Mar 8, 2013

There Are No Good Reasons To Avoid A Connection

I'm seeing the internet in everything lately, so a story on NPR stuck out at me yesterday on the way to the airport. It's not all that tangential really-- the topic was on a relatively new phenomenon they're calling "Big Data". There were some interesting thought experiments brought up during the show about self driving cars and even the possibility of pre-crime prediction (think the movie Minority Report), but when the host turned to callers I heard a lot of voices worried about the new problems the internet and all this data allow for. Stolen identity, blackmail, big brother, etc-- all this connectedness seems to have a dark side as well.

It was like crawling out of a hot tub and jumping in a pool as we moved around the country during these past few months. In Kansas City I felt the warm hug of tech enthusiasm for gigabit enthusiasts who were converting houses into multi-start up offices to take advantage of fast speeds. With everyone on board it's easy to feel like our interconnected future holds a lot of promise for jobs, creativity, and anything else you want to put your mind to. We stepped out of the tub, though, in places like rural Maine where people respond to the idea of high speed fiber with a strong sense of distrust. "What is it?" and "What do I need that for?" are questions used like shields against a technology trying to unpleasantly change their lives. The web is a caged lion that they occasionally look at, but by no means would anyone advocate opening the gate. 

I'm quick to highlight the benefits of an affordable high speed network, but If I plan on telling this story well it's going to be important to address the fears we have about the new types of threats a connected world presents. Most of my personal concerns about privacy are no different than most, and it's no small thing to have your identity stolen. I can't say that I have a lot to contribute to solving these problems, but the question of danger to me begs another: is there anything you can do to stop these problems from existing?

I'm pretty sure the answer is no. I often wonder how some people who are part of the generations over fifty see the internet now. Ten years ago I can imagine they saw it as a text based phone system, or a way to connect games together, but at this point it's difficult for me to see anyone packaging it inside the description of anything else. Is it possible to imagine the internet is going away at some point? 

The web isn't a secondary way to accomplish tasks anymore. With it's speed and efficiency over traditional means it has proven to be the primary way to approach anything you want to do. While you can't hold the internet and cut down a tree with it, you can learn about every tree known to man through text, pictures, and video online, earn a living online, buy property with trees online, and hire someone online to come cut it down for you. Or if you like doing it yourself, you can buy a chainsaw online-- all at a cheaper, more efficient, and higher quality than ever previously possible in human history. It's weird to me that this isn't cool enough to trump the darker spots.

For someone who's used an axe all their lives, though, I'm wondering that maybe these benefits aren't equally attractive to all concerned. Who needs a smartphone with a NFC chip, for example, to buy your groceries when the cash register works fine and someone has a job running it? In reaching out to communities where no one is eager to replace the traditional ways of doing things, I think a way the web will suddenly be in demand is when it can solve a problem previously unsolvable by traditional means.

Unfortunately the net is something we all develop together, so when we invest in it we invest in our own potential. If you aren't using it, no one is going to develop a tool to help you solve your problem. Right now app developers and website builders are answering the questions of those that are asking, which is why there are so many cool examples of internet technology in urban areas. Take augmented reality for instance. You can simply point your smart phone at a street and overlays will display relavent information on the screen about the physical areas around you. In a city where there's so much to see and do, you can easily locate what you're looking for instead of relying on word of mouth or trial and error. This is a city problem, but what are the rural problems? There's no question there are problems to solve everywhere, but without a connection you can't leverage the power and knowledge all of humanity has to offer in answering these questions. As long as we invest in things only for immediate benefits, it's going to be difficult to sell smaller communities on the potential of broadband. 

Alright, so the internet isn't being quickly adopted where it doesn't have to be, but that hasn't stopped the negative affect of online identity theft, which presents another difficulty for late adopters. Even if you don't have a facebook page, there are many institutions that gather your information through other means like medical records, government records, credit cards, bank statements etc. It's becoming more common every year to hear about hackers stealing social security numbers from the government on local and national levels-- it seems you cannot simply abstain from the internet to protect yourself.

So we're all left to decide what the future holds with the web, but I can't see an argument that convinces me the internet can or should play a limited roll for anyone interested in being a part of a community or society. Having the ability to connect when it's useful is the means to improve lives for the better now, and to transform human society for the better in the future. Avoiding the internet at this point doesn't decrease the threats it poses, it just makes you unable to deal with them if you're affected by it. The choice appears to come down to this: to join the world, or be left behind-- a rather sinister sounding warning heard repeatedly throughout history. Ultimately, there are challenges for everyone to face, but you can't contribute to working them out unless you participate.