The Big Questions About The Future (Transition to the Information Age)

At DLD earlier this week I gave a talk that’s an illustrated and expanded version of my recent blog post about Entering the Information Age.

And here are the slides, including a final slide with image credits (most images come form flickr are CC licensed):

Looking forward to comments and suggestions. I am planning to expand this material over the coming weeks and months.

Posted: 24th January 2014Comments
Tags:  society technology

Entering the Information Age

Here on Continuations I have covered a lot of seemingly disparate topics such as the end of work, government surveillance and the digital balkans. They are, however, all part of my fascination with the transition from the industrial age to the information age. While that latter term was coined all the way back in the 1960s, there is reason to believe that the transition is beginning to happen now.

Today I want to provide a large scale historical context, taking us all the way back to hunter gatherers and looking at the three “Ages” that we have gone through so far. I am using “Age” to define the time period during which the respective mode was dominant. Historians among my readers will hopefully forgive me the following gross simplifications. 

1. Forager Age

This hunter gatherer (or forager) age was essentially all of human history starting with Homo Erectus about 1.8 million years ago up to the Bronze Age. The dominant organizational mode was the tribe with a mostly flat structure and communal approach to life. The primary motivation seems to have been survival. Tribes were itinerant as they moved around by foot to areas that provided nutrition (that also drove the spread of humans across the earth). As far as I can tell, there was no notion of privacy.

2. Agrarian Age

The transition to the agrarian age happened sometime around 3000 BC and was the consequence of a several non-linear and complementary technological innovations. Key ones that stand out are the domestication of animals, farming, writing, government and seafaring. Farming provides an increase in nutritional density of 10-100x over foraging. Horses gave those who had them a 10-100x advantage in battle and were of course also critical for agriculture. The food surplus from farming allowed for specialization which included the rise of rulers and soldiers.

The organizational model became the fiefdom, then the kingdom and eventually the empire, leading all the way up to the British Empire. Personal property came about first as the right of rulers and gradually claimed further down. With relatively few exceptions (such as soldiers and government) people lived from what they made through either trade or sale in a market. In addition to survival, religion became a critical driving force. Privacy mostly meant being unimportant and disposable (as in the “private” in the army).

3. Industrial Age

I think there is good reason to argue that the agrarian age went to almost 1900. Yes it’s true that during the 1800s manufacturing was emerging but I am interested in the dominant mode and even in the late 1800s about half of all work was in agriculture. Again, there were several non-linear and complementary technological innovations behind the transition. Engines (steam, electric and gasoline) provided reliable power and speed far in excess of humans and domesticated animals. The telegraph allowed for the rapid transmission of information across great distances. The assembly line let work be broken down into many small steps that could be rapidly learned by humans.

The organizational model moved, through two world wars, to the Nation State. Making a living shifted to selling one’s time and effort as opposed to the product of one’s work. In addition to survival and religion, keeping up with the Jones’s became a critical motivator. Personal property was extended heavily into intellectual property. Having one’s own home and individual rooms was a major goal and privacy an important construct.

These three previous ages and two big preceding transitions have some interesting characteristics: 

First, the technological innovations always preceded the resultant social and organizational transformations. Early signs of agriculture exist as far back as 11000BC and animals started to be domesticated significantly before 3000BC. Steam tractors go as far back as the late 1700s but cars didn’t become a meaningful mode of transportation until after World War I.

Second, technological innovations introduced important non-linearities in capabilities, in particular because of complementarity between different innovations. Complementary organizational innovation plays a particularly important role here. Writing is great for storing and transmitting information, which became especially handy when you have government and an army. It is not enough to have machine power, you also needed the assembly line for mass manufacturing.

Third, in each transition it first got worse before it got better. There is evidence that early farmers lived shorter lives than hunter gatherers and worked much, much harder. The early period of industrialization was marked by child labor, squalor in the cities and terrific pollution.

Fourth, seemingly defining aspects of human culture including intellectual property and privacy have arisen only relatively recently and substantially in response to technological innovation.

Why does that matter? Because it could and should inform how we approach the coming transition to the Information Age (I am calling it a coming transition because the dominant mode is still that of the industrial production).

First, we have now had a few decades with a key new set of technological innovations, including computers, mobile phones, the Internet, additive manufacturing (3D Printing), molecular and cellular manipulation (DNA). All of these are going from something that “can be done” to being done at scale.

Second, these innovations are non-linear and complementary with each other. For instance, being able to transmit mega bytes of model data across the Internet makes it much more valuable to have a 3D Printer. That is why they are highly likely to help bring us into the Information Age. Lightly organized global networks are emerging as a critical complementary organization innovation.

Third, we are definitely seeing some things getting worse. This is where my writing on income distribution and the end of work fits in. As does the concern around both the rise of surveillance and the threat of the cyber balkans.

Fourth, we should not assume that concepts such as intellectual property or privacy are immutable. We have made them up and we can and will over time redefine them.

This then leads to the key questions about what the Information Age might look like.

How will we organize ourselves and will we transcend the Nation State? How will people “make a living”? What will be the motivating force for people? What are we trying to accomplish with privacy and intellectual property and how should these change?

Much of what we believe to be true about society is informed by the more recent historical record. But the forager age might be more informative going forward. Why? Because both the agrarian age and the industrial age were fundamentally marked by scarcity. Only the forager age had a relative sense of abundance. In the digital realm, however, we are dealing once again with abundance and we are gradually extending that to the real world.

That leaves us with two more critically important questions about the transition to the Information Age. First, do we need a catalytic event or can we get there without it? Past catalytic events were largely wars, revolutions and plagues. It would be good to avoid both of these. Second, what are you and I personally doing to help navigate the transition?

Posted: 13th January 2014Comments
Tags:  information age economy society humanity

Opposing View Reader (Update)

A couple of years ago I wrote about our need for an “opposing view reader" that would intentionally show us commentary from people with opinions different from our own. As far as I can tell relatively little progress has been made on this front. Twitter, for instance, will generally recommend to me that I follow people who are like the people I am already following. So I was happy to see that there is at least some academic research on this topic. The Technology Review mentions a paper titled “Data Portraits: Connecting People of Opposing Views” that is available on arxiv. Unfortunately when I actually read the paper I found that n for their study was tiny (37!) and I don’t think supports the conclusions with any significance (their stats notwithstanding).

In my original post I failed to explain fully why this problem has been growing in importance. One of the fundamental forces of the Internet has been the unbundling of content. If you are reading this right now you are getting my opinion from my blog or in your Tumblr dashboard (or via a feed reader). The post stands by itself. Whatever I link to was chosen by me. Put differently, there is no context that could provide for an opposing view, no additional editorial or purposeful pairing by an editor. 

When you combine unbundling with a huge increase in available content, you wind up with a situation where someone could spend all their available time just reading content that will confirm their existing views. Existing recommendation and search algorithms are all built to re-enforce this by trying to present you with content (or people) that match your interests. That leads to what Eli Pariser has called the “filter bubble” — his TED talk on the subject is worth watching (or you can read his book).

I also should have given credit to my then fellow PhD student and now BU Professor Marshall van Alstyne who wrote an excellent paper on the subject as far back as 1996, titled “Global Village or Cyber Balkans?” (co-authored with Erik Brynjolffson). Here is a great quote from the introduction:

Information technology can link geographically separated people and help them locate interesting or compatible resources. Although these attributes have the potential to bridge gaps and unite communities, they also have the potential to fragment interaction and divide groups by leading people to spend more time on special interests and by screening out less preferred contact.

The paper itself is quite theoretical but I am pretty sure that today we could easily use Twitter data to examine the hypothesis.

If you know of a recommendation service that does in fact surface opposite views please let me know. I am also interested in additional research on the topic. In the meantime I am thankful for folks like David Pinsen whom I follow on Twitter and who routinely helps challenge my thinking.

Posted: 2nd December 2013Comments
Tags:  bubble society opinion

Unabashed Utopia

I wrote about Russell Brand’s call for an unspecified revolution this past Friday. I liked his eloquent and indignant dismissal of the current political and economic system but he did not provide a vision of what a revolution should aim for. I have been struggling to wrestle down my own ideas on this and while I am still not quite there I feel like an outline is emerging. 

Let me start by describing the goal. It is nothing short of humanity coming together on a global scale to eradicate poverty and disease and live in harmony with the environment. There I have said it, much like contestants at a beauty pageant declaring their goal to be “world peace.” I fully realize that this seems like an impossible dream, a forever unrealizable utopia. But I am quite sure that our lives today would seem like a utopia to pretty much anyone living in the Middle Ages (and yes, some parts of the world seem not yet to have escaped that time).

In fact, there are two compelling reasons for embracing such a new vision of utopia now. First, because it is within humanity’s reach. We have the technical resources to make sure everyone has access to food, clothing, shelter. We also have a technology (the Internet) to let us globally collaborate on solving problems. So any argument about “it can’t be done” at this point is a defeatist, negative one (and I plan to take on some of these in subsequent posts, such as the “goes against human nature” objection). Second, we need it more urgently than ever before. Not only are we screwing up the environment potentially beyond recovery but we are also ripping apart the existing social and economic fabric. The last few times we did this we wound up with revolutions and wars. We should all wish to avoid a horrible transition because given our capabilities the downsides could be much worse than even the previous world wars.

What does life in my utopia look like? Everyone has a basic guaranteed income. We are all connected to a global and free Internet (free as in not controlled by any one entity and free at the margin after paying a basic access fee that can easily be afforded with the guaranteed income). We are sharing information freely and collaborating to solve environmental and healthcare problems. We spend our time learning, producing and consuming art and (for some) working in a more traditional sense.

I have no illusion that it will take us a long time to get even close to this vision. Likely several, possibly many generations. But there does seem to be a path towards this world and it revolves around doing away with nation states (and hence also with the UN). Instead we need a global network of cities and regions. We could get there through the leadership of the mayors of the largest cities of the world. Already today the top 50 cities and their immediate surroundings globally have 10% of the global population living in them (and vastly more of its economic activity).

As a starting step, some of the largest cities could become the nodes in a globally free Internet. As a next step they might declare themselves Internet free trade zones with much less restrictive intellectual property regimes. There are likely some additional step to strengthen this alliance of cities including figuring out how to include regions. At some point they would need the guts to break away from their respective federal/state taxation systems. I will write a lot more about what a city and region based governance system might look like but to avoid massive distortions it would need a relatively simple and unified tax system (tax sales, income, treat inheritance as income and allocate on the basis of where sales happen / people spend their time).

And yes, I fully realize that this all sounds grandiose and lacks pretty much all detail. But the same was true at some point for air travel or having a global information network or routinely living to the age of 80 or cities with 20 million people living in them. So unlike Brand I am not calling for a random revolution but for laying the intellectual ground work for a new alliance among the cities and regions of the world, not unlike when the colonies came together to form the United States of America. We need a new set of Federalist Papers — or maybe it should be the Globalist or Humanist Papers. And yes we need to think big because the stuff our present national governments are doing generally amounts to spending a fortune on rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Posted: 28th October 2013Comments
Tags:  utopia revolution society

Russell Brand and the Revolution

Russell Brand helped edit the latest issue of New Statesman. He leads off the magazine with an epic rant that is worth reading in its entirety. If you need some motivation, watch this 10 minute clip of him. Essentially, Brand is calling for a revolution.

It would be easy to dismiss Brand as a slightly lunatic comedian who lives a very comfortable life. But I think that would be a mistake. Aside from having a wonderful way with words, I find that Brand gives expression to a sentiment that seems very much pent up among a lot of people: the existing system has failed and is beyond repair. The net result of that is either apathy or violence. Or flipping back and forth between the two.

Brand is not really offering a coherent alternative vision. While that is a big open question, it doesn’t really invalidate his basic point about the pressures that are building up and why that is happening. And I sure wish that more people were speaking as frankly as he is about it as our politicians do seem to be largely in denial.

A big chunk of Brand’s critique is based on the assessment that we do in fact have the capabilities today to take care of our basic needs. This is a point I have made several times on Continuations — just look for my posts on abundance. What that means is that we should be focusing on such pressing matters as income inequality and the environment instead. And we should be tending to our spiritual health. Having watched a few minutes of an episode of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills this morning while exercising I couldn’t agree more.

Here is a wonderful quote (among many that could be pulled) from Brand’s piece:

Fear and desire are the twin engines of human survival but with most of our basic needs met these instincts are being engaged to imprison us in an obsolete fragment of our consciousness. Our materialistic consumer culture relentlessly stimulates our desire. Our media ceaselessly engages our fear […]

That pretty much nails it. Go read the whole thing. It’s worth it. And I will come back to writing more about abundance and with that Basic Income Guarantee as the basis for a possible alternative structure for society.

Posted: 25th October 2013Comments
Tags:  economics russell brand revolution society

More on Privacy and Encryption

My blog post on Monday about privacy and DRM was read by some as suggesting that we abandon any and all notions of privacy over night. That was not the point I was trying to make so let me try again, this time with an analogy. We secure our homes by closing and (generally) locking the front door. That serves as a demarcation and keeps out a completely opportunistic thief. It does not, however, prevent anybody even remotely determined from entering. For that we rely on some combination of social norms and laws together with law enforcement. It hasn’t always been that way. There was a time when people tried to protect their belongings by building castles and fortresses. Obviously this was an expensive strategy and only accessible to those few living behind the walls. It also turned out to be a futile strategy as far back as the city of Troy.

So when it comes to privacy and encryption I feel much the same way. Of course our bank balances or medical records shouldn’t be public web pages by default and we should use authentication and something like SSL when we interact with those pages to prevent the casual sniffer from observing them, but beyond that the benefits from applying more crypto diminish incredibly rapidly. For instance, should the bank encrypt their disks? Maybe, but will that block someone who is carrying out a focused attack from the inside? Unlikely. The same goes for medical records. Search queries. And so on. There will be more leaks of more data in the future because ultimately none of these systems can be secured perfectly (among other things against Trojans).

From an overall perspective then (and using a heuristic for prioritization that I wrote about just last week), we should not be applying our talents to ever more clever encryption schemes where we face dramatically diminishing returns. Instead, we should be working on laws and social norms. First and foremost among those right now should be that the government cannot conduct any secret broad scale surveillance. Second we should expand any non-discrimination provisions that we have to explicitly include known medical conditions. There is a lot more and it will provide great subject matter for many posts to come.

Posted: 3rd July 2013Comments
Tags:  privacy crypto computing law norms society

On the Relation Between Privacy And DRM

In the future we can’t have privacy for the same reason that the record labels and Hollywood can’t have DRM and that’s ultimately a good thing. DRM has proven a fool’s errand because it is not compatible with general purpose computing. At some point a song or movie has to be decrypted in order to be played back and short of tamper proof and “trusted” hardware at that moment it can be digitally copied (and even if we had all of that it could be re-recorded or re-filmed during playback). That is by now reasonably well understood even by Hollywood and the music industry.

Yet we seem to be making the same mistake when it comes to our personal information. Too many of us, including well meaning “privacy advocates” and governments (especially in the EU), want our personal data to sit encrypted somewhere and want to control who can access it when and keep some unforgeable record of how the data was accessed and changed over time. That is as big a fool’s errand as DRM.

Unfortunately even Larry Lessig, whom I greatly respect, seems to believe in this possibility. In a recent piece he writes:

But trust and verify, with high-quality encryption, could. And there are companies, such as Palantir, developing technologies that could give us, and more importantly, reviewing courts, a very high level of confidence that data collected or surveilled was not collected or used in an improper way. Think of it as a massive audit log, recording how and who used what data for what purpose. We could code the Net in a string of obvious ways to give us even better privacy, while also enabling better security.

This is, I am sorry to say, a fantasy. There are simply too many subsystems and intermediate components involved many of which have the data in the clear out of necessity (including keyboards and screens). Most keyboard and screens are already quite sophisticated. Adding a bit of circuitry to send the information elsewhere over a wireless connection would be easy.

Also, all of encryption relies on keys. And those keys too have to be stored somewhere — in places that cannot ultimately be trusted because you don’t know what’s in the silicone they are running on. Are you really going to store your private keys on a USB stick you keep around your neck? Way too much risk of losing everything and even that key could be designed to leak your keys.  Of course most people keep their keys online, encrypted and protected with a password, that wait — you type on a keyboard — that runs on, well you really have no idea what. There is always a hole at the end that you *cannot* close. This is the nature of information and computing.

It is only a question of time before some highly encrypted database of millions of medical records gets leaked or stolen along with its keys to show just how big a charade this all is. We incur all this cost and in the end it will turn out to be for naught. The music and movie industries have been learning this lesson the hard way for decades now and yet as society at large we seem doomed to repeat it.

There is only one way forward. Start constructing a society where it doesn’t matter that your personal medical record was just put online (by you or someone else). Or that your song was copied by a million people. That is the real challenge for this and many generations to come.

Posted: 1st July 2013Comments
Tags:  privacy DRM computing society

Internet and Income Inequality: We Need To Think Ahead

On Twitter this morning I received a link to a Guardian piece titled “In the digital economy, we’ll soon all be working for free – and I refuse” by Suzanne Moore. What caught my attention was not so much the piece itself, which has many arguments that I have been making on Continuations for some time about technology being the driving force behind income inequality and the disappearance of work. Instead I was intrigued by the “I refuse” part. There is, unfortunately, not much elaboration on this other than a link to a Facebook post (irony?) exhorting creatives to “stop working for free.

This is of course wishful thinking. Most people do not have the ability to stop working because they are in need of an income. We are facing a problem of dramatic oversupply of labor that we will ultimately only be able to address with redistribution of wealth most likely in the form of some kind of guaranteed base income and/or negative income tax rates at low income levels. That is not an individual choice but rather something we have to do as a society.

The topic has been on my mind because when I just went to Germany, Der Spiegel had a big feature on the impact of the further legalization of prostitution in Germany. Instead of the intended improvement in the safety of prostitutes the primary result has been a dramatic increase in supply (partially through human trafficking) and an attendant erosion in prices (and safety). Why is this important? Because the combination of technology and a huge imbalance in the labor market acts to drive down incomes very broadly.

For instance, much as I am a fan of the idea of letting people share rides in their cars (because moving only 1 person with a vehicle designed for 4 is incredibly inefficient for the environment) we have to also be cognizant that this has the potential to destroy driving a taxi as a job that someone can earn a living with. That is not to say let’s ban ridesharing. Just like I personally don’t believe in banning prostitution. But naive deregulation of labor markets at a time of huge income inequality can have dramatic negative consequences and we cannot be naive here.

So let me repeat my earlier contention. If we want the benefits of the Internet (which I for one very much do), we need to work on the social systems that will make that new society sustainable. I will write a lot more about what I believe those are.

Posted: 6th June 2013Comments
Tags:  work employment income society

Defamatory Autocomplete (Information Cascades)

A court in Germany just ruled that Google must remove autocomplete suggestions is they are defamatory. Now at first blush this seems quite silly and Google has taken the position that they are simply reflecting what people are searching for. I don’t think it is quite that simple though.

This is clearly an example of where information cascades are possible and problematic. I have written about the issue of information cascades before, but this makes another great example. Imagine someone starting a rumor that you had previously worked as an escort (as happened with former German first lady Bettina Wolf). Now lots of people start searching for “Bettina Wolf escort” and soon enough the autocomplete for “Bettina Wolf” becomes “escort” thus cementing the initial rumor.

Information cascades like this are a problem not just because they might come about accidentally but also because they can be exploited explicitly for instance to smear a candidate for office (I am sure one could even use a bot net to get one of these going). A court ordered one-off removal system is unlikely to be the answer. Google and others (eg Twitter, Reddit) who are potential amplifiers of cascades, however, should be putting some of their brightest minds to work on how to detect these and potentially slow them down or remove them altogether instead of just claiming there is not a problem here.

Posted: 15th May 2013Comments
Tags:  information cascade society

A Further Step on the Road towards a Spy-vs-Spy Society

On Tuesday, the US Supreme Court rejected the ACLU’s challenge to warrantless wiretapping. That leaves the EFF’s lawsuit as the last one still standing. The argument made by the majority of justices for dismissing the ACLU challenge was that the defendant had no standing because there was no provable harm. There are many things that are disconcerting about this argument. For starters, it is entirely unclear how someone would know that specific harm has occurred to them and is the result of warrantless surveillance. But more importantly, there is a clear and present social harm that comes from this: a continued erosion of trust between citizens and the government that is leading us further down the path towards a spy-vs-spy society. We have to hold government accountable and insist on due process and maximum transparency if we don’t want to use the Internet to bring us into a more open society rather than a crypto dystopia. If you care about this as well, now is a good time to support the EFF.

Posted: 28th February 2013Comments
Tags:  law supreme court society surveillance crypto wiretapping

Older posts