from Charlie’s Diary
Shaping the future
The big surprise in the 20th century remember that personal jet car? was the redefinition of progress that took place some time between 1950 and 1970.
Before 1800, human beings didn’t travel faster than a horse could gallop. The experience of travel was that it was unpleasant, slow, and usually involved a lot of exercise or the hazards of the seas. Then something odd happened; a constant that had held for all of human history the upper limit on travel speed turned into a variable. By 1980, the upper limit on travel speed had risen (for some lucky people on some routes) to just over Mach Two, and to just under Mach One on many other shorter routes. But from 1970 onwards, the change in the rate at which human beings travel ceased to all intents and purposes, we aren’t any faster today than we were when the Comet and Boeing 707 airliners first flew.
The cultural picture in computing today therefore looks much as it did in transportation technology in the 1930s everything tomorrow is going to be wildly faster than it is today, let alone yesterday. And this progress has been running for long enough that it’s seeped into the public consciousness. In the 1920s, boys often wanted to grow up to be steam locomotive engineers; politicians and publicists in the 1930s talked about “air-mindedness” as the key to future prosperity. In the 1990s it was software engineers and in the current decade it’s the politics of internet governance.
All of this is irrelevant. Because computers and microprocessors aren’t the future. They’re yesterday’s future, and tomorrow will be about something else.
It typically takes at least a generation before the social impact of a ubiquitous new technology becomes obvious.
We are currently aware of the consequences of the switch to personal high-speed transportation the car and road freight distribution. It shapes our cities and towns, dictates where we live and work, and turns out to have disadvantages our ancestors were not aware of, from particulate air pollution to suburban sprawl and the decay of city centers in some countries.
Today, I can pick up about 1Gb of FLASH memory in a postage stamp sized card for that much money. fast-forward a decade and that’ll be 100Gb. Two decades and we’ll be up to 10Tb.
10Tb is an interesting number. That’s a megabit for every second in a year there are roughly 10 million seconds per year. That’s enough to store a live DivX video stream compressed a lot relative to a DVD, but the same overall resolution of everything I look at for a year, including time I spend sleeping, or in the bathroom. Realistically, with multiplexing, it puts three or four video channels and a sound channel and other telemetry a heart monitor, say, a running GPS/Galileo location signal, everything I type and every mouse event I send onto that chip, while I’m awake. All the time. It’s a life log; replay it and you’ve got a journal file for my life. Ten euros a year in 2027, or maybe a thousand euros a year in 2017. (Cheaper if we use those pesky rotating hard disks it’s actually about five thousand euros if we want to do this right now.)
Why would anyone want to do this?
I can think of several reasons. Initially, it’ll be edge cases. Police officers on duty: it’d be great to record everything they see, as evidence. Folks with early stage neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimers: with voice tagging and some sophisticated searching, it’s a memory prosthesis.
Add optical character recognition on the fly for any text you look at, speech-to-text for anything you say, and it’s all indexed and searchable. “What was the title of the book I looked at and wanted to remember last Thursday at 3pm?”
Think of it as google for real life.
Well, we’re going to end up with at the least lifelogs, ubiquitous positioning and communication services, a civilization where every artifact more complicated than a spoon is on the internet and attentive to our moods and desires, cars that drive themselves, and a whole lot of other mind-bending consequences. All within the next two or three decades. So what can we expect of this collision between transportation, information processing, and bandwidth?
We’re already living in a future nobody anticipated. We don’t have personal jet cars, but we have ridiculously cheap intercontinental airline travel. (Holidays on the Moon? Not yet, but if you’re a billionaire you can pay for a week in orbit.) On the other hand, we discovered that we do, in fact, require more than four computers for the entire planet (as Thomas Watson is alleged to have said). An increasing number of people don’t have telephone lines any more they rely on a radio network instead.
The flip side of Moore’s Law, which we don’t pay much attention to, is that the cost of electronic components is in deflationary free fall of a kind that would have given a Depression-era economist nightmares. When we hit the brick wall at the end of the road when further miniaturization is impossible things are going to get very bumpy indeed, much as the aerospace industry hit the buffers at the end of the 1960s in North America and elsewhere. This stuff isn’t big and it doesn’t have to be expensive, as the One Laptop Per Child project is attempting to demonstrate. Sooner or later there won’t be a new model to upgrade to every year, the fab lines will have paid for themselves, and the bottom will fall out of the consumer electronics industry, just as it did for the steam locomotive workshops before them.
Our concept of privacy relies on the fact that it’s hard to discover information about other people. Today, you’ve all got private lives that are not open to me. Even those of you with blogs, or even lifelogs. But we’re already seeing some interesting tendencies in the area of attitudes to privacy on the internet among young people, under about 25; if they’ve grown up with the internet they have no expectation of being able to conceal information about themselves. They seem to work on the assumption that anything that is known about them will turn up on the net sooner or later, at which point it is trivially searchable.
Now, in this age of rapid, transparent information retrieval, what happens if you’ve got a lifelog, registering your precise GPS coordinates and scanning everything around you? If you’re updating your whereabouts via a lightweight protocol like Twitter and keeping in touch with friends and associates via a blog? It’d be nice to tie your lifelog into your blog and the rest of your net presence, for your personal convenience. And at first, it’ll just be the kids who do this kids who’ve grown up with little expectation of or understanding of privacy. Well, it’ll be the kids and the folks on the Sex Offenders Register who’re forced to lifelog as part of their probation terms, but that’s not our problem. Okay, it’ll also be people in businesses with directors who want to exercise total control over what their employees are doing, but they don’t have to work there … yet.
You know something? Keeping track of those quaint old laws about personal privacy is going to be really important. Because in countries with no explicit right to privacy I believe the US constitution is mostly silent on the subject we’re going to end up blurring the boundary between our Second Lives and the first life, the one we live from moment to moment. We’re time-binding animals and nothing binds time tighter than a cradle to grave recording of our every moment.
The political hazards of lifelogging are, or should be, semi-obvious. In the short term, we’re going to have to learn to do without a lot of bad laws. If it’s an offense to pick your nose in public, someone, sooner or later, will write a ‘bot to hunt down nose-pickers and refer them to the police. Or people who put the wrong type of rubbish in the recycling bags. Or cross the road without using a pedestrian crossing, when there’s no traffic about. If you dig hard enough, everyone is a criminal. In the UK, today, there are only about four million public CCTV surveillance cameras; I’m asking myself, what is life going to be like when there are, say, four hundred million of them? And everything they see is recorded and retained forever, and can be searched retroactively for wrong-doing.
One of the biggest risks we face is that of sleep-walking into a police state, simply by mistaking the ability to monitor everyone for even minute legal infractions for the imperative to do so.
And then there’s history.
History today is patchy. I never met either of my grandfathers both of them died before I was born. One of them I recognize from three photographs; the other, from two photographs and about a minute of cine film. Silent, of course. Going back further, to their parents … I know nothing of these people beyond names and dates. (They died thirty years before I was born.)
This century we’re going to learn a lesson about what it means to be unable to forget anything. And it’s going to go on, and on. Barring a catastrophic universal collapse of human civilization which I should note was widely predicted from August 1945 onward, and hasn’t happened yet we’re going to be laying down memories in diamond that will outlast our bones, and our civilizations, and our languages. Sixty kilograms will handily sum up the total history of the human species, up to the year 2000. From then on … we still don’t need much storage, in bulk or mass terms. There’s no reason not to massively replicate it and ensure that it survives into the deep future.
And with ubiquitous lifelogs, and the internet, and attempts at providing a unified interface to all interesting information wikipedia, let’s say we’re going to give future historians a chance to build an annotated, comprehensive history of the entire human race. Charting the relationships and interactions between everyone who’s ever lived since the dawn of history or at least, the dawn of the new kind of history that is about to be born this century.
Total history a term I’d like to coin, by analogy to total war is something we haven’t experienced yet. I’m really not sure what its implications are, but then, I’m one of the odd primitive shadows just visible at one edge of the archive: I expect to live long enough to be lifelogging, but my first forty or fifty years are going to be very poorly documented, mere gigabytes of text and audio to document decades of experience. What I can be fairly sure of is that our descendants’ relationship with their history is going to be very different from our own, because they will be able to see it with a level of depth and clarity that nobody has ever experienced before.
Meet your descendants. They don’t know what it’s like to be involuntarily lost, don’t understand what we mean by the word “privacy”, and will have access (sooner or later) to a historical representation of our species that defies understanding. They live in a world where history has a sharply-drawn start line, and everything they individually do or say will sooner or later be visible to everyone who comes after them, forever. They are incredibly alien to us.
And yet, these trends are emergent from the current direction of the telecommunications industry, and are likely to become visible as major cultural changes within the next ten to thirty years. None of them require anything but a linear progression from where we are now, in a direction we’re already going in. None of them take into account external technological synergies, stuff that’s not obviously predictable like brain/computer interfaces, artificial intelligences, or magic wands. I’ve purposefully ignored discussion of nanotechnology, tissue engineering, stem cells, genomics, proteomics, the future of nuclear power, the future of environmentalism and religion, demographics, our environment, peak oil and our future energy economy, space exploration, and a host of other topics.