The Social Sense

I: On Top of the World

WebEarth.org image

I’ve always wanted to save the world.  When I was younger, and more messianic, I thought I might have to do it all myself.  As the world knocked sense into me, I began to see salvation as a shared project, a communal task.  I have always had a special vision for that project, one that came to me when I first started working in virtual reality, twenty years ago.  I knew that it would someday be possible for us to ‘see’ the entire world, to apprehend it as a whole.

Virtual reality, and computer visualization in general, is very good at revealing things that we can’t normally see, either because they’re too big, or we’re too large, or they’re too fast, or we’re too quick.  The problem of scale is one at the center of human being: man is the measure of all things.  But where that measuring rod falls short, leaving us unable to apprehend the totality of experience, we live in shadow, part of the truth forever beyond our grasp.

The computer has become microscope, telescope, ultra-high-speed and time-lapse camera.  Using little more than a sharpened needle, we can build atomic-force microscopes, feeling our way across the edges of individual atoms.  Using banks of supercomputers, we crunch through microwave data, painting a picture of the universe in its first microseconds.  We can simulate chemical reactions so fast we had always assumed them to be instantaneous.  And we can speed the ever-so-gradual movement of the continents, making them seem like a dance.

Twenty years ago, when this was more theoretical than commonplace, I realized that we would someday have systems to show us the Earth, just as it is, right in this moment.  I did what I could with the tools I had at my disposal to create something that pointed toward what I imagined, but I have this persistent habit of being ahead of the curve.  What I created – WebEarth – was a dim reflection of what I knew would one day be possible.

In the middle of 1995 I was invited to be a guest of honor at the Interactive Media Festival in Los Angeles.  The festival showcased a number of very high-end interactive projects, including experiments in digital evolution, artificial life, and one project that stopped me in my tracks, a work that changed everything for me.

On 140cm television screen, I saw a visualization of Earth from space.  Next to the screen, I saw a trackball – inflated to the size of a beachball.  I put my hand on the trackball and spun it around; the Earth visualization followed it, move for move.  That’s nice, I thought, but not really terrifically interesting.  There was a little console with a few buttons arrayed off to one side of the trackball.  When you pressed one of those buttons, you began to zoom in.  Nothing special there, but as you zoomed in, the image began to resolve itself, growing progressively more detailed as you dived down from outside the orbit of the Moon, landing at street level in Berlin, or Tokyo, or Los Angeles.

This was T_Vision, and if it all sounds somewhat unexceptional today, sixteen years ago it took a half-million-dollar graphics supercomputer to create the imagery drawn across that gigantic display, and a high-speed network link to keep it fed with all the real-time data integrated into its visualizations.  T_Vision could show you weather information from anywhere it had been installed, because each installation spoke to the others across the still-new-and-shiny Internet, sharing local data.  The goal was to have T_Vision installations in all of the major cities around the world, so that any T_Vision would be able to render a complete picture of the entire Earth, at it is, in the moment.

That never happened; half a million dollars per city was too big an ask.  But I knew that I’d seen my vision realized in T_Vision, and I expected that it would become the prototype for systems to follow.  I wrote about T_Vision in my book The Playful World, because I knew that these simulations of Earth would be profoundly important in the 21st century: they provide an ideal tool for understanding the impacts of our behavior.

Our biggest problems arise when we fail to foresee the long-term consequences of our actions.  Native Americans once considered ‘the seventh generation’ when meditating on their actions, but long-term planning is difficult in a world of every-increasing human complexity.  So much depends on so much, everything interwoven into everything else, it almost seems as though we only have two options: frozen in a static moment which admits no growth, or, blithely ignorant, charging ahead, and devil take the hindmost.

Two options, until today.  Because today we can pop Google Earth onto our computers or our mobiles and zoom down from space to the waters of Lake Crackenback.  We can integrate cloud cover and radar and rainfall.  And we can do this all on computers that cost just a few hundreds of dollars, connected to a global Internet with sensors near and far, bringing us every bit of data we might desire.

We have this today, but we live in the brief moment between the lightning and the thunder.  The tool has been given to us, but we have not yet learned how to use it, or what its use will mean.  This is where I want to begin today, because this is a truly new thing: we can see ourselves and our place within the world.  We were blind, but now can see.  In this light we can put to rights the mistakes we made while we lived in darkness.

 

II: All Together Now

A lot has transpired in the past sixteen years.  Computers double in speed or halve in cost every twenty-four months, so the computers of 2011 are a fifty times faster, and cost, in relative terms, a quarter the price.  Nearly everyone uses them in the office, and most homes have at least one, more often than not connected to high-speed broadband Internet, something that didn’t exist sixteen years ago.  Although this is all wonderful and has made modern life a lot more interesting, it’s nothing next to the real revolution that’s taken place.

In 1995, perhaps fifteen or twenty percent of Australians owned mobiles.  They were bulky, expensive to own, expensive to use, yet we couldn’t get enough of them.  By the time of my first visit to Australia, in 1997, just over half of all Australians owned mobiles.  A culture undergoes a bit of a sea-change when mobiles pass this tipping point.  This was proven during an evening I’d organized with friends at Sydney’s Darling Harbour.  Half of us met at the appointed place and time, the rest were nowhere to be found.  We could have waited them to arrive, or we could have gone off on our own, fragmenting the party.  Instead we called, and told them to meet us at a pub on Oxford Street.  Problem solved.  It’s this simple social lubrication (no one is late anymore, just delayed) which makes mobiles intensely desirable.

In 2011, the mobile subscription rate in Australia is greater than 115%.  This figure seems ridiculous until you account for the number of individuals who have more than one mobile (one for work and one for personal use), or some other device – such as an iPad – that connects to wireless 3G broadband.  Children don’t get their first mobile until around grade 3 (or later), and a lot of seniors have skipped the mobile entirely.  But the broad swath of the population between 8 and 80 all have a mobile or two, and more.

Life in Australia is better for the mobile, but doesn’t hold a candle to its impact in the developing world.  From fishermen on the Kerala coast of India, to vegetable farmers in Kenya, to barbers in Pakistan, the mobile creates opportunities for every individual connected through it, opportunities which quickly translate into economic advantage.  Economists have definitively established a strong correlation between the aggregate connectivity of nation and its growth.  Connected individuals earn more; so do connected nations.

Because the mobile means money, people have eagerly adopted it.  This is the real transformation over the last sixteen years.  Over that time we went from less than a hundred million mobile subscribers to somewhere in the range of six billion.  There’s just under seven billion people on Earth, and even accounting for those of us who have more than one subscription, this means three quarters all of humanity Earth now use a mobile.  As in Australia, the youngest and the very oldest are exempt, but as we become a more urban civilization – over half of us now live in cities – the pace and coordination of urban life is set by the mobile.

 

III:  I, Spy

The lost iPad, found

We live in a world of mobile devices.  They’re in hand, tucked in a pocket, or tossed into a handbag, but sometimes we leave them behind.  At the end of long business trip, on a late night flight back to Sydney, I left my iPad in the seatback pocket of an aircraft.  I didn’t discover this for eighteen hours, until I unpacked my bags and noted it had gone missing.  “Well, that’s it,” I thought.  “It’s gone for good.”  Then I remembered that Apple offers a feature on their iPhones and iPads, through their Me.com website, that lets you locate lost devices.  I figured I had nothing to lose, so I launched the site, waited a few moments, then found my iPad.  Not just the city, or the suburb, but down to the neighborhood and street and house – even the part of the house!  There it was, on Google’s high-resolution satellite imagery, phoning home.

What to do?  The neighborhood wasn’t all that good – next to Mount Druitt in Sydney’s ‘Wild West’ – so I didn’t fancy ringing the bell and asking politely.  Instead I phoned the police, who came by to take a report.  When they asked how I knew where my iPad was, I showed them the website.  They were gobsmacked.  In their perfect world, no thief can ever make away with anything, because it’s telling its owner and the police about its every movement.

I used another feature of ‘Find my iPad’ to send a message to its display: “Hello, I’m lost!  Please return me for a reward.’  About 36 hours later I received an email from the fellow who had ended up with my iPad (his mother cleans aircraft), offering to return it.  The next day, in a scene straight from a Cold War-era spy movie, we met on a street corner in Ultimo.  He handed me my iPad, I thanked him and handed him a reward, then we each went our separate ways.

Somewhere in the middle of this drama, I realized that I possessed the first of what will be many intelligent and trackable devices to follow.  In the beginning they’ll look like mobiles, like tablets and computers, but they’ll begin to look like absolutely anything you like.  This is the kind of high-technology favored by ‘Q’ in James Bond movies and by the CIA in covert operations, but it has always been expensive.  Now it’s cheap and easy-to-use and tiny.

I tend to invent things after I have that kind of brainwave, so I immediately dreamed up a ‘smart’ luggage tag, that you’d clip onto your baggage when you check in at the terminal.  If your baggage gets lost, it can ‘phone home’ to let you know just where it’s ended up – information you can give to your airline.  Or you can put one into your car, so you can figure out just where you left it in that vast parking lot.  Or hang one onto your child as you go out into a crowded public place.  A group of very smart Sydney engineers had already shown me something similar – Tingo Family – which uses the tracking capabilities of smartphones to create that sort of capability.  But smartphones are expensive, and overkill; couldn’t this cost a lot less?

I did some research on my favorite geek websites, and found that I could build something similar from off-the-shelf parts for about $150.  That sounds expensive, but that’s because I’m purchasing in single-unit quantities.  When you purchase 10,000 of something electronic, they don’t cost nearly as much.  I’m sure something could be put together for less than fifty dollars that would have the two necessary components: a GPS receiver, and a 3GSM mobile broadband connection.  With those two pieces, it becomes possible to track anything, anywhere you can get a signal – which, in 2011, is most of the planet.

To track something – and talk to it – costs fifty dollars today, but, like clockwork, every twenty-four months that cost falls by fifty percent.  In 2013, it’s $25.00, in 2015 it’s $12.50, and so on, so that ten years from now it’s only a bit more than a dollar.  Eventually it becomes almost free.

This is the world we will be living in.  Anything of any importance to us – whether expensive or cheap as chips – will be sensing, listening, and responding.  Everything will be aware of where it is, and where it should be.  Everything will be aware of the temperature, the humidity, the light level, the altitude, its energy consumption, and the other things around it which are also aware of the temperature, humidity, light level, altitude, energy consumption, and other things around them.

This is the sensor revolution, which is sometimes called ‘the Web of things’ or ‘Web3.0’.  We can see it coming, even if we can’t quite see what happens once it comes.  We didn’t understand that mobiles would help poor people earn more money until everyone, everywhere got a mobile.  These things aren’t easy to predict in advance, because they are the product of complex interactions between people and circumstances.  Even so, we can start to see how all of this information provided by our things feeds into our most innate human characteristic – the need to share.

 

IV: Overshare

Last Thursday I was invited to the launch of the ‘Imagine Cup’, a Microsoft-sponsored contest where students around the world use technology to develop solutions for the big problems facing us.  At the event I met the winners of the 2008 Imagine Cup, two Australians – Ed Hooper and Long Zheng.  They told me about their winning entry, Project SOAK.  That stands for Smart Operational Agriculture Kit.  It’s essentially a package of networked sensors and software that a farmer can use to know precisely when land needs water, and where.  Developed in the heart of the drought, Project SOAK is an innovative answer to the permanent Australian problem of water conservation.

I asked them how much these sensors cost, back in 2008.  To measure temperature, rainfall, dam depth, humidity, salinity and moisture would have cost around fifty dollars.  Fifty dollars in 2008 is about one dollar in 2020.  At that price point, a large farm, with thousands of hectares, could be covered with SOAK sensors for just a few tens of thousands of dollars, but would save the farmer water, time, and money for many years to come.  The farmer would be able to spread eyes over all of their land, and the computer, eternally vigilant, would help the farmer grind through the mostly-boring data spat out by these thousands of eyes.

That’s a snapshot of the world of 2020, a snapshot that will be repeated countless times, as sensors proliferate throughout every part of our planet touched by human beings: our land and our cities and our vehicles and our bodies.  Everything will have something listening, watching, reporting and responding.

We can already do this, even without all of this cheap sensing, because our connectivity creates a platform where we as ‘human sensors’ can share the results of our observations.  Just a few weeks ago, a web-based project known as ‘Safecast’ launched.  Dedicated to observing and recording radiation levels around the Fukushima nuclear reactor – which melted down following the March 11 2011 earthquake and tsunami – Safecast invites individuals throughout Japan to take regular readings of the ‘background’ radiation, then post them to the Safecast website.  These results are ‘mashed up’ with Google Maps, and presented for anyone to explore, both as current results, and as a historical path of radiation levels through time in a particular area.

Safecast exists because the Japanese government has failed to provide this information to its own people (perhaps to avoid unduly alarming them), filling a gap in public knowledge by ‘crowdsourcing’ the sensing task across thousands of willing participants.  People, armed with radiation dosimeters and Geiger counters, are the sensors.  People, typing their observations into computers, are the network.  Everything that we will soon be able to do automatically we can already do by hand, if there is sufficient need.

Necessity is the mother of invention; need is the driver for innovation.  In Japan they collect data about soil and water radiation, to save themselves from cancer.  In the United States, human sensors collect data about RBT checkpoints, to save themselves from arrest.  You can purchase a smartphone app that allows anyone to post the location of an RBT checkpoint to a crowdsourced database.  Anyone else with the app can launch it and see how to avoid being caught drink driving.  Although we may find the morality disagreeable, the need is there, and an army of human sensors set to work to meet that need.

Now that we’re all connected, we’ve found that connectivity is more than just keeping in touch with family, friends and co-workers.  It brings an expanded awareness, as each of us shares the points of interest peculiar to our tastes.  In the beginning, we shared bad jokes, cute pictures of kittens, and chain letters.  But we’ve grown up, and as we’ve matured, our sharing has taken on a focus and depth that gives it real power: people share what they know to fill the articles of Wikipedia, read their counters and plug results into Safecast, spot the coppers and share that around too – as they did in the central London riots in February.

It’s uncontrollable, it’s ungovernable, but all this sharing serves a need.  This is all human potential that’s been bottled up, constrained by the lack of connectivity across the planet.  Now that this barrier is well and truly down, we have unprecedented capability to pool our eyes, ears and hands, putting ourselves to work toward whatever ends we might consider appropriate.

Let’s give that some thought.

 

V:  Mother Birth

To recap: six billion of us now have mobiles, keeping us in close connection with one another.  This connectivity creates a platform for whatever endeavors we might choose to pursue, from the meaningless, to the momentary, to the significant and permanent.  We are human sensors, ready to observe and report upon anything we find important; chances are that if we find something important, others will as well.

All of that human activity is colliding head-on with the sensor revolution, as electronics become smaller and smarter, leading eventually to a predicted ‘smart dust’ where sensors become a ubiquitous feature of the environment.  We are about to gain a certain quality of omnipresence; where our sensors are, our minds will follow.   We are everywhere connected, and soon will be everywhere aware.

This awareness grants us the ability to see the consequences of our activities.  We can understand why burning or digging or watering here has an effect there, because, even in a complex ecosystem, we can trace the delicate connections that outline our actions.  The computer, with its infinitely patient and infinitely deep memory, is an important partner in this task, because it helps us to detect and illustrate the correlations that become a new and broader understanding of ourselves.

This is not something restricted to the biggest and grandest challenges facing us.  It begins more humbly and approachably with the minutiae of every day life: driving the car, using the dishwasher, or organizing a ski trip.  These activities no longer exist in isolation, but are recorded and measured and compared: could that drive be shorter, that wash cooler, that ski trip more sustainable?  This transition is being driven less by altruism than by economics.  Global sustainability means preserving the planet, but individual sustainability means a higher quality of life with lower resource utilization.  As that point becomes clear – and once there is sufficient awareness infrastructure to support it – sustainability becomes another ‘on tap’ feature of the environment, much as electricity and connectivity are today.

This will not be driven by top-down mandates.  Although our government is making moves toward sustainability, market forces will drive us to sustainability as the elements of the environment become continually more precious.  Intelligence is a fair substitute for almost any other resource – up to a point.  A car won’t run on IQ alone, but it will go a lot further on a tank of petrol if intelligently designed.

We can do more than act as sensors and share data:  we can share our ideas, our frameworks and solutions for sustainability.  We have the connectivity – any innovation can spread across the entire planet in a matter of seconds.  This means that six billion minds could be sharing – should be sharing – every tip, every insight, every brainwave and invention – so that the rest of us can have a go, see if it works, then share the results, so others can learn from our experiences. We have a platform for incredibly rapid learning, something that can springboard us into new ways of working.  It works for fishermen in India and farmers and Africa, so why not for us?

Australia is among the least sustainable nations on the planet.  Our vast per-person carbon footprint, our continual overuse of our limited water supplies, and our refusal to employ the bounty of renewable resources which nature has provided us with makes our country a bit of an embarrassment.  We have created a nation that is, in most respects, the envy of the world.  But as we have built that nation on unsustainable practice, this nation has built its house on sand, and within a generation or two, it will stand no longer.

Australia is a smart nation, intelligent and well-connected.  There’s no problem here we can not solve, no reach toward sustainability which is beyond our grasp.  We now have the tools, all we need is the compelling reason to think anew, revisiting everything we know with fresh eyes, eyes aided by many others, everywhere, and many sensors, everywhere, all helping us to understand, and from that understanding, to act, and from those actions, to learn, and from that learning, to share.

We are the sharing species; the reason we can even worry about a sustainable environment is because our sharing made us so successful that seven billion of us have begun to overwhelm the natural world.  This sharing is now opening an entirely new and unexpected realm, where we put our mobiles to our ears and put our heads together to have a good think, to share a thought, or tell a yarn.  Same as it ever was, but completely different, because this is no tribe, or small town, or neighborhood, but everybody, everywhere, all together now.  Where we go from here is entirely in our own hands.