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July 24, 2002

COMPUTER GEEKS AS FIREMEN? Well, sort of. Read this speech by Bruce Sterling on ubiquitous computing over on Winds of Change. Excerpt:

You don't want to wander into a Kazaa and Napster version of George Orwell. Ubiquitous computation, unlike information, does not "want to be free." This is not a technology of freedom. Ubiquitous computation wants to make you its slave. Try to remember that, for all our sakes, all right? This is not a water-cooler for gossip, like the Internet is. This is a hard-case, hard-times, hands-on, rather ruthless command-and-control system.

Actually, if we're going to have a version of 1984 I hope it's a Kazaa and Napster version, since it'll go broke before it actually does much. And in fact, that's more or less what Sterling says:

I rather doubt that the Orwellian version of ubicomp has much of a future. That's a scenario that I have dubbed "Terrorspace", which is ubicomp in the context of airports and nuclear power sites. If you've been in airports recently, I believe you are seeing a pretty apt, early version of Terrorspace. At any random moment, you can have your possessions rifled through by strangers. Your shoes are scanned, and various small but vital objects in your pockets can be confiscated by semi- educated security geeks. They're either pathetically under-trained for the job (in which case you certainly feel no safer), or else they are intelligent and capable people (in which case you pity them and wish they had some other job, for the sake of general human happiness and the GNP). Rather than making us any safer, Terrorspace airports serve as political indoctrination centers that humiliate our voting population on a broad scale. They are meant to inure us to ever-escalating levels of governmental clumsiness and general harm.

The difficulty with this Terrorspace approach is that airports and airlines are going broke. Airports are hemorrhaging money trying to maintain this terrorspace apparatus. It is likely to spread to the brittle power of nuclear power plants, nuclear waste dumps, bio-sites, chemical sites, liquid petroleum gas centers and so forth. That will hugely increase the overhead of all these dangerous industries.

That's a very considerable tax burden. So, though Terrorspace may serve as a full employment program for the loyal and slightly stupid, that's not going to pay off socially or economically in the long run.

Going broke is the fate of totalitarian societies generally; a computer-run one might just do it faster. Or not. Read the whole thing, which contains both hopeful and cautionary notes.