It seems to me….
“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” ~ Peter Drucker.
Advances in communications technology have significantly transformed the way we live many times in the past and currently are doing so once again: invention of writing marked the end of prehistory, the printing press enabled mass education …, and digital technology will have an even greater effect than any preceding development.
Several disruptive technologies have serendipitously arrived somewhat unexpectedly at a critical juncture mutually reinforcing each other. E.g., conventional social and medical science progress is hampered by inadequate data set availability preventing analysis and understanding of dependencies and interrelationships. Smartphones along with other technologies such as the Internet of Things[i] (IoT) are potentially capable of providing a more detailed view of society than has ever existed before and to do so in real time. Suitably anonymized data could be used for traffic flow optimization, crime prevention, to cure and prevent disease, and for most other data dependent applications. As with any development, there always are benefits and detriments.
In January 2007, Steve Jobs, Apple’s chief executive, introduced the company’s new iPhone, stating “This will change everything” [ii]. It wasn’t hyperbole. In just eight years the smartphone now exemplifies the early 21st century’s defining technology. They are the fastest-selling appliance in history, are ubiquitous, and outselling personal computers four to one. About half the adult population now own one and by 2020, 80 percent will.
The transformative power of smartphones comes from their size and connectivity making them the first truly personal computers. The cost of wirelessly delivering one megabyte of data has dropped from $8 to a few cents just since 2005 and is still falling. Nearly 80 percent of smartphone-owners check messages, news, or other services within 15 minutes of waking in the morning.
While there is an irritation factor of people using their phones at annoying inopportune times and locations, the primary problem is erosion of privacy. Application providers are learning a great deal about us and sell their data without informing us; everyone around us is now a potential publisher of our most private or embarrassing moments.
George Orwell[iii] potentially might have been wrong only by date as smartphones not only give dictators unprecedented scope to spy on and control unwilling subjects but conversely also provide protections against many specific threats to privacy by empowering individuals with the potential to challenge authoritarianism.
Various methods are being devised to overcome this threat to privacy. The Internet was originally designed to be a decentralized system where every node theoretically should connect to many other nodes making the system resistant to censorship or outside attack[iv]. but today, most individual users exist at the edges of the network connected to others only through their Internet service provider (ISP). If this link is blocked or scrutinized, Internet access disappears or privacy is lost.
An alternative option is beginning to emerge in the form of wireless mesh networks[v], simple systems that connect end users to one another and automatically route around blocks and censors. The goal of several groups including Commotion Wireless and the FreedomBox Foundation[vi] is to repurpose common devices such as cell phones, laptops, and existing wireless routers to do just that through a “mesh network”[vii].
The problem is that a mesh network needs a critical mass of users before it functions at acceptable levels; the more connections, the greater the resilience. Developers must convince potential users to trade ease of use for added freedom and privacy. Law-enforcement agencies could reasonably be expected to denounce any national mesh network as a place for criminals and terrorists to communicate out of earshot of the telephone and the ISP companies that facilitate such surveillance.
Similar to communications networks, cloud services constitute as much a threat to privacy and freedom of expression as traffic on ISPs. Applications such as Diaspora[viii] store personal data on the owner’s machine and share it only with people they choose via peer-to-peer networks providing social network alternatives.
The Internet has enabled social media to provide global-scale communications to individuals beyond government or institutional control. While communications networks provide the means for governments to spy on their citizens, they also allow citizens to expose misbehavior by officials and to spread information and dissenting opinions, feed demand for autonomy, and help protest movements to coalesce. This capability is disruptive (revolutionary rather than evolutionary) not only in the capability it provides but also in the speed in which applications can be developed and deployed. A social-media service such as Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube can be developed in weeks and have millions of users within months.
Social networks allow information – true or untrue – to propagate worldwide essentially instantly. This is having a profound impact on organizations and institutions such as governments, armies, churches, and banks that evolved in a non-transparent epistemological environment where dealings and information could be kept from exposure[ix]. Processing developments in so-called “big data” incorporating advances in large-scale pattern analysis, data visualization, and data-grounded journalism create powerful social feedback loops that will accelerate organizational transparency.
Communications improvement, especially in developing countries, has significant potential for economic benefits where it is estimated that every ten extra mobile phones per 100 people could increase the GDP-per-person growth rate by more than one percentage point. Smartphones will remake entire industries at unheard-of speed and unleash creativity on a planetary scale.
In eight short years smartphones and advances in communications have already changed the world — and those changes have only begun.
That’s what I think, what about you?
[i] Bornmann, Lewis J. Internet of Things, WordPress, https://lewbornmann.wordpress.com/2013/12/10/internet-of-things/, 10 December 2013.
[ii] Planet of the phones, The Economist, http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21645180-smartphone-ubiquitous-addictive-and-transformative-planet-phones?fsrc=nlw|hig|26-02-2015|NA, 28 February 2015.
[vii] Dibbell, Julian. Internet Freedom Fighters Build a Shadow Web, Scientific American, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-sh…w-web, March 2012.
[ix] Dennett, Daniel C., and Deb Roy. Our Transparent Future, Scientific American, March 2015, pp64-69.