Saturday, March 12, 2011

Cyberspace as Today's Not-So-Hidden Closet

I've been consuming a steady diet of science fiction since, way back in the 1950s, I discovered the legendary Foundation series from New York-born biochemist Isaac Asimov.  That's why I'm delighted that I live in Canada where, despite our relatively small population, we exceed our quota of successful SF writers for folks with my chronic addiction to enjoy.

One such treasure is William Gibson of Vancouver, the man who is credited with inventing the term cyberspace and forecasting the Internet. Last year he wrote a droll op-ed article he called Google's Earth  for the New York Times. No, it's not about maps but a futurist writer's take on Google as a form of AI (artificial intelligence) no author ever envisaged. Google of course was founded by two math geniuses who developed algorithms that are key to its intellectual property and there's even a connection between Google and the Foundation books in that at the core of the story are projections by a fictional mathematician named Hari Seldon.

To develop his theme Gibson uses a published interview that Google Chairman Eric Schmidt gave. It contained this pearl: “I actually think most people don’t want Google to answer their questions. They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.
Though that thought did get Schmidt a lot of press, most of it negative, Gibson's main point is that, instead of stand-alone AI superdupercomputers that can counsel and direct like Arthur C Clarke's on-board Hal in the book and movie Century 2001, we have ended up with a distributed intelligence (Google) that draws its information from each and all of us to give us it back. Nothing can be hid from this "single multiplex eye for the entire human species".

It's noteworthy too that Eric Schmidt's major theme in his interview had been that young people are catastrophically exposing their private lives to this all-encompassing eye via social networking sites and there is never any hiding from that. For me this creates an ethical issue. Societies have set the age of responsibility somewhere in the teens. While we can accept adults have a complete lifetime responsibility for whatever they say about themselves, including an obligation to understand that in today's cyberspace this behaviour (in all its mundane or depraved glory) is saved for posterity, surely this should not apply to the under-aged?

It's so true that, as Gibson says: "We also seldom imagined ...that emergent technologies would leave legislation in the dust." Catch-up takes keen awareness of how fast these tech tools are changing privacy. At a recent major legal seminar on an parliamentary overhaul of Canada's approach to copyright I cannot recall anything being said about limiting the likes of Facebook and Google to profit from what people of a young age record about themselves.

Let's speculate on the future consequences of our present-day lightly refereed free-for-all in online personal exposure. On one hand, those who, whether by luck or good judgment, do not let it all hang out could dominate leadership and well-paid jobs. On the other, most future adults may finally accept that everyone has dirty laundry so 'get over it' and move on.  My bet though is that in the long run those who win life's lottery will continue to be those with few detectable skeletons. The difference  is that the future closet is all of cyberspace and most skeletons won't be really illegal, immoral or unethical but just unwise postings.

Gibson has fun exploring the idea of a moratorium on childhood follies where each adult is given a post hoc change in web identity for the period covering their youth. But he doubts we should trust Google to be enough of an earth mother to comply.

Many may come to wish he is wrong!


  1. Did William Gibson forecast the Internet before or after James Martin and a bunch of others??!!

  2. James Martin, author of The Wired Society back in 1978, is a prolific author and perhaps the UK's greatest scientific futurist. I can imagine he would have long ago conjectured the Internet in his vision of a wired world. In the first cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer, in 1984 Gibson outlined something looking like what the Pentagon would later define as today's inter-networked world - What can you tell us about Prof Martin's projections and their timing?

    Did he predict ubiquitous search engines like Google? Gibson in his article makes it very clear that he himself didn't.


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