David Pax


The blog contains some of my thoughts on things like writing, science and how that all works together to affect society.

Technology Revelations

One of the unintended consequences of advanced technology is the need to make the implicit explicit. Removing technical limitations often uncovers implicit assumptions within systems, revealing assumptions that worked well within those technical limitations, but which start to crumble as the limitations are removed. We are seeing this happen now in Internet based communication, and until we update our social and political systems our communication technology will plateau.

Historically there was an implicit reciprocity in free speech. Anyone might stand in the public square and speak their ideas, with the reciprocity that anyone with opposing ideas would have their turn as well. Technology has now altered the shape of that public square, and to maintain the value of free speech we need to adapt to that new shape.

Reciprocity implies more than equal time, it implies equal risk. Standing in the public square requires a certain degree of courage, a willingness to risk that you may have disagreement, or may simply not be heard at all. Sometimes standing in the public square included a risk to life, freedom, or property, depending on the nature of the leaders at the time, but there was still a degree of reciprocity since the leaders could not act against a speaker without their motives being clearly understood.

Any distance communication changes the nature of reciprocity. High bandwidth distance communication has only been around a short time in the history of human evolution, too short a time for us to fully adapted to it yet. Large scale print, radio, and television are expensive to set up and operate, so their role was moderated by a combination of government and management. These media began to move away from the public square by having an editorial role involved in the content that was communicated, but they still had to be responsive to the public to some degree. The shape of the public square was changed, but still depended on a foundation of public trust.

Private broadcast technology through the Internet is very recent, and it does not have the foundation of public trust that print, radio, and television required to survive. Individuals can use technology to broadcast their ideas while filtering out other ideas. The reciprocity of risk is gone, as a death threat communicated by email is unlikely to bring any consequences to the sender, while potentially terrifying the recipient. Internet communication had not enlarged the public square, it has pulverized it.

A recent broadcast of the public radio program Reveal documented how Internet trolls can harm individuals through the asymmetrical use of technology. Without the reciprocity of the public square some people feel free to launch vile attacks that they would never say if there were some possible consequence to themselves. As with so many other technologies, the Internet itself is neutral, a potential source of both good and evil. We have not yet evolved the systems that will bring the Internet to the level where it can support the next generation of technological development.

Personal devices with Internet connections are starting to become prevalent, in the form of phone watches, health monitors, audio players, and other wearable. At some point these will develop further, into implants. The basic technology already exists, we already chip our pets in case they get lost, and it is not hard to adapt for humans. Some people have had chips or other technology inserted as a demonstration. Artistic uses of technology are a different blog topic, but medical implants are already being developed. An immediate need is an implanted blood glucose monitor to help diabetics manage blood sugar. Short term partially implanted Continuous Glucose Monitors (CGMs) are regularly used by endocrinologists, and permanent fully implanted devices are being tested.

Realizing the full benefit of Internet connected devices will require rebuilding the reciprocity of the public square. While the benefit of an automatic connection of a medical monitor to your doctor is obvious, most people would not take advantage of it without a strong assurance of security. The possibility of a someone hacking the device is a significant concern. Looking at diabetes again, an artificial pancreas is near the capability of our current technology, and adding an Internet connection that could send routine data to your doctor and call for help if something went wrong would be very beneficial. Knowing that a simple comment in a chat room might lead to an attack on your health, though, would be a strong disincentive. Without reciprocity, without consequences to an attacker, widespread deployment of advanced personal technology will be hindered. Digital security by itself is not sufficient, time and again hackers have demonstrated an ability to break digital defenses.

In Without Gravity the approach to providing advanced personal technology includes reciprocity. When people reach the age where they can decide to receive implants there is a coming of age ceremony where they accept the responsibility of participating in an advanced civilization. Part of the ceremony is acknowledging that using their network connection to harm others could result in being disconnected from the network. In a world where life usually includes being networked disconnection is serious. Those who do not respect reciprocity within the network are excluded from it. Everything is proportional, of course, minor infractions receive minor penalties such as a short periods of disconnection. Overall, it builds a society that encourages the best aspects of network communication and discourages the worst aspects. In Without Gravity, reciprocity builds a stronger society.

We no longer live in a world where the implicit reciprocity of the public square can be counted on to moderate discussions. If we want to continue benefiting from connected technology we must make the implicit explicit. While it will still be some time before the sophisticated implants of Without Gravity are common, we must start now on building, or rebuilding, the public square.

Kris Butler