Smart Shift


Recent generations of technology have made us more connected than ever. We can (and do) broadcast our every movement, every purchase and every interaction with our mobile devices and on social networks, in the process adding to what was already a mountain of information. But what happens when it becomes possible to mine the seams of gold held within?

Drawing on Snowden and the Panama papers, Babbage and Lovelace, Ancient Greece and the Wild West, Smart Shift takes us on a technological journey towards a thrilling and, sometimes, downright scary future. As we share every facet of our lives we move inexorably towards the transparent society, in which nothing can be hidden. Part history, part explanation, part manifesto, Smart Shift reflects on the sheer quantity of information being generated, the clever ways in which people are using it, and the inadequacy of current legislation. It looks to topical examples, such as algorithmic trading and the global banking disaster, or the use of drones in both war and peace.

It concludes with two insights: first, concerning the nature of the contract we need between each other; and second, the importance of maintaining our own sense of identity. Are we ready for to shift? It is time to find out.


Smart Shift was written between 2014 and 2016, and has both very quickly gone out of date, and remained grounded in history. Writing a book about the turbulent times in which we live was always going to be a challenge. While some parts will already be out of date, it is hoped that the overall themes will remain constant.

Note that I have stuck with Unix rather than the more historically accurate UNIX, simply because it is more readable. I have used the capital B to differentiate the Blockchain used by Bitcoin, with more generally available blockchain mechanisms.

Thank you to Chris Westbury at the University of Alberta, Canada for his paper[1] “Bayes for Beginners”. And population ecologist Brian Dennis’ (1996) polemic on why ecologists shouldn’t be Bayesians is essential reading, and a lot of fun.
Additional references are scattered throughout the book. Any feedback or comments please let me know — this journey is a long way from being over.

Jon Collins, 2018


Smart Shift has been written and pulled together over four years, based on innumerable conversations, calls and briefings, articles written and read. As such, there are simply too many people to thank but I will try.

First off, thank you to Ed Faulkner, previously at Virgin Books (now at Random House) for starting me on this adventure, perhaps inadvertently, over a pizza next to the Thames. Thank you also to Martin Veitch at IDG Connect, for giving me the opportunity to write what I wanted to write and therefore making this book possible.

Thank you to my son Ben, for introducing me to the works of Temple Grandin and making me think; and to my daughter Sophie for her encouragement and making me act.

To my friend colleague Simon Fowler for his insights, feedback and general stoicism in the face of my scatterbrained sensibilities.

To Aleks Krotowski for alerting me to Kranzberg’s first law of technology, that “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”

To my very good friend and occasional collaborator Rob Bamforth, for the expression, “It’s not convergence, but collision.”

To Brian Robbins for the reference to the Mosquito drone, and for keeping me grounded.

To Tim Bolton at Philips Components for introducing me to the concept of simulated annealing, all those years ago, and for helping me realise that writing was just something humans could do.

To my Alcatel colleague Brigitte Leglouennec for the “keep it for five years” storage model for wine.

To Robin Bloor, for starting me on this journey back in 1999. And to Dale Vile, friend and serial colleague, for keeping me facing in the right direction.

To Roger Davies, for introducing me to the concept of value, which has touched all parts of my business and personal life.

To Judy Curtis, for all her help and support.

To my partners in crime at Leeds University, for showing me there was fun to be had with technology.

To Martin Haigh at the UK Land Registry.

To Mike Lynch, and David Vindel at Ketchum for the introduction.

But most of all to my long suffering wife, best friend and soul mate Liz, for all the joy we have shared over the past 30 years.

I said I would write about owl noises, so I have.