Terrorism, technology, and an open society

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Having just returned from a quick five-continent round-world trip, I am frequently asked about the mood around the world. Wherever you are, it is characterised by uncertainty. The focus is very short-term; people find it hard to think beyond a few months ahead. If we do stretch our minds a little further, there are compelling issues that will shape our future as humans. Terrorism is in the forefront of people’s minds, and the nature of technological development and the flow of information is such that ever-more frightening tools are becoming broadly available. Sun Microsystems chief scientist Bill Joy harkens a world in which “how-to” guides to create deadly self-replicating viruses are freely available on the Internet. Joy himself has suggested that research be stopped or constrained in potentially dangerous fields. Others—especially governments—want to watch us all very, very closely, leaving privacy as a historical concept. One of the key choices the human race faces is how to respond to these challenges. A recent article in Salon.com provides an insightful perspective. To try to constrain knowledge will lead to a far more divided society. What has created the most pressing problems on the planet today is division—of wealth, opportunity, and access. If we turn our backs on an open society, if we have a future, it will be deeply unhappy. We can only respond to the risks if we know what they are. There is certainly a balance to strike, but if we err, it should be towards more rather than less openness.

Making the global brain – à la Google

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I believe one of the most important themes for our future is collaborative filtering – I will keep on coming back to and developing this theme on these pages. This is fundamental to the formation of what we can think of as a “global brain”. As I describe in Living Networks, one of the most important functions of the human nervous system is to filter the massive sensory input it receives so that we are not overwhelmed. Similarly, in a world of massive and increasing information overload, we need mechanisms that make what is useful obvious, and what isn’t useful invisible. By collaborating on this task, each of us can benefit from the perceptions and judgments of us all. (Read the book sampler on “free downloads” page for more info.) Those that help create a higher level of collaborative filtering will add massive value – and with the right business models can extract part of that value. Discrete examples include Amazon.com’s book recommendation system, the Movie Lens film recommendation service, and Media Unbound music personalization system, used by Pressplay and mentioned in my book.

Which takes us to the much-discussed Google acquisition of Blogger. Steven Johnson has written an extremely interesting article on this for Slate. In short, he suggests that Google can pick up how people navigate the web in order to draw meaning for themselves and others. The analogy with the brain is that our repeated trains of thought are not only remembered more easily, but are also the very foundation of our neural pathways and thinking. I’d go further than Johnson to suggest that applying these approaches on a global scale could be critical in creating an information architecture that is far closer to that of a brain, providing highly effective filtering and the early stages of sense-making.

One of the key issues that emerges from this is that whoever monitors our information usage patterns to create useful tools, holds intensely personal information about us. Who will we trust to do this? Google-Watch for one doesn’t trust Google.

How many degrees of separation?

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Microsoft is about to release a beta of software for peer-to-peer social groups, called Threedegrees. Here is the CNET article. (The Threedegrees website currently is only taking email addresses to notify when the beta will be out.) The intention is to extend the functionality of instant messaging, and to create trusted communities. Users can form groups of up to just 10 people, with whom they can instant message, share photos, send animations called “Winks”, and playback (but not share) music. Users can join multiple groups, but the idea is to create more intimate fora for interaction than the usual free-for-all chat groups.

I believe strongly that technology has the potential to bring people together, and that is what people want to use it for. I’ll be very interested to see the software when it comes out – if it’s good I think it could do very well. The “killer apps” are increasingly social in nature. As readers of Living Networks or my blog will know, I see the famed “six degrees” of separation shrinking dramatically. The inner city area of major cities can now largely be spanned by three degrees of separation. These sorts of tools will shrink this further.

Proximity dating is HOT!

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I’ve just been involved in a media campaign to promote Living Networks in Australia. It is fascinating to see what topics get taken up. My press release for mainstream media was titled “Living in Zero Degrees of Separation”, and mentioned many of the social implications of a hyper-connected world. Almost every TV and radio interview I’ve had has honed in on the idea of “proximity dating”, that I cover in Chapter 2. This is a location-based service for mobile/ cell phone users. You program in your profile and that of the person you’d like to meet, and when you’re within say 200m of someone with a matching profile your phones alert you. You can then speak, exchange photos, or even videoconference, and decide if you want to meet immediately in a local coffee shop. This is currently happening in Japan and Iceland. A similar “buddy finder” service can show a map with the locations of your friends, so you can see who’s nearby if you want to grab lunch or coffee. Japan’s Imahima is providing the enabling software to mobile providers in Japan, Switzerland, and other countries.

After having done quite a few interviews in Australia on this and the broader themes of Living Networks, yesterday Sydney’s Daily Telegraph published an article on proximity dating based on an interview with me. The rest of the media pounced on it, I’ve done several radio interviews off the back of it, and the story even appeared on the late news on national television. Both Telstra and Hutchison – which is about to launch 3G here – have got good mileage out of this, even though they’re just responding to media queries based on my press release, so they’re realizing the level of latent interest out there. All of this illustrates part of my thesis that technology has the potential to bring people together, rather than isolate us, and that these are the services that people will take up and use, not the much-vaunted idea of receiving a McDonald’s discount voucher on your cell phone as you walk by.

Let me know if you’d like to see the press release – I’ll stick it up on this website soon.

The changing world of librarians

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I’m at the Information Online conference in Sydney, where I gave a keynote this morning. The conference is primarily populated by librarians. In sitting in on some of the sessions and speaking to attendees, one of the interesting dynamics emerging is how the democratization of information searching – through Google and more – means librarians must shift up in how they add value. Many spend much of their time using specialist databases (with 110 exhibitors pusing their wares here), and clearly can play an important role in finding, filtering, and customising information, but they find it difficult to sell their importance to their senior business or government bosses.

Layoffs are rife in business libraries and information centers, with these kinds of services easy targets in cost-cutting. One of my key messages to this community was how they can and must contribute to creating a global information architecture that enables collaborative filtering. The vast majority of Internet users only look, and don’t contribute. If information professionals and others can make it easy for people to input what they find valuable, and for others to tap into that consolidated input, this will help support the emergence of the “global brain” in which we can draw on each others’ perspectives, rather than face the information jungle alone. Blogs are critical in the creation of this infrastructure. The simple act of providing a link changes the shape of the Internet, influences Google and Blogdex results, and allows others to find more easily what you think is worthwhile. We all must participate, not just observe.

Preserving the end-to-end networks

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Living Networks is about leadership in the networks. Lawrence Lessig is one of the true leaders today in realizing the true potential of the networks for all of us. In this article in the FT he gives a brief view of the underlying “end-to-end” architecture of the Internet, and why it must be preserved. He goes into this issue in far more depth in his book The Future of Ideas, a rich and marvellous exploration of how the architecture of the networks – in the broadest sense – will determine our ability to create by building on each others’ ideas. This is a good place to give another plug for Lessig’s fantastic Creative Commons project, which gives people access to customized licenses. It is the fluidity of intellectual property in all forms which will determine how fast innovation moves. Creative Commons specifically creates far more flexibility and fluidity in what is now a far-too-rigid intellectual property landscape