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Technology Updated: 11 Oct 2016

Forget the gloom: remember what technology has done for you

Half-a-dozen years ago, the American wine critic Antonio Galloni decided to come up with a critical guide to the world's best wines. If he had tried to do that in the 1990s, he would have had two options: 1. create a (very heavy) encyclopedia; or 2. issue lots of (equally cumbersome) magazines. "Thirty years ago wine knowledge was books and magazines," Galloni says.

No longer. These days, Galloni's Vinous publication offers 200,000 wine reviews, on a weightless website and app. So, if any subscriber wants to dazzle their companions with expertise, they don't need to carry an encyclopedia around or chat with a sommelier; they can just take out their smartphone and type in a name. Better still, they can also get that wine review simply by scanning the label with their phone. "Now we can take pieces of technology and pull it all together with a seamless experience, with rigour," Galloni enthuses.

On one level, this is a trivial tale that will only excite wine enthusiasts (or terrify sommeliers). But, on another, it epitomises a pattern that should make us all ponder - teetotal or not. In our everyday existence, we do not usually spend much time thinking about how the computers that we carry in our pockets are upending our lives. Little wonder: in less than a decade, those powerful computers have become so ubiquitous that we barely notice them (unless the handset or WiFi suddenly breaks down). As a result, when pundits and politicians discuss our world, they rarely mention these tiny miracles; instead, they focus on lofty (and often gloomy) macro themes, such as the sluggish pace of growth, Middle East tragedies, trade protectionism and so on.

"Now we can take pieces of technology and pull it all together with a seamless experience, with rigour

But when you look at 21st-century history through the lens of modern technology - and the ability to have data on 200,000 wines in our pockets - it starts to look very different. Think, for example, about how we remember 2007. If you ask many business leaders (or FT readers) what was important in that year, they will probably recall the moment when the financial bubble started to burst, sparking the collapse of institutions such as Northern Rock.

But, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman points out in a forthcoming book, 2007 was also the year that Apple launched the first iPhone, Facebook made a drive to expand beyond non-educational users, Google developed Android and so on. Nobody really remembers these momentous 2007 events because they were eclipsed by the 2008 financial crisis. Our macro gloom makes us blind to a million pinpoints of light or, more accurately, six billion points of optimism, if you count all the phones now in the world.

It is worth sometimes stopping to number all the ways our lives are changing today. Never mind the apps such as Uber, Seamless, Amazon and Kayak that have changed my own domestic juggle. What's equally striking are all the tales about how connectivity is changing the world in unexpected ways. Take a conversation I had last month with Bill Bratton, former head of the New York City Police Department. Until recently, if a police officer wanted to do a background check on a suspect, it was a time-consuming process. Now, with smartphones, it can be done on the street.

Never mind the apps such as Uber, Seamless, Amazon and Kayak that have changed my own domestic juggle

Separately, United Nations officials have told me that they are experimenting with social media (and keyword usage) to track the spread of pandemics with great accuracy. And Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are now developing apps with the aim of predicting whether mentally ill people will have a psychotic episode, based on the context of their text messages.

I recently watched the movie Lion, starring Dev Patel. It tells the true story of an impoverished rural Indian boy who became separated from his family at the age of five. After travelling thousands of miles to Kolkata, he was adopted in Australia - and seemed permanently lost to his birth family. But then he plugged his toddler memories into the brand new Google Earth app and now, two decades later, he is reunited with his mother.

In listing these startling stories I do not want to ignore the dark side: connectivity creates huge social, economic and political challenges too. But the next time you have dinner with friends, try playing a game: collectively list all the changes unleashed by those tiny connected computers in our hands. The roll-call might leave you marvelling - especially over a nice bottle of wine.

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Source:  Gillian Tett. 2016. 'Forget the gloom: remember what technology has done for you'. Financial Times /  October 7, 2016 Used under licence from the Financial Times. © The Financial Times Limited 2016.

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