Friday, March 01, 2013

"Primer" Technologies For Enhancing 21st Century Citizenship

What new technologies could make the most difference?

Across the 20th Century, a growing array of problems were solved through the application of professional skill. We came to rely increasingly upon professions ranging from medical doctors to law enforcement, from teachers to farmers for countless tasks that an average family used to do largely for itself. No other trend so perfectly represents the last century as this one, spanning all boundaries of politics, ideology or geography.

And yet - just as clearly - this trend cannot continue much longer. If only for demographic reasons, the as the rate of professionalization and specialization must start to fall off, exactly as we are about to face a bewildering array of new -- and rapid-onrushing -- problems.

How will we cope?

AGEAMATEURSElsewhere I speak of the 21st Century as a looming "Age of Amateurs," wherein a highly educated citizenry will be able to adeptly bring to bear countless capabilities and individual pools of knowledge, some of which may not be up to professional standards, but that can find synergy together, perhaps augmenting society's skill set, at a time of need. We saw this very thing happen at the century's dawn, on 9/11. Most important, helpful and successful actions that occurred on an awful day were taken by self-mobilized citizens and amateurs. At a moment when professionalism failed at many levels. 

It is important to note what a strong role technology played in fostering citizen action on 9/11. People equipped with video cameras documented the day and provided our best post-mortem footage. People with cell phones organized the evacuation of the twin towers. Similar phone-stirred gumption stirred and empowered the heroes who fought back and made the Legend of Flight UA 93.  A phenomenon that noted author Rebecca Solnit later documented in A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster.

EmpoweringCitizensIn sharp contrast, the events of Hurricane Katrina (and the 2011 earthquake-tsunami in Japan) showed the dark side of this transition -- a professional protector caste (crossing party and jurisdiction lines: including republicans and democrats, state, local and federal officials) whose sole ambition appeared to be to limit citizen-organized activity. Moreover, the very same technology that empowered New Yorkers and Bostonians betrayed citizens in New Orleans. Thousands who had fully-charged and operational radios in their pockets were unable to use them for communication -- either with each other or the outside world -- thanks to collapse of the cellular phone networks.

This was a travesty. But the aftermath was worse! Because, amid all the finger-pointing and blame-casting that followed Katrina, almost no attention has been paid to improving the reliability and utility of our cell networks, to assist citizen action during times of emergency. To the best of my knowledge. no high level demand has gone out - from FEMA or any other agency - for industry to address problems revealed in the devastation of America's Gulf Coast. A correction that should be both simple/cheap and useful to implement.

What do we need? We must have new ways for citizens to self-organize, both in normal life and (especially) during crises, when normal channels may collapse, or else get taken over by the authorities for their own use. All this might require is a slight change -- or set of additions -- in the programming of the sophisticated little radio communications devices that we all carry in our pockets, nowadays.

How about a simple back-up mode for text messaging? One that could use packet-switching to bypass the cell towers when they are down, and pass messages from phone to phone -- or peer-to-peer -- at least among phones that are of the same type? (GSM, TDMA, CDMA etc.) All of the needed packet-switching algorithms already exist. Moreover, this would allow a drowning city (or other catastrophe zone) to fill with tens of thousands of little spots of light, supplying information to helpers and reassurance to loved ones, anywhere in the world.

Are the cell companies afraid their towers will be bypassed when there's no emergency? What foolishness. This mode could be suppressed when a good tower is in range and become useful automatically when one is not... a notion that also happens to help solve the infamous "last mile connectivity problem." Anyway, there are dozens of ways that p2p calls could be billed. Can we at least talk about it?

(Late note: as of 2012, it seems that at long last some efforts are being made in this area, by Qualcomm and some other companies.  Stay tuned -- so to speak.)

The same dismal intransigence foils progress on the internet, where millions of adults use "asynchronous" communications methods, like web sites, blogs and email, but shun "synchronous" zones like chat and avatar worlds, where the interface (filled with sexy cartoon figures) seem designed to ruin any chance of useful discourse. For example, by limiting self-expression to about a sentence at a time and ignoring several dozen ways that human beings actually organize and allocate scarce attention in real life. To answer your next question: Facebook is quasi synchronous for those folks who haunt it almost incessantly. It thus acquires most of the worst traits of both worlds.

smart-mobsWhen someone actually pays attention to this "real digital divide" - between the lobotomized/childish synchronous chat/avatar/facebook world and the slow-but-cogent asynchronous web/blog/download world -- we may progress toward useful online communities like rapid "smart mobs." 

For example, crowd-sourcing and citizen engagement are increasingly playing a role in science -- both in terms of funding and direct participation in research.

Only first, we are going to have to learn to look at how human beings allocate attention in real life! (For more on this: see EpoceneChat)

Another tool involves Disputation Arenas, using conflict and competition to help resolve issues and achieve mediation, consensus or synthesis.

Oh, there are dozens of other technologies that will add together, like pieces in a puzzle, synergizing to help empower the magnificent citizen of tomorrow. Facial recognition systems and automatic lookups will turn every pedestrian on any street into someone who you vaguely know... a prospect that cynical pundits will decry, but that was EXACTLY how our ancestors lived, nearly all of them, throughout human history. The thing to be afraid of is asymmetries of power, not universal knowledge. The thing to protect is not thingtoprotectyour secrecy, but your ability to deter others from doing you harm.

Likewise, I assure you that we are on the verge of getting both lie detectors and reliable personality profiling. And yes, if these new machines frighten you, they should! Because they may wind up being clutched and monopolized by elites, and then used against us. I am glad you're frightened. If that happens, we will surely see an era that makes Big Brother look tame.

And yet, the solution to this danger is not to "ban" such technologies! That is exactly what elites want us to do (so they can monopolize the methods in secret out of our skeptical eye). No, that reflex sees only half the story. Come on, open your mind a little farther.

What if those very same -- inevitable -- technologies wind up being used by all sovereign citizens of an open democracy, say, fiercely applied to politicians and others who now smile and croon and insist that they deserve our trust? In other words, what if we could separate the men and women who have told little lies and admit it (and we forgive them) from those who tell the really dangerous and destructive whoppers? Those who are corrupt and/or blackmailed and/or lying through their teeth?

In that case, won't we have a better chance of making sure that Big Brother doesn't happen... ever?

TransparentSocietyOh, it is a brave new world... We will have to be agile. Some things will be lost and others diminished.  We will have to re-define "privacy" much closer to home, or even just within it.

On the other hand, if we don't panic, we may see the beginnings of the era of the sovereign and empowered citizen. An Age of Amateurs in which no talent is suppressed or wasted, and no problem escapes the attention of a myriad talented eyes.

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Sheila Oranch said...

I have hope and am too much a fan of chaos theory to expect things to play out to my ideals. We do not have enough information or enough computing power to predict how things will tip. References:
The Third Wave
The Tipping Point
Order Out of Chaos

Adam Pseudonymous said...

I'd like to pull you up on your characterisation of chat. Until MSN was gutted (removing the options for screen names and offline messaging, mostly), I had most of my serious conversations with it, and it had a lot of advantages over face-to-face discussion.

The separate chat windows with their built-in memory of where the conversation's gone meant I could hold multiple one-on-one conversations about very different topics at the same time, while doing other things in the meantime - whether that be going to check on the cooking or googling some relevant information. With that setup, it's suddenly impossible to interrupt somebody, the biggest problem with face-to-face discussion. If I only wanted to talk to one person I could just set my chat program to "appear offline" because that way it wouldn't bother people if I didn't respond immediately to something they told me.

Also, the offline-messaging function meant that you didn't have to get people at the right time to discuss something interesting. This is how I was able to have strong friendships with people outside of my time-zone, rather than the way email restricts you to online pen-pals.

I'm sure if I looked around I'd be able to find a similarly functional chat program with no trouble, but to be fair, one of the big problems with chat is that everybody has to be using it for it to work and now that my friends and I have moved on from university most of them are restricted to email.

That said, the only real functional issue I've had with chat is that it's really hard to have a multi-person discussion, but in my experience that's what asynchronous communication is for and most people are happy with that.

I can see how it would be easy to get the wrong idea of how effective chat can be, though, because it really depends on who you're chatting with. Only one or two of my friends had trouble spelling. For that matter I don't know anybody who doesn't at least make an effort to text in proper English, probably because we all got mobile phones as teenagers. XKCD has a good comment on that sort of thing - see

David Brin said...

Adam PSeud... I appreciate your comments. But in fact, online communications systems have long ignored dozens of comm talents we use in daily life. I have them patented for online use!


Anonymous said...

Being something of a dinosaur, I am always connected to a handful of IRC channels and telnet dungeons of synchronous communication. I wish more people were as well.

The phrase "filled with sexy cartoon figures" amuses me. Congrats. :)

I know this isn't much of a contribution, but I wanted to note regarding your mention of "lie detectors", the polygraph test (which is of dubious accuracy I know) was invented by the same person who came up with Wonder Woman and her lasso of truth.

Alfred Differ said...


It doesn't matter how much computing power we have. The only system complex enough to be able to predict us is... us. We know about how effective we are at predict ourselves and others, so I think we can reasonably argue it is a theoretical impossibility. We are inherently unpredictable in detail, but occasionally predictable in what we WON'T do.

Hayek talks about some of this in an essay. It is short and probably the most important thing he ever wrote. He was thinking about economic problems at the time and about the socialist calculation/planning effort in particular, but the message in the essay applies broadly.

McKay said...

David, on peer-to-peer mobile phone technology, you might be interested in knowing there are companies already demoing and promoting such technologies. Not in the US of course, but they'll be out there side-by-side with cellular tech soon. One company I've come across is TerraNet ( which are creating such systems for remote rural areas of developing countries like India. So the future you call for might be closer than we think!

Ian said...

Okay, I'm looking at your presentation David and I have to say one thing is sticking out: I use instant messaging in my business daily and find it extremely useful.

Ian said...

Two further thoughts:

1. I, and I suspect many others, effectively use a hybrid of synchronous and asynchronous modes.

I get an IM alerting me to a problem, I decide to deal with it later or request an e-mail or request or send a link to relevant page.

2. I'm not sure that all that additional data and shades of meaning are necessarily useful. High-functioning people with autistic-spectrum conditions, as we've discussed previously, are better at some mental tasks than neurotypical people. This appears to be in part because they're better at excluding superfluous data.

In this context: what if the high-reputation individual is actually a pompous ass who's simply been hanging around what group for an extended period and driven off the people who disagree with him while the low-reputation person is a brilliant newcomer?

Ian said...

Alfred, economics and the social sciences in general have moved on since Hayek.

We've stopped trying to develop exact an complete knowledge. We work with probability, error factors; regression analysis. We use dynamic general equilibrium models. We vary the starting conditions and the relationships between factors using Monte Carlo techniques.

In this regard, economics is like weather forecasting -it' an imprecise science but it's better than nothing and consistently gettign better.

David Brin said...

Over on my Fan facebook site, we're giving away two autographed copies of Existence! The novel is set forty years in the future. And at Davdibrin(dot)com you can learn more, read samples and so on. So here's the contest question: "What do you view as the biggest unexpected problem we will face in the next few decades?"

Submit your guess (on the fan site not here!) and then vote for the best response. The two responses with the most votes by Sunday at 6 pm Pacific will win autographed paperbacks of Existence (plus a collection of bookplates). Plus I’ll post the best dozen responses with attribution!

Anonymous said...

I would like to respond to the point about fragile mobile phone networks: this is a lot about the "financing mentality" of Americans; when we accept a phone subsidy, we give up controlling the features of the phone. If we all rewarded innovative "antifragile" phones in the marketplace, they would be available. Incidentally, it doesn't seem to be that big market for a cellphone based packet radio in Europe, where the consumers get better access to phones that are not neutered by the carriers, as they often pay the cost upfront.

In theory, somebody could implement a peer to peer network using a google phone, where the android implementation is pure, without carrier customization, although one would need different hardware, unless simply using VOIP over peer to peer wifi hotspots.


David Brin said...

Jan that may be what Qualcomm is angling for

Louis Shalako said...

I like the internet better than the old-style broadcasting, which was pretty much one way and limited to one corporate point of view. At one time, major network news presenters had a bond of trust with the audience which is no longer apparently the case, to the extent that I no longer really trust any news source. With Facebook and Twitter we can become broadcasters ourselves. This has obvious pluses and minuses. A bit of a dinosaur myself, but the media will become more personal and more fragmented. I can't comment on cell phones because I don't have one. Interestingly, I just saw a conservative wiki-style site that was overtly political. Wikipedia makes an effort to at least appear apolitical. To some, objectivity of any kind that presents unwelcome information may be seen or labeled as 'leftist' or 'liberal' when that might not in fact be the case.

matthew said...

Anyone that is surprised that for profit news networks put the wishes of their parent companies / advertisers ahead of unbiased reporting is remarkably naive. To pretend that it was ever otherwise is to look back with rose colored glasses. The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 just made clear what editorial boards had quietly done for years most effectively by deciding which stories would get airtime.
Mostly unbiased news does exist, however, in the form of listener / watcher supported media. Why do you think conservatives attack PBS?

David Brin said...

Attacks on PBS are simply part of a broad front war on ALL knowledge castes. Scientists, journalists, medical doctors, teachers, civil servants, professors, economists, diplomats. Name one that is not assailed by the new Know Nothing movement.

Thomas L. Vaultonburg said...

Great poetry.

Tony Fisk said...

Somewhat off-topic (although it is about technologies and communication... with animals. Via TED2013)

(Is it just me, or are David Brin and Peter Gabriel growing increasingly alike in appearance?)

Tim H. said...

Also off topic, Dennis Tito's people have an interesting idea for radiation shielding:
I'd still want to go, even knowing I'd be surrounded by "Politics made manifest".

Doug DeJulio said...

Kudos on the "lie detector" part there. I am waiting for the day when the basic research of Paul Ekman (et al) is extended with data from thermal imaging cameras, ultrasound, microphone arrays, et cetera, plus powerful computation. Add a pinch of Moore's Law for seasoning, simmer for a decade or two, and voila, everyone (might) have a powerful lie detector in their pocket (or on their wrist, or in their glasses).

Folks need to remember that the rich/powerful will at least have that stuff before the rest of us. We'll be subject to it before we're sure it exists. Act accordingly!

Alfred Differ said...


It still isn't a science. Economic hypotheses aren't vulnerable enough to falsification and that has nothing to do with the probabilistic nature of theory. Physics has to be probabilistic too and there are subtle ways to commit errors with respect to the objectivity of data that destroy our exposure to falsification. It is tricky business to continue doing science, but it is possible. With economics, it isn't possible.

Hayek's argument still holds for probabilistic theories because one is still assuming that agents have preferences independent of one's direct knowledge of them. Adding probability turns the optimization problem into one with limited precision, but one still assumed the underlying concepts make sense. The old quantum theories in physics did much the same thing and we've had to back off of that in the last few decades. J.S. Bell made our lives SO much more interesting. 8)

Anonymous said...

A good sci-fi example of this future is Rainbow's End, wherein the world's economy seems to mostly consist of the amalgamation of experts into real-time consultancies.

Jim Geary

aelena said...

I find a lot of comments in the line of "a highly educated citizenry" everywhere. That meme seems to be making the roundd, but honestly, I am very sketptical about it. I dont see most educational system in the Western world providing the necessary foundations for this (and probably it's the same case in the Sinosphere, Japan or Korea).

My guess is that it's more likely that there'll a bigger divide between technically able people - the new alpahbetization - and those left behind by the educaational systems, poorly prepared for Fordian-type jobs which, sadly, happen to be the most prone to automation, and therefore redundancy and long term unemployment.

We must wake up to the fact that maybe eventually there will be large swathes of the population that are unneeded, or needed only for being consumers. That poses very "interesting" (a wicked dreadful problem) problems which will force us to contemplate wealth redistribution and societal configuration with a fresh look