlance, we talk about “disruptive” technologies and companies. We can now add politics as a disruptive force, and the 2016 U.S. General Election could well be long remembered as the trigger for the most significant global disruption experiences in modern times, short of war.
As we used to say in the television news business, stay tuned!
Tim Lindner is senior business consultant with a software company and a regular contributor to Connected World. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org