Surfing the shock wave

Peter Coffee Profile picture for user Peter Coffee August 21, 2019
Riding the waves of change in the right direction is essential, argues Salesforce's Peter Coffee.


The word “shock” has many meanings, including a sense of unwelcome surprise and also a sudden impact or disturbance. Two of those meanings came together this summer, and they led to my putting a title of “Surfing the Shock Wave” on a conference keynote speech in Denver, Colorado – for reasons that I’d like to share here.

As to the first: I was somewhat shocked, in the “surprise” sense of the term, by July’s salvo of disclosures (over a period of just two weeks) that may dampen people’s enthusiasm for au courant “intelligent assistant” services. As to the second: in thinking about those dismaying discoveries, I was reminded of both technical and fictional references to the term, “shock wave.” Stay with me, and let me explain the connection between these two ideas.

During the period from July 12 through July 26 of this year, various news stories spotlighted bad behavior by three different personal-assistant services using spoken-word recognition. All of them were making recordings, and engaging human analysts to review them, for the (probably sincere) purpose of improving those services’ recognition of requests and commands.

In the process, however, accidental triggering (for example, in the case of one service, by the sound of a zipper being confused with a wakeup word) was capturing a great deal of material that users definitely did not intend to be analyzed – let alone archived.

In a related story, the operator of a widely used on-line suite of productivity applications (such as word processor and spreadsheet) was noticed to be reserving “the right to review Your Content” to enforce a “Code of Conduct” that includes prohibitions like “Don’t do anything illegal.” Observers noted that in some countries, “illegal” activities could include (for example) promoting the right to vote, or advocating women’s or LGBTQ rights – and that in those countries, it’s not fanciful to imagine a government requiring that operator to deny its services to people using them for such purposes. As one can easily imagine a professor concluding: “Discuss.”

The question is not whether expectations are being violated by algorithms or by human analysts; or whether that’s a result of accidental recording, or of intentional “content review” for purposes of local and (many might think) repressive law enforcement. Regardless, the common thread is one of technology making things newly possible, far more quickly than laws and customs can adapt and (re)define what’s appropriate.


This is what brings me, as I said before, to contemplate the phenomenon of the “shock wave.” Almost everyone has seen, and many have heard, a shock wave in its common forms: the wake of a fast-moving boat, or the “sonic boom” of a cracking whip or a supersonic aircraft passing overhead. In either case, the behavior is the same. An object, moving through a medium, pushes that medium out of its way: if the object is moving slowly enough, the medium can adapt to the disturbance of that movement, and distribute the displacement without violent effect. Think of the ripples of a passing canoe, or the breeze of a moving fan.

If the object is moving more quickly, though, then the medium may not be able to get out of the way in a gentle manner: a sharp transition, which we see as the V-shaped wake of a speedboat or hear as an abrupt noise after an airplane has gone by, fans out with what may be disruptive and even damaging effects. This is not the old behavior on a merely larger or faster scale: it is a different kind of behavior – and it is what we are seeing, in many domains, today, as technical and business-model innovations are happening too quickly for their environment to adjust by familiar processes.

We see these shock waves in, for example, photos of idle taxicabs made irrelevant by on-demand car services; likewise in other photos of idle airliners, grounded while regulators decide how to deal with new phenomena resulting from fly-by-wire aviation. We can see it in the dispute over whether a pizza-ordering web site is a “public accommodation” – and therefore, if so, subject to laws requiring accessibility measures for those with physical challenges. The stuff around what’s changing can’t keep up, and can’t adjust: it has to be shocked out of the way.

All of this reminded me, as I mentioned earlier, of a fictional use of the same phrase in the title of John Brunner’s 1975 book, The Shockwave Rider. At the risk of plot spoiling, the conclusion of the book includes a new mechanism that makes past secrecy surrounding abuse of technology—and of its customers—impossible to sustain. I find myself reading stories like the ones I mentioned at the beginning of these comments, and thinking: imagine if we could start to see Brunner’s line, “This is a cybernetic datum for the public service,” starting to show up in places where it could do the most good.

Brunner’s is a work of fiction, and his resolution is (so far as I know) beyond the reach of any present science (let alone of practical implementation). What I’m feeling, though, is a conviction that we need to regain our ability to be shocked (in the sense of surprise) if we’re going to be imaginative and determined, and not just become resigned, in trying to live with shock waves (in the sense of abrupt and disruptive change).

What we don’t want is yet a third sense of the phrase, “I’m shocked.” There’s a moment in the movie, “Casablanca,” when a corrupt police official must find an excuse to close a restaurant (in which, it’s well known, the back room is a private casino). He loudly declares, “I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” – whereupon, the croupier quietly brings him his winnings, because of course he was an active participant in what he was pretending to be surprised to discover.

Many people therefore use the expression “I am shocked, shocked” to convey this mock surprise, and socially expected condemnation, at something that’s widely known (and even expected) to be happening. Many of those people may not even know the source, so common is the expression, but it reflects a resigned (and sometimes cynical) tolerance of things that actually don’t need to be accepted any more.

Let’s not accept them. Let’s surf on the shock wave, and use its energy to drive us—at its own great speed—in directions that make change work for us.

A grey colored placeholder image