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March - 2009 - issue > Technology
Information Explosion - Means You Won't Own Your Data
Janna Quitney Anderson
Monday, March 2, 2009
At the Imagining the Internet Center (http://imaginingtheinternet.org) we ask people how they see the future unfolding and we document their thoughts. Most people note only a tiny slice of what is happening around them; they don’t often comprehend the big picture. All of us should more mindfully consider the myriad possible ramifications of progress and its likely arc.

Networks engender positive and negative results. People should continually question their effects. Some topics that have engendered lively debate recently include: Is Google making us dumb? Will gadgets make knowledge obsolete – when anyone can find out anything anytime anywhere, why learn? Will cultures blend and differences dissolve if we are one world, or will new information tools be leveraged to extend intolerance, to spy on individuals, to build walled gardens?

PC Magazine recently carried a series of brief predictive essays by savvy Internet stakeholders, including Paul Otellini of Intel, Bill Gates of Microsoft and Vint Cerf of Google. Among their expectations: wireless devices embedded in our bodies; cameras recording all public movements; databases tracking every online move; the proliferation of massive data centers, broadband and projection surfaces in a globe-spanning information fabric; 10 times the microprocessor power at 10 times less power and real-time analysis of all bodily functions on a molecular level; globally immersive, invisible, ambient networked computing with security agents in the cloud-based OS; 100 Gb Ethernet in the next 10 years; software with humanlike thinking and no need for programmers; the direct brain-to-computer interface without the need for implants; quantum computing by 2032 and an inter-computer dialogue of massive magnitude.

The future of information is portable, personal and pervasive. In developed nations, we are already seeing information delivered in myriad formats, including new diffusion methods, from RSS feeds, social networks and text-messaging to gaming and embedded data in architectural kiosks and other surfaces of various sorts and virtual-reality worlds such as Second Life and mirror worlds such as Google Earth and Google Moon.

Thanks to the diffusion of cell phones and smartphones, millions of people in least-developed nations are gaining unprecedented access to banking, health resources, education and new career and business options that they never had before.

Data-gathering and delivery methods are morphing at an accelerating pace.

Consider how incremental but continuous advances in computing, storage, power, interfaces and artificial intelligence are providing progressively more refined and complete access to the ubiquitous information available from databases, sensors, tracking devices, cameras and all of the other inputs continually coming online and being networked.

Consider the fact that as a species we are genetically motivated to continually work to gain an edge in power.

Combine that with the fact that there is a profit to be made in empowering people, and you see how augmentation through the use of hardware and software tools, implants, prosthetics, drugs and things we haven't even conceived of yet will be added into the layers of change we have to anticipate when looking ahead to how we will receive input and process it in the future.

As our tools evolve, so do we. Human perception and the ways in which we take in and process information are different today than they were 30 years ago, and they are likely to continue to change.

Recent fMRI studies of the brain show us we have just scratched the surface in regard to understanding human consciousness and perception. Biology and technology will be combined in the future in ways we can't yet comprehend.

There's no way to tell how fast it will all happen and how it will unfold. We can only work to do our best to educate ourselves, to consider the possible, probable and preferred future and work for the best outcome.

Most current Internet interaction is found in the user-generated content and social networks of Web 2.0, but the 3D web-computing ecosystem is developing quickly. Augmented reality enables enhanced real-world information through the use and confluence of the internet, RFID, GPS, smart-tag networks and portable/wearable information technology. 3D environments offer ideal design spaces for social and economic experimentation, rapid-prototyping and customized and decentralized production.

Every item in the physical world is being mapped, tagged and databased, as humans build mirror worlds (data-enhanced virtual models of the "real" physical world, also known as digital Earth systems), and innovate in new, virtual worlds (Second Life, Cyworld, World of Warcraft). Way back in 2007, MIT's Emerging Technologies conference had a headline session titled "Second Earth: Second Life, Google Earth and the Future of the Metaverse," with the explanation: "Social virtual worlds such as Second Life and mapping tools such as Google Earth are beginning to overlap, perhaps foreshadowing the advent of an immersive, 3-D 'metaverse.'" A 2007 Gartner study estimated 80 percent of all active internet users will have virtual selves by the end of 2011. And the Metaverse Roadmap (http://www.metaverseroadmap.org/), a project I have been fortunate to participate in as a minor contributor, anticipates this change and asks us to consider the positive and negative effects.

Information is power. Governments and businesses are leveraging more tools than ever before to categorize, catalog, tag and track everything. One high-profile example is Google. Ten years after its launch Google is already altering human behavior in the world's most-developed nations. Privacy and consumer-rights organizations have been raising red flags about the amount of data it controls. Its scope already goes beyond internet searches, and it is expanding; we have Google Earth and Google Moon, and the company has investments and outright ownership of other concerns, including a multi-million-dollar investment in 23andMe, a company aimed at "helping consumers understand and browse their genome." With control over all of that information, we do hope that Google will continue to uphold its founding mantra: “Don’t be evil.”

Facebook has come under scrutiny lately because the language of its terms of use indicated that it was declaring eternal ownership of all of its users’ personal data. While Facebook backed off, the threat showed how vulnerable everyone’s lives become when they extend themselves into modern networks.

We are all attracted to the shiny, exciting new devices and opportunities offered in the online world. We must be aware that whoever provides the most bandwidth and most immersive and addictive social and political benefit inside that bandwidth is also going to have unprecedented power and influence.

Corporations are going to continue to expand their efforts to control information and governments are going to continue to exert their control flow of information. We can’t stop that. We can work to encourage the individual leaders who make decisions about information control and flow to make open, responsible decisions that serve the common good.

Author is director of the Imagining the Internet Center, an online compilation of survey studies, public contributions and documentary videos illuminating the future of the internet.
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