Wednesday, February 12, 2014

This may be who we will be

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, futuristics, technology

Yogi Berra said, "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future." Yet I love to read books of projection when they are well produced. When you get the former CEO of Google together with the head of Google Ideas together, good production is a given. Good prediction? Perhaps.

Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen are big thinkers, they operate on a big stage, and their book The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business is appropriately wide in scope. Their topics are ourselves, our identities—and all that goes with them—, and the world's nations and their fates under galloping scrutiny. I was relieved to read their focus on people and what people do with technology, rather than a gee-whiz screed on the neat-o things technology is doing.

For a privileged few, greater technology yields a closer and closer approach to a Utopia. It is reasonable to expect increasing good for most people. An unknown proportion of humanity will instead suffer even greater repression: 1984 on steroids. It all makes me wonder whether it will remain possible to keep a low profile, when every profile passes through smart pattern-seeking software. And what patterns will it seek? That is up to the writer(s) and the agency.

People wonder why I, a power user of computers since the 1960s, would keep my "dumb" phone—it makes phone calls and texts, and I don't have a data plan—when I have a desktop supercomputer that I built myself. Well, I know better than to think I have a life as private as the norm of the 1990s or earlier. But I do take steps to mitigate the damage, and I'll leave it at that.

These authors repeatedly state that what humanity does with technology is up to them and thus uncertain, for better or for worse. Yet they go into some detail about just how a repressive state can go into total control freak mode, such as by practically giving smart phones to all, but phones that are preloaded with apps that track and surveil the owner. Yet surveillance can work both ways. Fully half the book delves into the consequences of state failure and chances of reconstruction, after making it clear that better communications make revolution easier, but following up on a revolution even harder.

The loud and clear message is that, particularly in a disruption, communication is primary. One might think you need to first get food and water to refugees in a disaster. You do, but how do you know where they are, and how to make sure the supplies go where they ought? Communication. So the authors recommend erecting cell towers in stage one of any rescue or reconstruction effort. Then it occurred to me: Why not make every Red Cross (or whomever) truck a mini-cell tower or satellite hot spot? Use it to "light up" the few square miles around its location with good communications.

Human ingenuity always transcends the vision of an inventor. No technology is fail-safe, and fail-soft is pretty hard to achieve. New uses are always discovered, and new abuses even more so.

The apocryphal Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times" will now apply more than ever.

No comments: