Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Future of Technology roundable at the Philoctetes Center

I had the pleasure of attending a roundtable discussion on “The Future of Technology” at the Philoctetes Center in NY City this weekend. It was not a comprehensive overview of technology issues, but there were some thought provoking discussions. Here is a summary of some things I found interesting:

PlayStation-3 is essentially a supercomputer in a box. We will soon have a supercomputer in a packet, coupled with pervasive access to everything from everywhere. We will be able to set up real time video monitors that call for help when an elderly person falls, or when someone in a pool seems to be drowning.

Another development is that everything about you will become more available to everyone. You will become more of a public persona, no longer the private individual the way you used to know it. One of the great urges of culture is to spread your virtual genes around, your name, thoughts, opinions, memes… This is already happening with FaceBook and MySpace. This is not generating a fear of the loss of privacy because the key aspect of these is that people have control over what information about themselves is made available.

Internet culture is a form of an extended childhood for adults. It goes back to the very early childhood phase dominated by fantasy and imagination, before the discovery of limits.

The human social contract was discussed in detail as something that can trump and control the exploitation of new technology. Unfortunately the social contract is not evolving fast enough to always keep up with changing technology. It is often difficult to figure out how to apply social norms (and formal laws) to new technology. They are adopting though. An example was given about a fraud suite pending in court for something that happened in the 2nd Life virtual world. This was viewed as something completely natural and reasonable by the panel. Another example of a development that the social contract will have trouble adjusting to - in 20-30 years it will become standard to know your genome and understand much about it.

Some aspects of technology use bring out the good and bad in people. Blog comments tend to bring out the worse in many people, for example. 50% of them seem to be just cruel personal attacks. The important thing in controlling poor behavior, and in judging the value of content, is the idea of “reputation”. We need a better way to establish and communicate online reputations. Anything with anonymous sources tends to be problematic.

While many of the poor behavior discussed has its roots outside of the online technology, the internet has lowered the barrier to creating fraud and deception on a massive scale.

Our physical metabolism craves sugar and fats, but you can get sick when you have an unlimited supply available and you don’t learn to restrict yourself. In the same way, our mental metabolism seems to have certain cravings that can be supplied in unlimited amounts online or in electronic games, and we can become psychologically sick when we don’t restrict our consumption of these. Additionally, the fact that you can tailor you online world to feed your phobias and prejudices is creating additional problems.

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