Tag Archives: internet

Discourtesy on the internet

One thing many readers seemed to like about my 1990 novel Earth was all the interludes and snippets portraying life in 2038. All were written in the period 1988 – 1989 (as the novel was aimed to be a fifty year projection into the future.) A future we now inhabit, in many ways.

Several scenes from the novel are logged as ‘hits’ on prediction wikis and registries, such as this one on the Technovelgy site and another on FrontPage. A few are particularly pertinent to our world of 2022.

The snippet below presages the World Wide Web, some years before it surged across the world (and hence my made-up format for ‘net addresses.”) The ways in which it misses are as interesting as the on-target predictions. But overall?

This excerpt deals with the pervasive problem of offensive behavior on the internet. Unsurprisingly, people tend to exhibit more aggressive and rude behaviors online than in person, particularly when cloaked behind a veil of anonymity and no real accountability. Harmful gossip abounds – and does damage in real life.

Dear Net-Mail User _ EweR-635-78-2267-3 aSp —

Your mailbox has just been rifled by EmilyPost, an autonomous courtesy-worm chain program released in October, 2036 by an anonymous group of Net subscribers in Western Alaska.

{_ ref: sequestered confession 592864 -2376298.98634, deposited with Bank Leumi 10/23/36:20:34:21. Expiration-disclosure 10 years.}

Under the civil disobedience sections of the Charter of Rio, we accept in advance the fines and penalties that will come due when our confession is released in 2046. However we feel that’s a small price to pay for the message brought to you by EmilyPost.

In brief, dear friend, you are not a very polite person. EmilyPost’s syntax analysis subroutines show that a very high fraction of your net exchanges are heated, vituperative, even obscene.

Of course you enjoy free speech. But EmilyPost has been designed by people who are concerned about the recent trend towards excessive nastiness in some parts of the Net. EmilyPost homes in on folks like you, and begins by asking them to please consider the advantages of politeness.

For one thing, your credibility ratings would rise. (EmilyPost has checked your favorite bulletin boards, and finds your ratings aren’t high at all. Nobody is listening to you, sir!) Moreover, consider that courtesy can foster calm reason, turning shrill antagonism into useful debate and even consensus.

We suggest introducing an automatic delay to your mail system. Communications are so fast these days, people seldom stop and think. Some net users act like mental patients, who shout out anything that comes to mind, rather than as functioning citizens with the human gift of tact.

If you wish, you may use one of the public-domain delay programs included in this version of EmilyPost, free of charge.

Of course, should you insist on continuing as before, disseminating nastiness in all directions, we have equipped EmilyPost with other options you’ll soon find out about….

—and yes that was written in 1988—

Final note: What about sentient Artificial Intelligence? On that thread, my op ed – “Soon, Humanity Won’t Be Alone in the Universe” – just ran on the Newsweek site yesterday, shining light on the first Robotic Empathy Crisis that I long ago predicted for this year… that’s unfolding before our eyes.

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Science marches on…

First, a useful announcement: The Next National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day is scheduled for October 26, 2013.  One or more of your local pharmacies will likely accept your old pharmaceuticals free, no questions.  It disposes of them safely and keeps them out of landfills or sewers where they apparently are having ever-worsening effects on water supplies — for example putting female hormones from birth control pills into what you drink from the tap.  Go through your cabinet!

== Science marches on, despite attempts to shut it down —

SpaceNewsCongratulations Elon and the SpaceX team for a vital and successful Falcon 9 launch from Vandenburg of the Cassiope research satellite into polar orbit. A secondary experiment — to re-fire the first stage after cargo separation and test a possible rocket-based recovery process — was only partly successful. But much was learned toward what might be a breakthrough cost-saving measure. Again congratulations on this vital milestone.

Will the year of the comets wreck Martian science?  ‘Three operational spacecraft currently circle Mars: NASA’s Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), as well as Europe’s Mars Express. NASA also has two functioning rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity, on the ground on Mars. All of these spacecraft will have ringside seats as Comet ISON cruises by Mars this year, followed by Comet 2013 A1 (Siding Spring) swooping within 76,000 km of Mars in November of 2014. The comet poses risks to orbiters circling Mars — a prospect that may lead to re-orienting and maneuvering of the craft to protect them from comet particle strikes.’  Which will be – believe me – rather difficult.  I am worried about those orbiters.

NASA’s Plutonium problem – could it end deep space exploration?  Plutonium 238 is special.  Can’t be made into bombs, so there was little effort to create an industry producing it.  The isotope happens to be uniquely suited for long range missions beyond the realm where solar power works. I know some of the guys trying to come up with new methods.  Meanwhile, here’s a fascinating article on the subject. 

Read a summary of a way-cool conference in Washington DC, hosted by David Grinspoon and the Library of Congress, that featured author Kim Stanley Robinson, NASA historian Steve Dick and other luminous minds, talking about the human future. Should humanity build “lifeboat” colonies in space? Or concentrate on Earth?  Or give up?

Can giant-galactic black holes grow by eating quantum foam? Marco Spaans at the University of Groningen says that black holes can grow by feeding on the quantum black holes that leap in and out of existence at the smallest scale. These quantum black holes are part of the so-called quantum foam that physicists believe makes up the fabric of the Universe.

Back in 1982, while I was a post-doctoral fellow at the California Space Institute, I created a report urging NASA to explore ways to do 3D parts fabrication in orbit, allowing space station personnel to create many of their spare parts, needing only to have the software patterns “beamed up” by radio from Earth. Several potential methods were described, including today’s layer-by-layer build-up method… plus a few that to this day have gone under-explored.  Many unfortunate factors — most of them non-technical – delayed this coming to pass.  Only, now see how NASA is preparing to launch a 3-D printer into space next year, a toaster-sized game changer that greatly reduces the need for astronauts to load up with every tool, spare part or supply they might ever need.

== Browsing — for just 20 years? Really? ==

Can you believe the web browser is 20 years old? Or that MOSAIC took the world by storm ONLY 20 years ago? Either way, it makes you blink, just to imagine the world of back-then. Have a look back via Frank Catalano’s brilliant essay about the things we used to take for granted.

When did you first go online?  My first extensive use was while we lived in FRANCE, using their competitive Minitel system, which was better than Compuserve and in nearly every home in France. They were trying hard to get ahead of us with a unified, centrally planned approach and it worked well, if incrementally. Everyone could check the weather, get news and order tickets…

Internet-Deregulation…Then Al Gore (yes, he did not lie) pushed a bill that unleashed the Internet on the world, taking government hands almost completely off. The opposite approach than the French — and the greatest act of deregulation in the history of history… for which he get no credit, only mockery. From ungrateful fools.

== Tis all in the mind ==

How and where does imagination occur in human brains? The answer, Dartmouth researchers conclude in a new study, lies in a widespread neural network — the brain’s “mental workspace” — that consciously manipulates images, symbols, ideas and theories and gives humans the laser-like mental focus needed to solve complex problems and come up with new ideas.   Real grist for new explorations at UCSD’s new Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination.

Especially provocative: “Understanding these differences will give us insight into where human creativity comes from and possibly allow us to recreate those same creative processes in machines.”

An essay in Scientific American, by SKEPTIC editor Michael Shermer, discusses motivational bias — our tendency to warp our perceptions and inputs to fit the beliefs and narratives we already hold dear.  Liberals do this, leftists and rightists do it. Mass media cater to it. Science tries to combat it – teaching students to recite “I might be wrong” – but scientists (being human) do it too. In Shermer’s case, the belief structure that he had to wrestle with is a strong libertarian bent — a leaning that I well-understand because I share many aspects, including a deep respect for competitive endeavors like science and markets, that brought us all our great success.  Shermer discusses how his strong libertarian leanings made it hard for him to begin taking in enough facts to re-evaluate simplistic positions on climate change and gun control.

But the core lesson is bigger than that.  It underlies how we can be marshaled into “belief armies” that follow idea-banners instead of rationally compared evidence.  It is why we like to hear what we believe reinforced, instead of eagerly seeking the argument, contrary evidence and criticism that is the only known antidote to error. Scientists are trained to (often grudgingly) overcome motivational bias.  That may be why strong interests in society are financing the War on Science.

SmarterThanYouThinkAh but is Google wrecking our memory?  In his book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, Clive Thompson argues that our brains have always been bad at remembering details. But now we’ve begun to fit machines into a technique we evolved thousands of years ago —“transactive memory.” That’s the art of storing information in the people around us.

== Cool sci-miscellany ==

Mike Halleck – “The Engineer Guy” – disassembles and explains a wide variety of cool, everyday devices like a liquid crystal display.  Very well-done mini-documentaries.  Great diversion time that beats cat videos by a long way.

Okay, Boston Dynamics is damned scary.  Their latest  robotic”cheetah” can outrun any but the three fastest humans.

Two million years ago, a supermassive black hole at the heart of our galaxy erupted in an explosion so immensely powerful that it lit up a cloud 200,000 light years away, a team of researchers led by the University of Sydney has revealed.

Future spacecraft may be 3-D printed — in space, by robots

Kinda gruesomely-cynically funny.  Scientists using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have discovered yet another dead and lifeless planet drifting around a silent, pulsing sun-like star over 100 light-years away, feeding their growing sense of nihilistic despair. Okay… it’s for laughs.  But still.

Transparency will abound. And possibly save us. UCLA engineers have created a 1/2-pound, portable smartphone attachment that can be used to perform sophisticated field testing to detect viruses and bacteria without the need for bulky and expensive microscopes and lab equipment.

I discussed starships and asteroid mining and what it might take to bring boldness back to our civilization, on David Livingston’s syndicated radio SPACE SHOW, in September 2013.

ScienceSnippetsIn appraising the tradeoffs between competition and cooperation in an organism, these scientists are discussing in the real world what was also covered in my novel Earth.

Fly maggots, the wonder recyclers, will save the seas by replacing the wasteful way meal for fish farms is made by scooping everything living out of the oceans… and many other cool uses. This – plus algae farming and many other looming breakthroughs could just help us to squeak by.

A fascinating chart of the relative amounts of damage – to users and to society – done by abuse of various drugs, both legal and illegal.  Marijuana (canabis) is NOT harmless! While legalizing it, I would retain a presumptive right of families to meddle if a beloved zonker is on a death-to-ambition spiral. Still, recent trends toward sanity are signs that a new generation is ready, at last, to bring a sense of proportionality to an insanely destructive Prohibition.

A golden eagle attacks and kills an adult deer.  Yipe!

Earth may have had free oxygen in its atmosphere in appreciable amounts much earlier than we had thought… about 3 billion years ago rather than the more recent “Great Oxygenization” event of 2.3 billion years ago.

What did our distant ancestors sound like? Listen to the linguists’ latest reconstruction of 6000 year old Indo-European.  Kinda fascinating.

Why are our bees dying?  This matters a lot!  Become educated about this threat to our food supply.  These are the “canaries” in our environment… and their loss may cost us a lot of money.  The chief counter-measures… to get farmers to plant varicultures, hedges and flowers just along the borders of theit fields and for us to plant…(icky)… flowers!  Watch this TED Talk by Marla Spivak.

Weizmann Institute scientists show that removing one protein from adult cells enables them to efficiently turn back the clock to a stem-cell-like state.  They revealed the “brake” that holds back the production of stem cells, and found that releasing this brake can both synchronize the process and increase its efficiency from around 1% or less today to 100%.  The researchers showed that removing MBD3 protein from the adult cells can improve efficiency and speed the process by several orders of magnitude. Such on-off switches are amazing and rare.

== Finally, how to fight anti-science politics ==

Neutralize-GerrymanderingThe biggest victim of the recent US government shut down may have been science, as crucial experiments were cut off – including the entire research season in Antarctica. To many of those who instigated this disaster, the harm to science was not a Flaw of their plan but a Feature.

This will be a long struggle though there are possible innovations.  For example Salon Magazine has featured my proposal for a unique and potentially effective way for individual voters – one at a time – to rebel effectively against the political crime called gerrymandering. It requires no changes in law, no court decisions or ballot initiatives. We could all start this rebellion tomorrow, without any cooperation from a corrupt political caste. It would benefit BOTH Democrats and Republics as well as third parties. Above all, it would reduce the radicalization of American politics that is tearing the country apart.

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From Google Glass to License Plates: Transparency Updates

I’ve been busy with a few national interviews. One of them, on the NSA, transparency and aggressively looking back, has already appeared on the David Seaman Hour. Other topics ranged GenerationChallengfrom SETI to SciFi.   See also my interview on NPR News:  The Man Who Predicted Google Glass Forecasts The Near Future: If wearable technology will allow for some segment of society, say, government, to “spy,” then all of us should want and have the same technology available.

“How do you see research and innovation making a difference for a better future?” The European Union asked questions like this of about a hundred “sages” in preparation for the Horizon 2020: Digital Agenda for Europe conference that I will help keynote in Vilnius, Lithuania, in November.  You can view my 90 second answer… and the other participants’ answers… or learn more about the conference.

== Transparency News ==

The most important civil rights matter of all – a citizen’s right to record his or her interactions with police and authorities in public places – took several major positive turns last year, with both the courts and the Obama Administration firmly declaring it to be “established” that we have that right. Alas, it will be hard to implement day-to-day.

At the recent Future in Review (FiRe) conference, Google visionary Vint Cerf said: “Anonymity or pseudonymity is a very important part of democratic society. On the other hand, I don’t think that people should be free to cause harm.” His solution: an Internet “fire department” that analyzes and compares the IP addresses one’s computer is communicating with to ID known botnets or malware IPs.  This is not my preferred approach, which is to create commercial pseudonymity services that are strongly encrypted and reputation linked… and to encourage all responsible sites worldwide to snub non-reputationed sources.  But Vint is very smart and I’ll always try a Cerf idea on for size.

== Get used to it ==

blog-alpr-imagepool-500x280-v06Massive tracking of license plates — via cameras mounted on patrol cars, bridges or stoplights. They snap photos of every passing car, recording their plate numbers, times, and locations. Data are stored for months or years in police databases. And you expected… what?

Predictive policing.  It’s happening.  Give us the same tools. Reciprocal accountability to look back at the watchers.

Data privacy researchers have been able to identify the names of hundreds of participants in the Personal Genome Project (PGP) using demographic data from their profiles.  And you expected… what?

Oh but we’ll do it to ourselves! Motorola researchers now propose a “vitamin authentication” pill —  a small tablet that contains an electronic chip. After someone swallows the pill, the stomach acts as an electrolyte in the chip’s battery and powers it. The chip has a switch that turns on and off, generating an 18-bit signal like an electrocardiogram. One’s entire body would be the authentication token, just like the fobs that many office workers carry to get on corporate networks. The implications… the implications… my head hurts just tracking some of them….

Privacy: Does Face Recognition cross the line?  Bah. We’ll only be safe when all of us can access multiple different and redundant and overlapping and independent face-recog systems, all the time.  And when those systems report to us whenever anyone is glancing at our face… exactly what happens in “real” life.

Oh, and blogmunity member Jonathan S offers this: “One of the prizes offered last week on The Price is Right was an iPad with a paired remote-control, camera-equipped electric helicopter. Total cost, including the iPad: about $850 US. Yes, that’s right, for about the price of a middling computer, you too can have the surveillance capability many people in the US want to deny their police forces because it’s “too intrusive”. Go to the park, with fully-charged tablet and ‘copter; sit on a nice bench somewhere, and watch everything going on in the park.”

Yep.  And we are at the fork in the road. Ban these things – they will shrink, the mighty will get them anyway, and we won’t.  Or else embrace them, and you will be able to access a million eyes, and catch those who are staring at you.  Choose.

== Micro-Payments to the rescue? Saving Journalism too!  ==

jaron-lanier-who-owns-the-futureJaron Lanier opines that the internet should be changed to incentivize a myriad micro, nano or pico transactions between sovereign users and dispersed content creators (like you and me) so that we benefit from others’ use of our own information — a new utopian notion to replace one that he helped to coin, but that hew now rejects, that “information wants to be free.”  Alas, Jaron is rather vague about how such a new system would work and – more important – what powerful interests in society might be marshaled behind helping to make it come true. (read more in his book, Who Owns the Future.)

In fact, I agree with his goal, which would empower dispersed citizens of a vast, middle class commonwealth. But I’ll settle (for now) for two important things:

(1) a much more transparent world in which our present institutions of democracy, science, justice and markets work more effectively and

(2) a system of micropayments that would save the profession of journalism from possible extinction.

As it turns out, I’ve long explored parameters of the former… and I am pretty sure I know how to do the latter.  Indeed, #2 is do-able in a surprisingly efficient, simple and probably-effective way that will – almost overnight – persuade millions to pay a nickel per article to, say, the New York Times and thus save that journal and hundreds of others.  Think that’s impossible?  That folks are too addicted to the free?

I’ll bet you a nickel.

== And Transparency Miscellany! ==

The Seattle Police Department became the latest department to equip its officers with wearable cameras.  You saw it in The Transparent Society – back in 1997 and in Earth (1989).

In The Verge appears a fascinating report about the company behind the non-lethal stun guns that have become commonplace around the world, Taser International, which has set out to transform policing once again – this time, with Axon Flex, a head-mounted camera with a twelve-hour battery life that officers can use to record interactions. The device is constantly on, but it only captures video of the thirty seconds before its wearer begins using it, and then both video and audio while police are speaking to a citizen. Footage is then uploaded to a cloud-based service where it can be accessed by the police department. It includes an audit trail to reveal who has accessed the information and when.  (from Watching the Police: Will Two-way Surveillance reduce Crime and Increase Accountability?)

In a major victory for the community radio movement after a 15-year campaign, the Federal Communications Commission has announced it will soon begin accepting applications for hundreds of new low-power FM radio stations.

theprivateeye_01enr00-1-300x181I’d be interested in folks’ opinion of The Private Eye,  a graphic/comic series that posits a future when all internet secrets got spilled in a single day… and an over-reacting society clamped down to make “privacy” a fiercely enforced right. (A sham of course, hence the tale.)  Explore and report back here!

== Eyes and ears in conflict ==

Ever experience cognitive dissonance between your ears and eyes? This YouTubed remix of a speech by John F Kennedy is overwhelmingly worth a visit, to hear one of the finest odes to an open and transparent society ever delivered by any politician… at least since Pericles.  Alas, or else hilariously, the visual part is one long screech of paranoiac conspiracy theories, re-contexting JFK words into attacks upon everything from Freemasons to mainstream media.


Especially amusing: while Kennedy is describing the skulking methods of the Soviet Empire, the youtubers show image after image of US government agencies. Pithy!  Gotta hand it to em! Mind you, I do believe there are conspiracies! The ongoing effort to retake social rule by secretive owner-oligarchy manifests in many undeniable ways, such as the list of top owners of Fox. (Or the less numerous but equally nutty leftist “truthers” out there.) But these fellows do us no service by plunging down kookooland.

Listen to JFK’s words, though.  Please do. While chuckling and shaking your head over the use of dishonest imagrey to repurpose them.

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Questions I am frequently asked about… (Part V) Transparency, Privacy and the Information Age

I’ll now complete my compilation of questions that I’m frequently asked by interviewers. They can all be found online on my web site and press kit. This final section is about… 


Note that my tenure as an expert in these matters arose from the 1997 publication of The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?  which won the American Library Association’s Freedom of Speech Award and the McGannon Public Policy Prize.  It revealed many surprising aspects to a vexing and complex set of problems that we must negotiate and navigate in the coming decades, with nothing at stake… other than liberty, survival, and all the things that make life worth living.

For more detail, see a compilation of some articles and interviews  about transparency, freedom and technology .

–Do you worry about the loss of privacy as both the government and amateurs have more and more access to surveillance?

TinyTransparentI got some of my nicest letters based on Chapter 9 of The Transparent Society, where I disassemble my own theory, appraise and talk about all sorts of ways that a transparent society could go wrong! For example, you could have a really nasty version of majority-rule, such as Ray Bradbury shows in Fahrenheit 451. Even if transparency prevents Big Brother, will that mean we’ve traded top-down tyranny for the lateral kind? Oppression by hundreds of millions of judgmental Little Brothers? 

Serious concerns, Still, real life offers reason to hope. If you look at the last 50 years, whenever the public learns more about some eccentric group, it judges that group on one criterion: Is this group mean? 

Are they harmful and oppressive to others? When the answer is yes, the more we learn about the group, the less they’re tolerated. If the answer is no, the more we learn about the group, the more they’re tolerated. Look back. More exposure and information about others reduced racism, sexism, homophobia… but increased our aversion to groups like the KKK or Stalinists.  No other criterion explains this. 

9mlZmETE6m2NEkSrxM63fTl72eJkfbmt4t8yenImKBVaiQDB_Rd1H6kmuBWtceBJIf that’s true and if it holds in the future—if people continue to defend others’ eccentricities because a) they think it’s cool to live in a world of harmless eccentrics and b) for the sake of their own protection—then you would likely see a 51 percent or 60 percent or 70 percent dictatorship by a majority that insists on crushing just one thing… intolerance. Okay, that’s still group-think majority-imposed will. But the least harmful one you can imagine. 

As far as privacy itself is concerned, I have a simple answer to that. (It makes up chapter 4 of The Transparent Society.) Human beings want it. We naturally are built to want some privacy. Moreover, if we remain a free and knowing people, then sovereign citizens will demand a little privacy, though we’ll find that we must redefine the term for changing times. 

techtransThe question really boils down to: Will tomorrow’s citizens be free and knowing? Will new technologies empower us to exert reciprocal accountability, even upon the mighty? It may seem ironic, but for privacy and freedom to survive, we’ll need a civilization that is mostly open and transparent, so that each of us may catch the would-be voyeurs and Big Brothers.  So that most of us know most of what’s going on, most of the time. 

It can happen!  The proof is us.  Because it is already the method that we’ve used for 200 years. And to see this all laid out, have a look at one of the only public policy books from the 20th Century that’s still in print and selling more each year.

–What do you foresee as tiny cameras proliferate? 

SousveillanceSurveillanceEssentially, this is the greatest of all human experiments.  In theory… sousveillance (looking at the mighty from below) should cancel our worst fears about the surveillance state, if we get into the habit of stripping the mighty naked. 

If that happens, we should eventually equilibrate into a situation where people – for their own sakes and because they believe in the Golden Rule, and because they will be caught if they violate it – eagerly and fiercely zoom in upon areas where others might be conniving or scheming or cheating or pursuing grossly-harmful deluded paths… 

… while looking away when none of these dangers apply. A socially sanctioned discretion based on “none of my business” and leaving each other alone… because you’ll want that other person to be your ally next time, when you are the one saying “make that guy leave me alone!” 

That is where it should wind up.  If we’re capable of calm, or rationality and acting in our own self-interest.  It is stylishly cynical for most people to guffaw, at this point, and assume this is a fairy tale. I can just hear some readers muttering “Humans aren’t like that!” 

Well, maybe not. But I have seen plenty of evidence that we are now more like that than our ancestors ever imagined they could be.  The goal may not be attainable.  But we’ve already taken strides in that direction.

PrivacyAccountability copyWhat do you see as the major problem in achieving a more transparent society?

When it comes to privacy and accountability, people always demand the former for themselves and the latter for everyone else.

-How will greater openness affect our society?

We already live in the openness experiment, and have for two hundred years. It is called the Enlightenment — with “light” both a core word and a key concept in our turn away from 6,000 years of feudalism. All of the great enlightenment arenas — markets, science and democracy — flourish in direct proportion to how much their players (consumers, scientists and voters) know, in order to make good decisions. To whatever extent these arenas get clogged by secrecy, they fail.

imagesBut the next step in people empowerment is even more impressive — those burgeoning “smart mobs” Howard Rheingold and Clay Shirky and Vernor Vinge talk about. (Also shown in my latest novel, Existence.) It’s agile. It’s wired. Every generation innovates, or the Enlightenment dies.

– In EARTH (1989) you forecast that a huge world issue in the 2010s and 2020s would be international banking secrecy. Now, daily revelations seem to be bearing that out.  Do you still foresee something like a “Helvetian War”?

An actual, physical war, waged by nations of the developing world against the great banking havens?  Well, not really.  That was an exaggerated metaphor for a novel that achieved dramatic effects. But I do still expect increasing radicalization and pressure from many newly rising nations, when they realize that their former, kleptocratic lords stole literally trillions that might save and give hope to millions of children back home, if the money were recovered.

NothingToHideThis issue won’t go away. Just recently (April 2013) a cache of 2.5 million files has cracked open, spilling the secrets of more than 120,000 offshore companies and trusts, exposing hidden dealings of politicians, con men and the mega-rich the world over. In my novel, Earth, I predicted this would be the core issue of our times.  I still think things will play out that way.

See: more articles about Transparency and Openness


Return to Part 1: Questions on Writing and Science Fiction

Part 2: Questions on Science Fiction and Fantasy

Part 3: Questions on Brin books and The Postman

Part 4: Questions about Prediction and the Future


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Are we “evolving” toward becoming “marching morons”?

Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel recently spun a fable for The Edge about selection and drift in the human attribute of innovative creativity.  His assertion in Infinite Stupidity is that the very same civilization we built through innovation becomes a driving selective force, one that winds up sapping innovative genius from the gene pool.

Now at one level, Professor Pagel’s argument is just a reiteration of the old “marching morons” notion – once popular in 1950s science fiction, as well as the earlier Eugenics Movement – that the long term effect of complex civilization must be to reward mediocrity and propel a decline in net human intelligence.

Pagel starts with a reasonable premise: that as humans created ever-larger societies, featuring rapid communication among greater populations, more people would benefit from copying the innovations produced by a few truly creative individuals.

So far, that seems pretty obvious. Cultural dissemination of new techniques started really burgeoning about thirty to forty thousand years ago, around the same time that trade networks clearly developed, with seashells adorning necklaces in the Alps, for example.

The Neolithic Renaissance, at the dawn of the Aurignacian, erupted with astonishing abruptness after a hundred millennia of static technology. Within a few dozen generations – an eyeblink — our ancestral tool kit expanded prodigiously to include fish hooks and sewing needles made of glistening bone, finely-shaped scrapers, axes, burins, nets, ropes and specialized knives that required many complex stages to create.

Art also erupted on the scene. People adorned themselves with pendants, bracelets and beads. They painted magnificent cave murals, performed burial rituals and carved provocative Venus figurines. Innovation accelerated. So did other deeply human traits – for there appeared clear signs of social stratification. Religion. Kingship. Slavery. War.

And — for the poor Neanderthals — possibly genocide.

What changed?

The cause of this rather rapid shift is hard to confirm, but Pagel seems to be implying (by my interpretation) that it was triggered by something as simple as an expansion of clan size – augmented by increased inter-clan trade.

So far so good.

Only then Professor Pagel does something I find wholly unjustified, even rather weird. He proposes that – amid this flurry of trade-enhanced innovation – the need for the trait of innovativeness would decline, on a per-capita basis, because the average person or small group would benefit by copying whatever came along.

As our societies get larger and larger, there’s no need, in fact, there’s even less of a need for any one of us to be an innovator, whereas there is a great advantage for most of us to be copiers, or followers.”  In other words, what need to maintain the expensive capacity to create new ideas when you can simply borrow them from a small coterie of idea-guys, scattered across the continent?

Alas, Professor Pagel spins a just-so story that is conveniently and charmingly free of reference to historical or archaeological evidence. For example, he ignores the fact that innovation sped up, intensely and supra-linearly, as the number of individuals connected in a society increased.

According to Pagel’s premise, that rate should not rise appreciably with increased communication! Rather, if the amount of innovation were simply satisfying a Darwinian need, then with an expanded community the per capita creativity resource supplying that need would atrophy until the need was barely met. With the minimally needed level now acquired and satisfied by trade. people would simply become more dull and parasitical – that’s his theory.  Only logically it would hold actual-total innovation at the same, pre-trade level.

Toynbee, Marx and Wills

I mentioned that this notion has a long history. Dour folk have long held that civilized life must have negative effects upon the gene pool, leading some, a century ago, to push eugenics legislation. But there are other glimmers from the past that merit mention.

For example, Karl Marx actually praised the cleverness and acumen of the bourgeois capitalist class, deeming them absolutely necessary for economic development. Their competitive creativity (and theft of labor-value from proletarians) would drive capital formation. Cyclically, the actual number of capitalists would see a secular decline with time as their trade networks expanded. In the end, Marx foresaw this brilliant class extinguished, after all the capital was “formed” and when their cleverness was no longer needed. You can see how this eerily mirrors or foreshadows Pagel’s teleology.

Another maven, who comes across better in light of real history, was Arnold Toynbee. His survey of the past led him to conclude that civilizations rise when they support and eagerly learn from their “creative minority” — those who innovate useful solutions to rising problems. And societies fail when they don’t. (In which case, does America’s current war on science… and upon every other clade of mental accomplishment… forebode a coming fall?) In this light, Pagel’s assertion seems dour, indeed.

A third, more recent voice is Christopher Wills, whose book Children of Prometheus contends that civilization, in fact, rapidly accelerates changes in the gene pool, propelling evolution ever-faster. I believe this case is very well-made, and wholly consistent with what really happened in the era discussed by Professor Pagel.

The Great Acceleration

In fact, after the Aurignacian the pace of creativity only sped up, then exponentiated. Agrarian clans and then kingdoms allocated surplus food to specialists, rewarding them for talent and expertise, sometimes in accurate correlation to their effectiveness at innovation.  (Though skill at persuasiveness – lying – was always a higher correlate. That trait has almost certainly been an evolutionary rocket; but more on that another time.)

Key point: with agriculture, the collection and allocation of food surplus became a substantial human reproductive driver, as subsidized specialist roles became common. Competitively striving to attain that status, youths who became scribes, blacksmiths, tool-makers, engineers and priests must have achieved enhanced reproductive ability almost equal to the feudal lords who soon dominated every society.

Hence, a proclivity for nerdiness would increase… though, of course, not quite in pace with an ever-rising tendency toward oligarchy. I’ll admit that the trait most avidly reinforced was the ability of some men to pick up metal implements and take away other men’s women and wheat… a trait that required not only strength but some cleverness and yes, innovation.

Nevertheless, the brain-lackeys – the priests and tool-makers and monument builders – certainly did well. And they passed on the traits that made them successes. So much for the dismally grouchy “marching morons” hypothesis.

All of this is clear from the historical record. I find it disappointing that Professor Pagel seemed so willing to spin us a vague tale without confronting any of it. Indeed, for an evolutionary biologist to weave such a story without referring to reproductive advantage seems very strange, indeed.

A Warning for the Future?

But it isn’t finished. Pagel extrapolates to the modern age: “As our societies get bigger, and rely more and more on the Internet, fewer and fewer of us have to be very good at these creative and imaginative processes. And so, humanity might be moving towards becoming more docile, more oriented towards following, copying others, prone to fads, prone to going down blind alleys, because part of our evolutionary history that we could have never anticipated was leading us towards making use of the small number of other innovations that people come up with, rather than having to produce them ourselves.

He continues, “What’s happening is that we might, in fact, be at a time in our history where we’re being domesticated by these great big societal things, such as Facebook and the Internet. We’re being domesticated by them, because fewer and fewer and fewer of us have to be innovators to get by. And so, in the cold calculus of evolution by natural selection, at no greater time in history than ever before, copiers are probably doing better than innovators. Because innovation is extraordinarily hard. My worry is that we could be moving in that direction, towards becoming more and more sort of docile copiers.

“Domesticated?” One is tempted to demand that the professor speak for himself, not this wild spirit!

But ah, well.  So we come down to the couch-potato argument. The question posed by Nicholas Carr and other cyber grouches who contend that Google is making us Stoopid. As I have said before, any sensible person can look around and see plenty of signs that suggest the cynics may be right. Their criticisms may be more inherently useful than the giddy proclamations of cyber-transcendentalists, like Clay Shirky. Criticism is welcome… even if I find both sides romantically unrealistic.

Nevertheless, look, this is just an assertion, bereft of even correlative evidence, let alone proof. Sure, ninety percent of Internet activity is crap. But that could be said about everything, all the time, even – especially – during all the eras leading up to this one. And while Pagel’s lament may elicit voluptuous schadenfreude, it is hardly utilitarian or helpful.

If civilization relies upon Toynbee’s creative minority, depending on the small percentage of creators more and more, then that minority had better buckle down and find ways to get more support from those marching (copycat) masses. Duh?


Filed under future, history

Transparency Wars Continue

RADICAL-TRANSPARENCYThe Silicon Valley Metronews features my article “World Cyberwar And the Inevitability of Radical Transparency.”  The topic is both ongoing and ever-new. I discuss how WikiLeaks ignited the first international cyber war — and how pro-business laws enacted to promote the growth of Silicon Valley’s digital media and technology companies inadvertently nurtured transformation activists shaking up and toppling governments around the world.

With this fresh look at the cyber wars. I zero especially on several main examples… e.g the surprising ways that Julian Assange helped U.S. foreign policy far more than he harmed it… plus the ongoing battle between police and citizens armed with cameras… and much more.

Never before have so many people been empowered with practical tools of transparency. Beyond access to instantly searchable information from around the world, nearly all of us now carry in our pockets a device that can take still photographs and video, then transmit the images anywhere. Will the growing power of elites to peer down at us—surveillance—ultimately be trumped by a rapidly augmenting ability of citizens to look back at those in power—or “sousveillance”?

=== One-sided Transparency ===

H.P. and Cisco Systems Inc. will help China build a massive surveillance network in the city of Chongqing — aimed at crime prevention. The technological part of it is impressive, as it will “cover a half-million intersections, neighborhoods and parks over nearly 400 square miles, an area more than 25% larger than New York City.” This extensive surveillance system may potentially implement as many as 500,000 cameras, far more even than the 8,000 to 10,000 surveillance cameras estimated to exist in cities like New York. Yet — note that few of those New York cameras report to a centralized system.

The anti-crime benefits of such systems might be achievable without tyranny — if citizens were equally empowered to look back at the mighty, via “sousveillance.” But such reciprocality is not likely in the near Chinese future. Human rights activists worry that such extensive surveillance will inevitably be used for other purposes — to target political protests.

Are companies responsible for how their products are used? In a recent Wall Street Journal poll, over half responded that U.S. companies should be allowed to sell high-tech surveillance tech to China. Meanwhile, H.P. executive Todd Bradley dodged the issue, commenting that “It’s not my job to really understand thewhat they’re going to use it for.”

Meanwhile, in New York City, there are 238 license plate readers. Many of these are mobile devices, mounted on the back of patrol cars. Others are set up at fixed posts at bridges, tunnels and highways across the city. These license plate readers have helped in the tracking down of major crimes suspects; they have provided also clues in homicide cases and other serious crimes. But they have been used in lesser offenses, such as identifying and locating stolen cars. But there are concerns. The police have established an extensive database tracking citizens’ driving patterns. How long is this data maintained and who can access the information?

Meanwhile, Cracked gives us six legit ways cops can screw us over… including the fact Asset Forfeiture is factored into their budget. Or in other words, if cops weren’t allowed to seize our stuff and sell it, even without proof of a crime, they’d suffer budget shortfalls.

====Looking toward the Far Future====

NASA’s Hundred Year Starship and the Yucca Mountain nuclear depository are two examples of “deep time” thinking — casting our eyes over the next horizon, anticipating the needs of our descendants. While top priority must go to freedom, progress, full brains for all kids and saving the planet — some ambitious, forward-looking innovation and commitment to our grandchildren must be on the agenda.

=====More News====

Japanese scientists announced that massive deposits of the 17 elements used to produce hybrid cars, laptops, smartphones and other high-tech devices can be extracted from nodules on the floor of the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. Nodules were first touted as setting off a sub-sea boom in sci fi stories way back in the 1950s.  I certainly spoke of this in more detail… in EARTH (1989). But will it be economic to retrieve these resources?

For real? Israel will be using new technology to get oil from oil shale in the Shfela Basin. There’s an estimated 250 billion barrels vs the Saudi’s 260 billion barrels. This article is clearly biased and somewhat polemically exaggerated  – and conveniently ignores Rupert Murdoch’s deep bed-buddyness with certain pretro princes.  Still, if it is even half true….

The Educational Value of Creative Disobedience: Read this article in Scientific American by Andrea Kuszewski about teaching children how to solve problems creatively, instead of flooding them with memorized information.  It really is worth your time.

A lovely portrayal of the scaling of the universe: ranging from moons and planets, to galaxies and clusters: Play this at full-screen. Enjoy the beauty and majesty of it all.

Are the Japanese making human clones? Actually, just putting your face on a robot!

Thor-Meets-Captain-AmericaFinally, I’ve placed several of my novellas on Kindle: Thor Meets Captain America, The Loom of Thessaly, Tank Farm Dynamo, and Stones of Significance.


Filed under future, internet, media, politics, technology

The Internet as a Human Right?

President Obama has declared that access to the world of information, via the Internet, should be considered a basic human right. This is, of course, something you’d expect me to agree with. In The Transparent Society I made a case for such openness based on multiple levels:

1- It is morally and ethically imperative.

2- It is the best way to achieve justice.

3- Our basic societal “organs”- including fair markets, democracy, science and even art function better when all players can make decisions based upon full knowledge.

4- It creates a situation in which Enlightenment Civilization will ultimately “win.”

Now, we’re being a bit redundant here, since desiderata 1,2&3 are only positive things from the viewpoint of people who are members of an Enlightenment Civilization. These traits are not orthogonal. Even the way some of you reacted to point number four — by frowning over my chosen words, my notion of one civilization “winning” against its competitors — even that reaction is itself a trait of having been raised in the Enlightenment’s modern liberal societies.

Few cultures ever saw moral fault in hoping for their own success, at the expense of others. Survival was a zero-sum game, until the Enlightenment discovered positive sum virtues.

The ultimate irony is that, in order for positive-sum thinking to prevail in the future world of our children – and for diversity to reign in peace – the overall worldview of enlightenment values (values that appreciate diversity) will have to “win” in the most general sense. Freedom – and especially the freedom to know and to speak that is embodied in the internet – must prevail… and those forces that restrict freedom must fail.

This is why the world’s despotic regimes reacted so negatively to President Obama’s assertion of a right to internet access. They know that:

a) open information flows, especially a secular trend toward more transparency worldwide, will be inherently lethal to their mode of rule, and

b) increases in light flowing over fully engaged enlightenment nations and their institutions only makes them stronger. Sure, some doses of light can be inconvenient to individual leaders, parties or clades. But the overall societies only get healthier.

Let’s deal with each of these assertions.

Transparency as an Openly Aggressive Weapon Against Despots

We begin by quoting liberally from a recent article in WIRE-online.

”When Hosni Mubarak shut down Egypt’s internet and cellphone communications, it seemed that all U.S. officials could do was ask him politely to change his mind. But the American military does have a second set of options, if it ever wants to force connectivity on a country against its ruler’s wishes. There’s just one wrinkle. “It could be considered an act of war,” says John Arquilla, a leading military futurist and a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School.

“The U.S. military has no shortage of devices — many of them classified — that could restore connectivity to a restive populace cut off from the outside world by its rulers. It’s an attractive option for policymakers who want an option for future Egypts, between doing nothing and sending in the Marines. And it might give teeth to the Obama administration’s demand that foreign governments consider internet access an inviolable human right.

“Consider the Commando Solo, the Air Force airborne broadcasting center. A revamped cargo plane, the Commando Solo beams out psychological operations in AM and FM for radio, and UHF and VHF for TV. Arquilla doesn’t want to go into detail how the classified plane could get a denied internet up and running again, but if it flies over a bandwidth-denied area, suddenly your Wi-Fi bars will go back up to full strength. That leads to another possibility: “Just give people Thuraya satellite phones,” says John Pike of Globalsecurity.org. The cheapish phones hunt down signals from space hardware.”

I’ve been talking about this concept with John Arquilla and his colleagues for many years. Back in 2001 – at the CIA and several defense agencies – I described more than a dozen methods to cheaply spread key elements of an international civil society into closed or despotic nations, in ways almost-guaranteed to create win-win situations and to corner tyrants, at little risk to ourselves. I cannot claim that the tools listed above originated with those speeches. (I get contradictory reports about that, and in the end it doesn’t matter.) Still, I am glad there’s been movement in the right direction.

There are many other measures, not listed in the WIRED piece, that can be effective across a wide range of circumstances. At one extreme – that of open but not-yet-violent hostility — calls for particular and peculiar aggressiveness. During the run-up to the latest Iraq war, at the same meeting where I proposed most of the measures listed in the WIRED article, I also suggested the ultimate in people-empowering and tyrant-disempowering technologies…

…developing and then dropping into such a nation several million “volksradios” that would provide Iraqis with an entirely separate system of packet-switched conversation, outside the dictator’s control. Also, incidentally, such a system would provide our intelligence services with vast amounts of information on the ground.

(This is related to my civil defense proposal to make western countries more robust, but simply enabling our cell phones to pass text messages on a peer-to-peer basis. To read about much simpler-cruder methods, have a look here.)

Of course, over the long run, we’d rather not let it come to that. Dropping in several million gifts to a nation’s citizens may not be an act of war – I defy anyone to make that case. But it certainly is a pugnacious violation of sovereignty. So is the freezing of a regime’s foreign assets.

From the Washington Post: How the U.S. Treasury Department froze Libyan assets. They expected $100 million, but found over $30 billion — mostly all in one bank. To put this in perspective: In 2009, Libya had a gross domestic product of $62 billion.

Say what? Thirty billion dollars? If this cash pile is matched by similar revelations re Egypt and Tunisia and other toppled despotisms, can you doubt that economic transparency will become a truly radical cause during the twenty-teens. Perhaps even as much as I predicted back in 1989, in my novel EARTH?

Only, in this case, we’re talking about a “radicalism of reasonableness.” A militancy of moderation. A fervent and dynamic worldwide call for governments and corporations and oligarchs and rulers and economies and everybody simply to play fair. Compete fair. To rule fairly, the way Adam Smith and F. Hayek and nearly all cogent economists of left and right agree we must, if society is to be healthy at all.

A radicalism that Louis Brandeis spoke of when he prescribed the one thing that keeps a society healthy. “Light is the best disinfectant.”

== The Other Assertion: Light Only Makes us Stronger ===

I’ve long-delayed my “WikiLeaks Analysis.” Events are still surging along. But one aspect that Julian Assange surely never expected – when he spilled a quarter of a million State Department cables upon the world – was the degree to which this leak helped Hillary Clinton and her colleagues, at the exact moment when they needed maximum credibility in the developing world, and especially among Arab youth. The overall positive impression given by those cables — of skilled American professionals who despised the despots they had to deal with — overwhelmed all the tiny embarrassments that Assange expected to send heads rolling, in Foggy Bottom.

The crux effect of this openness (one that I predicted at that 2001 speech, and since then) was to so enhance American influence at a vital moment, that I expect the Secretary of State – if she had a chance – would give Julian Assange a great big hug.

This doesn’t prove assertion #b. But it is highly indicative. Indeed, there is only one thing that prevents our skilled professionals, diplomats and political leaders from doing the obvious. From eagerly embracing a broad, general secular trend toward a world with few secrets as the surest way to accomplish their goal — a “win” for the overall civilization that employs them.

Alas, that one thing is a biggie: human nature.


Filed under technology

As The Naughty Oughts end – where goest Media and the Internet?

I believe I was the first, back in 1999, to forecast that the first decade of the 21st Century – the “Naughty Oughts” – would feature plummeting confidence and a Y2K curse far worse than some niggling little computer glitch. Would this be what author Robert Heinlein called “The Crazy Years?” More important… will the next decade see more sanity, maturity, ambition and -above all – courage?

Many people have written asking me what “Mr. Transparency” thinks of the whole WikiLeaks affair. I’ve created a long, detailed analysis (querying magazines to publish it.)

Meanwhile, let’s fill in the holiday doldrums with some interestingthoughts and snippets abou the future of media and the Internet.

Gen-Xers, TRON, and “teen paradise.”

The new TRON movie reminds me of something – that GenXers had the best teen years.  Sure, us boomers had better music. And no on

e ever matched our self-righteous sanctimony! (e.g. today’s ruinous “culture war” in which boasting rights go to the Left for being “less insane.” What an honor.)

But 80s kids had teen-hangout paradise! The video arcade. Every neighborhood’s Las Vegas Casino. Noise, flash, excitement; all the teens were there. No generation had anything like it before or since. Pity.
(Or might the arcade revive? I know how to do it!)

= Whither Goest Media and The Internet? =

Netflix is gobbling internet bandwidth. During peak usage (8-10 pm), Netflix movie downloads took up 20% of America’s broadband traffic. That’s an amazing statistic, especially since it is due to usage by only 2% of Netflix subscribers. And demand is only going to grow, as more companies strive to compete. Netflix downloads already outpace Youtube and BitTorrent peer to peer sharing (which consumes 8% of bandwidth).

America’s internet connection speed lags behind that of other countries. The U.S. ranks behind Romania; our rate is less than a third that of South Korea. Consumers must demand better — or we’ll be on the slow road to the future…

From the Wall Street Journal: “In the Grip of the New Monopolists” Tim Wu writes: “The Internet has long been held up as a model for what the free market is supposed to look like–competition in its purest form. So why does it look increasingly like a Monopoly board? Most of the major sectors today are controlled by one dominant company or an oligopoly. Google owns search; Facebook, social networking; eBay rules auctions; Apple dominates online content delivery; Amazon, retail; and so on.”   One must wonder… why did Rupert let the WSJ publish this article.

Internet hijackings are a continuing threat, either intentional or accidental. In April 15% of internet traffic was diverted through China — when a Chinese internet provider updated its routing information. A similar incident occurred with Pakistan.

How is the government monitoring and using social media: View the PDF paper: U.S. Department of Homeland Security “Publicly Available Social Media Monitoring and Situational Awareness Initiative”

Wall Street Journal’series “What They Know” documents interrnet tracking technology by marketers on commonly visited sites.

Obama will appoint watchdog for online privacy.

An interesting history of the linguistic background of  “Word Wide Web” and all its descendants.

Infomous, a visual way to navigate online. Hover over a word to visit original sources. Press X to remove content.

I just realized, Marshal McLuhan died in 1980.  Jeepers! Just before the spread of Usenet and the recognizable early glimmers of Internet-based two-way media.  Was that irony, or what?

= More on (moron?) Media =

Has our global village exposed us to risk of systemic failure? In our ever-more complex, networked and interconnected world, the actions or failure of a few can have widespread consequences, potentially spiraling out of control. This mode is called systemic risk — the downfall of an entire system, rather than a few individuals. Global integration has resulted in markets, trade, transportation and communication systems which are intricately interlinked — this can, in theory, lead either to robustness or fragility. Some say that the financial crisis was the first sign of such widespread failure. The rapid transmission of a pandemic, or biological warfare loom as people live in densely populated areas and travel globally. “If past decades are any guide, new problems will be thrown at old and outdated institutions,” writes Ian Golden.

The English language has doubled in size in the last century, adding 8,500 new words a year.

Google estimates that they have scanned 10% of the books ever published. Now you too can mine this extensive database: Google has introduced the Books Ngram Viewer – which allows you to track the frequency of words & phrases in scanned literature through time. Try it out: The word apocalypse peaks about 1996; star wars peaks about 1990, then trails off. A research team at Harvard is calling this field “culturomics,” suggesting that this tool enables culture to be quantitatively decoded like a genome.

The Suicide of Print Journalism, by David Doody Has the internet killed print journalism? It’s accepted wisdom that the consumer has simply chosen free news over paid subscriptions. An alternate viewpoint is that print newspapers had become relatively staid and unchanging. An appropriate parallel might be with American automobile companies — who rolled out cosmetic design changes to great fanfare each year, with little true innovation — until Japanese companies jumped into the competition, offering a fresh alternative. The internet has succeeded in offering a broad range of up-to-the-minute news tailored to individual interests. The question remains — what are people willing to pay?

The Internet of  hype: Economist Magazine on the “Internet of Things” or the internet of everything.

Jason Silva in Big Think: Connecting all the dots. “Within our current social media architecture, we are all ‘agents of pattern-recognition’: by “posting”, “tweeting” or “liking” things, we end up working for one another, organizing the sea of data info meaningful streams and enriching our minds like never before.”


The patent system is currently unable to keep up with the constant innovation of technology: “Though patents were created to encourage innovation…the patent system actually stifles it. In the fast-moving software market, where online applications are constantly changing, investors say software patents are often targets for lawsuits rather than protection from them.”

Space-time cloak could conceal events: new meta-materials with the ability to bend light around them could be used to hide things in space and time.

The new field of location analytics: businesses are buying GPS data from mobile phones in order to track consumers’ location and movements. How much time did a customer spend in a store; where did they go when they left; what path did they take to their next location? Companies previously relied upon surveys; now they will be better able to profile their customers to precisely market their product. This is the future.

Ray Kurzweil on technology: “Our intuition about the future is linear. But the reality of information technology is exponential.” He continues, “My cell phone’s probably updating itself as we speak, but I’m walking around with 1,000-year-old software that was for a different era.”
Video clips of six Innovative Robot Hands — ready to lend us a hand.
Concerns about cell phones and radiation.

See a glimpse of the future (?) in the augmented reality “iLens” (I doubt this is a real Apple Inc promo.) In fact, old hat to Vernor Vinge and me.

… best of the season to all of you… and here’s to a return to ambitious, mature, calm-but-assertive confidence, in a bold civilization that is worthy of the name…

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Filed under internet, media, technology

The Future of Media

First, it seems I’ll be made fun of (in good humor) on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, on January 7 (subject to change), while helping my favorite show explore the concept of “dangerous aliens!”  Help spread the word!  Sure, I’ll be edited to look silly, but anything for laughs… and for that Colbert Bump!

FUTURE-FREE-MEDIAThe Future of “Free” Media

Will the current “everything is free” version of the Internet last? We’ve grown used to being able to hop about like gods, sampling almost everything out there, without having to pay a dime.  There are plenty of wise folks out there who predicted the collapse of this model, for a long time.  Sooner or later, they may prove to be right.

In a fascinating interview, Michael Whalen, award winning composer and new media observer, discusses the challenges facing those who create and delivering “content.”  He correctly (I think) sees the monopolistic control model of content-delivering “pipes” collapsing into a vast lake, though this won’t benefit the content owners, either.

Moreover, the makers of specific mobile hardware will matter less and less. Money will still be made by each year’s best device maker, but it will remain a hardscrabble, highly competitive world. Device-making will not be a robust business model for steady and ongoing profit.

So far, so likely to be true. But what Whalen misses is the other shoe that must drop, and that is the inherent problem in re: advertising. We’ve grown used to viewing Adverts as the great monetizer, the prop that can convert raw numbers of “eyeball” attention-seconds into support for the vast lake of quasi-free content.  This model has worked far longer than I would have expected, supporting Hulu, YouTube, Facebook, Yahoo and so many other content delivery systems one can barely count them all.
Almost alone, I have long viewed this as a bubble, of sorts, perhaps even of the tulip variety. This vast house of cards may prove very hard to support, especially once companies get used to highly targeted AdSense-style ads delivering the actual information consumers need, in order to buy the actual products they want.

Will online advertising collapse like an over-inflated bubble?  I haven’t heard anybody else say this, but I think it might be the next shoe to drop.  And if it does, what will happen to all that free content people are so used-to?

pay-per-contentAs I see it, there are a few models out there. One is pay as you use… either through fee-entry sites like the NY Times or through content aggregators likeiTunes and the varied Ap stores.  The aggregators are likely to expand.  Indeed, this is one reason why I am clinging to my AAPL stock, because they are well placed to be leaders in this role.

I am less-sanguine about individual pay-for-content, like the NYTimes is trying to set up. I part with most critics over why it won’t work, though.  Most say that the public is used to free content and hates to pay. Wrong. People are willing to pay.

What they hate is the current inconvenience of paying.  Having to type in name/email and password, or credit card info, or even using PayPal to do their rapid click-surfs for interesting content.

nickel-pay-per-view“I’d pay a nickel for that, but don’t slow me down!” That is the attitude I am hearing.

The problem is that PayPal is very badly set up to handle the kind of micro-payments that would enable Salon and the NYTimes to charge the reasonable (say) one-cent per view that people would be willing to pay. Seriously, a venture capitalist who invested in the next kind of PayPal… one that gets the micropayments wagon rolling… could make a ton, once ten million people are signed aboard.  A fantastic business opportunity, but it would take a fellow with patience and deep pockets.

(In fact, I know a few tricks that would make it easier and bypass some of the problems.  Daring investor out there? 😉

Another model is Rhapsody… clubs and subscription services that let you pay monthly and access content without ever thinking twice, after that.  If advertising collapses, you’ll see such services abound.  People will have the click-grab feel of free content, in daily use, but pay willingly a fair monthly rate, as in Netflix. It would work and bypass much of the “Net Neutrality” problems.  (I wrote about both of these methods in The Transparent Society (1997).

Then there’s the notion that advertising will be an ever-growing subsidy, forever. I could be wrong.

A fourth system of content generation and delivery is the one Whalen speaks of: ” I think we’re going back to the 19th century in terms of the “status” of artists. They’ll be figureheads. Imagine: like Paris or Vienna of the 1900s, we’ll have wealthy patrons and small clutches of people who support the art of “real” artists. In this environment, the work we will try to sell is simply a loss leader and an inducement for us to perform or create a “custom” song, TV show or film…”

Yes, obviously this is where we are heading, in a society that is re-aristocratizing at a rapid clip, abandoning the post-WWII shape of a diamond, with a dominant middle class, and resuming the traditional pyramid structure, with a few thousand oligarch families up-top.  It is how things worked in every other culture… and you and I will hate it.  Even if we get to be lords, you and I will hate it.  But it may be where we wind up.  And so, creators (like me) may need to start looking for patrons.

The good news? I know a dozen billionaires on a first name basis. The bad news? That fact has never done me a scintilla of economic good in the past. But it may in-future, if Whalen is right.

Sometimes Whalen gets silly: “I think everyone is waiting for a GOOG – AAPL face off.  It’s not going to happen… AAPL can BUY GOOG.”

Um… not.  Market cap is not everything.  I know Sergey.  Won’t happen.  Heck, even if advertising collapses, that collapse won’t touch Google.  In fact, frantic advertisers will run TO google.

But all that is quibbling.  A very interesting article.

Misc add-ons! =

What if H. P. Lovecraft wrote … TinTin?

Another Smartypants Brin?

The Symphony of Science is a musical project headed by John Boswell, designed to deliver scientific knowledge and philosophy in musical form. Here you can watch music videos, download songs, read lyrics and find links relating to the messages conveyed by the music.

British artist Darryl Cunningham offers an insightful cartoon take on Global Warming and Conspiracies. “It’s one thing to be skeptical, but it’s another thing entirely to believe in a conspiracy.”  It really is very stimulating… or so said hundreds(!) of commenters on my blogs, alone.

= Which Brings Up My Final Thought: about SOA… =

I have long held that Americans are especially enthralled by the mythos of Suspicion of Authority.   And deep underneath their bickering, republicans and democrats share a mental reflex – suspicion of authority (SOA) – that goes back generations, differing mostly over which elite they see looming as a potential Big Brother. (While making excuses for the elites they prefer). Seldom discussed is their agreement on a common theme – that Big Brother would be a really bad idea.

I had nursed a hope that there would come a time when both major wings would realize that – though wrong in many ways – the other side has a point about the elite it worries about.  That we should be guarding each others’ backs. Alas, instead we see a rising tide of irrationality and conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy theories happen when SOA metastacizes, like cancer.  Either by infecting everybody with unreasonableness… or by becoming true.

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Astronomy, SETI, science, transparency and wonders!

DragonflightScience fiction is one of the most “American” literary genres, because, like America itself, SF has a relentless fascination with change. In fact, I believe that this trait – rather than technology – is what most distinguishes SF from fantasy.  (It is certainly why Anne MacCaffrey, author of the “Dragonrider” series, proclaims quite firmly that “I am a science fiction author; I don’t do fantasy.”

Societies, families, and individuals have always lived on shifting sands.  When just a few of your comfy assumptions are rocked, you may find wisdom and solace in a closely-focused literary view. But if you want or need a bigger picture — to ride the tsunami that change has become in modern times — then literary science fiction turns the reader from a hapless recipient of change into an explorer.

The “what-if” thought experiment is the purest expression of a courageous mind.  Because authors hurl, and readers accept, the ultimate challenge to empathy —

— not just putting on the shoes of your neighbor, but stretching your empathic power to other places, times, cultures and states of being.  To put aside the comfort food of familiarity, repetition, nostalgia or the myopic here-and-now… and instead reconnoiter the vast range of things that (for better or worse) our children might do and become.

Despite the simplistic banality of Hollywood sci fi, there is more to science fiction than garish, clanking monsters.  It can infect children with the dangerous mental habit of imagining things different than they are. And a surprising majority of scientists, doctors, astronauts, engineers, teachers, diplomats and world-changers all grew up devouring SF.  It can stir discontent with past and current injustice and then go on to warn of dangers on – or just beyond – the horizon.

A habit of questioning all dogmas – even those that your parents taught you – can makes science fiction seem dangerous, even to lit-professors, who cannot force the genre into slots or pigeonholes.  Because an SF author – once slotted – may bend all of his or her energy and considerable imagination to the project of breaking out.

It is the literature of rambunctious questioning.  And to the extent that Americans loved it — we thrived.


The Astronomy Now site  has a 6 min piece about the debate that was hel in Britain a few weeks ago, at the Royal Society’s new Kavli Conference Center.  Featured are clips of Dr. James Benford & me on our side (urging that the issue of “messages to aliens” be discussed in more open fora) and Dr. Seth Shostak, of the SETI Institute, on the other.  Of course nothing was resolved.

The most significant outcome? A straw poll of the attendees at the conference overwhelmingly and almost unanimously asked that the Royal Society and the AAAS support our appeal for international symposia on the issue, bringing in the world’s greatest sages from fields like History, anthropology, biology, philosophy etc into a discussion that may ultimately include — and affect — us all.

Oh… and in related news….

Richard Dawkins speculates about extraterrestrial life in this video.

NASA Ames reveals DARPA-funded “Hundred Year Starship” program, with $1 million funding from DARPA. Announced at a Long Now Foundation event, the program is aimed at settling other worlds


That 90 minute audio interview I gave last month, for Jay Ackroyd’s BlogTalkRadio (in conjunction with an event on Second Life), is now available on podcast.

UK firm crowdsources security camera monitoring so you never know who’s watching:

“Back in 1996, writer and scientist David Brin wrote “The Transparent Society,” a tale of two fundamentally similar yet very different 21st century cities. Both were littered with security cameras monitoring every inch of public space, but in one city the police did the watching, while in the other the citizens monitored the feeds to keep an eye on each other (and the police). These days, many UK police forces monitor their city streets with cameras mounted on every corner. Now, for a fee, a private company is crowdsourcing security surveillance to any citizen willing to watch, fulfilling Brin’s prophecy in a sense.”

Augmented Reality?…. Try diminished reality!

And? Pope Benedict XVI said on Thursday that the media’s increasing reliance on images, fuelled by the endless development of new technologies, risked confusing real life with virtual reality.  (Um… go to the Jesuit church in Rome and see the trompe l’oeil ceilings (fool the eye) that they are so proud of! dang. It was the immersion 3-D mind-blow of it’s day!)

Fascinating possible alternative way to collect solar energy in the stratosphere and deliver it to the ground.

Fun stuff!

A fabulous leap in the use of the Codona Coronagraph to block light from a distant star and see Jupiter-scale planets, as close as 5 au to their sun.

See a great image of the tree of life and evolution in action. Look carefully and see how the tree suddenly THINS at certain extinction times (notice the dinosaurs vanish) but life soon fills in the gaps.  This really is terrific… even if it does prejudice by implying we are the “most evolved.” http://evogeneao.com/images/Evo_large.gif

Cool video: Imagining the tenth dimension

A cartoon comparison of Huxley and Orwell Orwell feared those who would ban books; Huxley feared there would be no reason to ban books, for there would be no one to read them…

Five times we almost nuked ourselves by accident.

Fifty ideas to change science: Artificial life : biologists will make artificial cells, enzymes, stem cells, induce photosynthesis in the lab…you need a subscription to read the whole article.

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A test of truthiness: Fascinating to see how memes spread across the web, passed from peer to peer. But how can one tell what ideas are grass roots and which are spread by political campaigns or corporations? Truthy, based at Indiana University’s School of Informatics and Computing attempts to chart the diffusion of information & misinformation on Twitter – by tracking keywords and retweets. http://truthy.indiana.edu/

At Carnegie Mellon, a computer named NELL (Never-Ending Language Learner) is busy uplifting itself: scanning info 24/7, calculating, categorizing – learning language as humans do. A step toward the semantic web and possibly true artificial intelligence? You can watch Nell find correlations via twitter. @cmunell http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/05/science/05compute.html?_r=1

The Lunar X Prize (backed by Google) will grant $30 million to the first privately funded team that lands a robot rover on the moon. The rover must travel more than 500 meters and transmit video and data back to earth. Deadline is 2012 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_Lunar_X_Prize

Be sure to see Comet Hartley 2 (discovered in 1986). It should be visible with binoculars, appearing as a greenish smudge near Cassiopeia if you have dark skies. This comet will be targeted by NASA’s Deep Impact probe (EPOXI) for a flyby in November – coming within 435 miles of the comet. http://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/comet-hartley-2-might-be-2010s-brightest-comet

Donald Kennedy, former president of Stanford, once issued a challenge to young researchers: Concisely explain your research topic in an “elevator pitch”: Imagine riding an elevator with a friend who is bright but not a scientist. Explain what you do, what it means and why it matters – all before reaching the 15th floor. A worthy challenge in communicating science to the general public – who does pay the bills, after all.

How will technology impact personal liberties? The ACLU is analyzing sci-fi plots to plan its future battles over individual freedom. Its report, Technology, Liberties and the Future, draws upon science fiction for worst-case scenarios to study possible civil liberties violations that may result from advances in technology: omni-surveillance, cloning, gene splicing, nanotech, cyborgs, AI…

Is it censorship if the government buys the entire first printing of a book (Anthony Shaffer’s Operation Dark Heart), in return for the publisher’s agreement to destroy ever copy? http://www.utne.com/Great-Writing/government-operation-dark-heart-book-burning.aspx

Kenyan tinkerer builds plane from scratch, using a Toyota engine and a wooden propeller, wings from aluminum siding http://www.popsci.com/diy/article/2010-10/video-kenyan-tinkerer-builds-plane-scratch-aims-fly-next-week

An animated look at Changing Educational Paradigms http://comment.rsablogs.org.uk/2010/10/14/rsa-animate-changing-education-paradigms/

Danny Gold’s new movie: 100 voices A journey Home: the revival of Jewish culture in Poland http://www.100voicesmovie.com/

Check out this assembly of sculptures of human ancestors — ranging from Australopithecus to Homo erectus — amazingly realistic reconstructions created by French artist Elisabeth Daynes, fleshed out from casts of skulls. See her website with details on the reconstructions and methodology: http://www.daynes.com/en/reconstructions.php http://photoblog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2010/10/15/5296825-a-family-portrait-for-the-ages?chromedomain=cosmiclog

Our most precious resource, water, is increasingly being privatized. Global water consumption is doubling every 20 years, and demand will soon outstrip supply. The rights to divert water are a sellable commodity, but will markets deal with this problem equitably — or pit industry against drought-stricken countries –  water haves against water have-nots…

A Moh’s Scale of Hardness for science fiction: how ‘hard’ is the science – is the story consistent with the laws of physics – and are the fictional extrapolations plausible? Click to expand the categories at the end.  My opinion?  Eh.

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