Bruce Schneier’s Notion of the “World-Sized Web” – Prepare to Be Blown Away
THE BEST "LEFT-HANDED" COMPLIMENT I'VE EVER RECEIVED ON MY WORK IS, "YOU'VE ARTICULATED SO WELL ALL THESE THINGS I'VE BEEN THINKING ABOUT AND SAYING - FOR YEARS!" I call that compliment "left-handed" (an old phrase) because, at first blush, you're tempted to say, "Well, that makes me sound not very original and I most certainly am!" But, in truth, if you're in the business of being a "guru" or "visionary" or just somebody who thinks systematically about the future and likes to think they're good at it (where I fall), this is the best sort of compliment you can receive. Why? Because, if your ideas are truly contagious and transferrable and accessible, they should tap into all sorts of broader notions out there that others are pondering too. If your "vision" is yours and yours alone, it won't "travel." But, if you can organize and codify a range of prevalent-but-complex ideas out there in a way that makes them truly know-able on a broad scale, then you've actually accomplished something.
The "security guru" (high praise from the Economist) Bruce Schneier is a King Kong in this arena, meaning I totally covet his ability to formulate visions of the future by weaving together all manner of present-day insights so as to generate a compelling and engrossing story. His blog is a must read - so good that it feels like cheating for somebody in my line of work.
His most recent post, which originally appeared in Forbes, speaks to a subject I've long struggled to articulate - namely, the looming reality of pervasively "sensored" environments in which every item in your world is alive and connected and forming a larger technological whole.
In this piece, Scheier refers to that notion as something beyond the Internet of Things about which we all opine and fantasize. Some samples:
The Internet of Things is the name given to the computerization of everything in our lives. Already you can buy Internet-enabled thermostats, light bulbs, refrigerators, and cars. Soon everything will be on the Internet: the things we own, the things we interact with in public, autonomous things that interact with each other.
These "things" will have two separate parts. One part will be sensors that collect data about us and our environment. Already our smartphones know our location and, with their onboard accelerometers, track our movements. Things like our thermostats and light bulbs will know who is in the room. Internet-enabled street and highway sensors will know how many people are out and aboutand eventually who they are. Sensors will collect environmental data from all over the world.
The other part will be actuators. They'll affect our environment. Our smart thermostats aren't collecting information about ambient temperature and who's in the room for nothing; they set the temperature accordingly. Phones already know our location, and send that information back to Google Maps and Waze to determine where traffic congestion is; when they're linked to driverless cars, they'll automatically route us around that congestion. Amazon already wants autonomous drones to deliver packages. The Internet of Things will increasingly perform actions for us and in our name.
Increasingly, human intervention will be unnecessary. The sensors will collect data. The system's smarts will interpret the data and figure out what to do. And the actuators will do things in our world. You can think of the sensors as the eyes and ears of the Internet, the actuators as the hands and feet of the Internet, and the stuff in the middle as the brain. This makes the future clearer. The Internet now senses, thinks, and acts.
What I love about that section is the simple breakdown between sensors and actuators, yielding the sense, think and act bit at the end. I've read tons of pieces that explored those two aspects and the resulting punchline - just none as clear and concise and accessible as Schneier's. And that's what a truly top-line guru does: he or she empowers you in what you already know but haven't pieced together in their larger meaning - to wit:
We're building a world-sized robot, and we don't even realize it.
In some ways, we're nearing Thomas Hobbes' notion of the "Leviathan" - the world-spanning power that tames - if not controls - all benevolently:
I've started calling this robot the World-Sized Web.
The World-Sized Web -- can I call it WSW? -- is more than just the Internet of Things. Much of the WSW's brains will be in the cloud, on servers connected via cellular, Wi-Fi, or short-range data networks. It's mobile, of course, because many of these things will move around with us, like our smartphones. And it's persistent. You might be able to turn off small pieces of it here and there, but in the main the WSW will always be on, and always be there.
None of these technologies are new, but they're all becoming more prevalent. I believe that we're at the brink of a phase change around information and networks. The difference in degree will become a difference in kind. That's the robot that is the WSW.
Then Schneier relates it to something that we've all come to understand - the rise of drones in warfare. (confession: a long career of working with the U.S. military has been my ultimate "cheat" in thinking about the future, due to my privileged and early exposure to things like what we now call the Internet, GPS, drones, etc.).
Not a future dystopian (thank God), Schneier isn't predicting Skynet, criminals ruling the world, etc. as a result of this development. By and large, he's not a fan of tech fear-mongering, which is wonderful - and rare - for a mind like his (sad to say):
By and large, the WSW will be a benign robot. It will collect data and do things in our interests; that's why we're building it. But it will change our society in ways we can't predict, some of them good and some of them bad. It will maximize profits for the people who control the components. It will enable totalitarian governments. It will empower criminals and hackers in new and different ways. It will cause power balances to shift and societies to change.
He ends the post with a call to "start thinking seriously about our new world-spanning robot," proposing a "Department of Technology Policy."
Again, this is the highest compliment I ever get and I readily extend it to Schneier: I've long pondered the notion that access to new technology will be the political issue of the 21st century - more important than economic inequality or political freedom. I too believe governments will rise and fall on this basis. I do not, however, believe that Schneier's World-Sized Web will enable totalitarian governments. I don't see history supporting that notion whatsoever. I think it's just a sloppy nod to George Orwell, who pretty much got everything wrong on how technology drives politics. I realize I'm in the minority on that score, but I know what I know.
Again, do yourself a favor and read Schneier regularly. He's CTO of a company called Resilient Systems. And, now that I'm here at Resilient Corporation, I'm finally working up the nerve to reach out to him. I just keep telling myself that my TED Talk has more views than his and that I've got more hair at age 53 than he does. Other than that, the guy runs circles around me, which is why I'd love to get to know him.
Hat tip to Craig Nordin for pushing me to do this.