Politics / Science / Technology · November 9, 2009

Changing the game with Technology

So I read Cory Doctorow’s book, “The Makers“.  There were some points where I think it could have benefited with some editing, but overall I think it was a good book.

Makers is a story about the effect of disruptive, game changing technology.  In the case of Makers the primary example is the three dimensional printer that is able to download a pattern and print it out.  Want a new bicycle?  Print out the parts and assemble it.  Need a new fender for your car?  Print it out. 

3D printers are not fantasy – they do exist.  The RepRap 3D printer is a device that can almost print a copy of itself.  That’s the goal.  No one would purchase one of these printers, they would just have a friend run one off for them.  RepRap is working on making a printer that could even print electronic circuits.

My friend Madhu linked to a TechCrunch article from his Facebook page about the beginnings of another disruptive technology.  I think this technology is not getting the attention it deserves.

This Techcrunch article by Paul Carr is about the Fort Hood massacre, and it talks about how Army soldier Tearah Moore was inside the hospital where soldiers were being taken for treatment.  Mr. Carr rips into Moore for being a “citizen journalist” for her reporting of events via the Twitter social network.  He points out that she got much of her information wrong, and then calls her a problem for being part of the “look at me” society.

Mr. Carr seems to be lamenting the loss of professional journalism, and berates those amateurs behind the camera who won’t get out of the way, or put down the camera and help.  I think that is a discussion worth having, but is not the intent of my post.

I mentioned in response to Madhu that the difference between citizen journalists and professional journalists is the difference between data and information.  A person on the spot with a camera and a twitter feed is providing data.  This data, like all data, should be considered to be suspect until confirmed.  A good news person would know this.  A quick twit of “multiple shooters” would be turned into a cautious announcement of, “We have an unconfirmed report that there may be more than one shooter.”

There aren’t many good news reporters left. 

But data is going to increase.  The game changing technology is the convergence of micro digital video recorders, cell phones and live Internet streams.  These cameras are shrinking to the point where a police officer can confiscate your 35mm camera while completely overlooking your personal digital video recorder.  What good is it to force a photographer to delete his photos when they are already online the moment he or she takes them?

CCTV is already pervasive, there are few public urban places where people can go without being recorded by some sort of camera system.  These systems are usually owned by businesses or by local governments, and they rarely link together.  CCTV is sold to businesses and the public as a means of “security”.  As one executive in the security industry told me, “We don’t build ‘alarms’ because they don’t alarm the bad guys.  We build ‘security systems’ because they make our customers feel more secure”.

How much more secure would it make an average person feel than to wear a real-time video transmitter all the time?

At some point the technology is going to be so pervasive, and so discreet, that it will be unthinkable to prevent citizens from using it in public areas.  It will become difficult, if not impossible to prevent the use of this technology even in a secure area.  Places that don’t allow cell phones often allow personal music players.  What if your discreet iPod had a camera built into it?  What if your camera system was smaller, and designed to blend in

What will we do when all this video becomes available through live feeds on the Internet?  The problem will cease to be shoddy citizen journalism.  The problem will be in sifting through all this data and turning it into information.  Those people and companies that learn how to do this well will become our news media.  Those people who can turn mountains of raw video and audio into brief, informative text and video reports will become the “Walter Cronkites” of this next age of information.

And this pervasive technology will definitely change the game.  Police got the message from Rodney King and routinely harass those people who video or photograph their actions.  How will they act if they are unable to tell if someone is recording them?  Most stores, like Walmart, don’t bother to stuff cameras behind each camera bubble in the ceiling because the bubble itself is a deterrent.  In the same vein, every bystander will become a deterrent to poor police procedure because it will be impossible to know if someone is carrying one of these cameras without performing a thorough search.

The new technology of video analytics is a way of analyzing video to determine behavior or attitude.  If we applied this to a personal video stream, it could be possible for the system to sound an alarm when something goes wrong.  Being held up at gunpoint, having an airbag deploy, or even varying your routine in a drastic manner may make your own personal “OnStar” system perk up and ask you if everything is okay.  If you’ve ever been mugged before, this could be a very attractive technology.  It would certainly change the game for criminals.

What does this all mean?  What will come of it?  I dunno.  No one did a good job of predicting the consequences of personal computers or of the Internet.  Some industries and governments have tried, and failed to predict the consequences of technology, with often humorous results.  (For example, the Movie and Music industry successfully lobbied to cripple Digital Audio Tape recorders in America, and completely missed the importance of CD-ROM.  They’ve been trying to catch up since then.)

Cory Doctorow’s other book, “Little Brother” talks about pervasive information gathering of government and private businesses, and how the citizen can fight back using technology.  It’s a good book, but I don’t think he took it far enough.  When web-connected personal video cameras become ubiquitous the change will be massive.