Sunday, December 18, 2011

Technology, Democracy and the Revolution

The Internet wants us to grow up.

So far, we've used it to play games, go shopping, follow our friends (and strangers), work more efficiently, and play games. Fun activities to be sure, but now it's time for the Internet to take us into the serious future where people really will be replaced by machines and the machines will know more about us than we are comfortable disclosing to actual humans.

It will be scary for a while, but then, most revolutionary change is. Follow me.
Two opinion pieces in today's New York Times put this in perspective.

In The Internet Gets Physical, Steve Lohr informs us that underneath the consumer web lies a digital future that is serious and focused on making our lives better. To put it another way, we seem to have come to a fork in the information superhighway. 

...the protean Internet technologies of computing and communications are rapidly spreading beyond the lucrative consumer bailiwick. Low-cost sensors, clever software and advancing computer firepower are opening the door to new uses in energy conservation, transportation, health care and food distribution. The consumer Internet can be seen as the warm-up act for these technologies. 

These technologies are a digital thermostat by a company called Nest Labs, sensors in fruit delivery trucks that can sniff out spoilage, and, in the future,

a smart hospital room, equipped with three small cameras, mounted inconspicuously on the ceiling. With software for analysis, the room can monitor movements by doctors and nurses in and out of the room, alerting them if they have forgotten to wash their hands before and after touching patients — lapses that contribute significantly to hospital-acquired infections. Computer vision software can analyze facial expressions for signs of severe pain, the onset of delirium or other hints of distress, and send an electronic alert to a nearby nurse. 

The examples are wide and varied, but the overarching theme is that small companies with big minded people are moving away from the consumer fun technologies that occupy our days to the work of melding technology and democracy for the betterment of society. These changes have been underway for a number of years, but as we've seen in Egypt, Libya, Russia, Wall Street and Main Street, the technology revolution is creating a dynamic where government and businesses need to respond more quickly to sudden shifts in the mood of both consumers and the body politic.

Examples of this change are the focus of Thomas Friedman's Help Wanted. As he says:

We are present again at one of those great unravelings — just like after World War I, World War II and the cold war. But this time there was no war. All of these states have been pulled down from within — without warning. Why? 

The main driver, I believe, is the merger of globalization and the Information Technology revolution. Both of them achieved a critical mass in the first decade of the 21st century that has resulted in the democratization — all at once — of so many things that neither weak states nor weak companies can stand up against. We’ve seen the democratization of information, where everyone is now a publisher; the democratization of war-fighting, where individuals became superempowered (enough so, in the case of Al Qaeda, to take on a superpower); the democratization of innovation, wherein start-ups using free open-source software and “the cloud” can challenge global companies. 

So, Congress notwithstanding, we are poised to enter an era of more widespread democratization, especially in the less industrialized areas of the world. Have we seen this before? Of course, and many of those promises were broken before they came to fruition. But this time we have the tools to expand democracy and commerce without having to rely on physical space, and we've already begun to fight. Witness what's already happened in just the past year: 

“The days of leading countries or companies via a one-way conversation are over,” says Dov Seidman, the C.E.O. of LRN and the author of the book “How.” “Now you have to have a two-way conversation that connects deeply with your citizens or customers or employees.” 

Netflix had a one-way conversation about raising prices with its customers, who instantly self-organized; some 800,000 bolted, and the stock plunged. Bank of America had a one-way conversation about charging a $5 fee on debit cards, and its customers forced the global bank to reverse itself and apologize. Putin thought he had power over his people and could impose whatever he wanted and is now being forced into a conversation to justify staying in power. Coca-Cola repackaged its flagship soft drink in white cans for the holidays. But an outcry of “blasphemy” from consumers forced Coke to switch back from white cans to red cans in a week. Last year, Gap ditched its new logo after a week of online backlash by customers. 

Listening to consumers, voters and agitators. Organizing and assembling a coalition of people with similar interests. Ideas fighting money. These are the same issues that excited society with the advent of the printing press, the newspaper, radio and television. But those were mainly one-way conversations. We can now talk back, and so can the machines, sensors and software that are the leading edge of technological innovation.

This shift will have a great impact in schools, which will need to alter their policies banning cell phone and other devices in the classroom that students and teachers use to communicate. The present push to ban all cell phone use while driving will also need to be rethought because we rely on phones to get directions or report emergencies. In short, there is no going back to the old days of asking the gas station attendant to get information. There is only a sensible way forward. The road will be bumpy at first, but eventually ingenuity, experimentation and progress will rule the day.

Let's have a two-way conversation at

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