Tuesday, April 23, 2013

From many perspectives

For me, one of the striking things about the Boston Marathon bombings, the pursuit of the perps, and how the world followed these fast-breaking events has been the role of modern tech. Last week's tragedy, compared to other terrorist bombings (and would-be bombings) of recent years, seems immersed in the latest technology. And reminiscient of much near-future fiction ...

With non-jarring apps
The investigators had -- and made brilliant use of -- many thousand cameras. Ten years ago, would people in the crowd have had cameras? Sure. But would people in the crowd have taken nearly as many shots and videos as they did with all their smartphones? Probably not.

Ten years ago, would authorities have as quickly blanketed the Boston area with information? As quickly knocked down the rumors and disinformation? With TV and radio, likely yes -- but only to people near a TV or radio. How many people did the authorities first reach via cells and tablets?

(And on that point, hot off the [virtual] presses, from Michael Chertoff [a former Secretary of Homeland Security] and Dallas Lawrence [a former spokesman for the military coalition in Iraq], see "Investigating Terror in the Age of Twitter.")

Ten years ago, how much harder would it have been to reach family and friends in the Boston area, to check whether they were safe and to offer moral support? The phone systems were overloaded and (reports vary) cell-phone systems were sometimes shut down. (If cell systems were locally unavailable, I'm not criticizing. To stymie remote detonations is a Good Thing.) But email, texting (when and where cell systems were available), Facebook, Twitter ... offered access when all else failed.

So what lies ahead?

It's not the job of science fiction to predict the future as much as to imagine possible futures. For that matter, prediction isn't required at all -- to entertain is always a sufficient purpose. Still, some SF authors strive to look ahead, and when the best do it, their predictions can be spot on.

I highly recommend The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom?, 1998, by futurist / physicist / author David Brin. While Brin is perhaps best known for his SF, Transparent Society is a prescient nonfiction book that examined -- well ahead of time -- many implications of the ubiquity of cameras everywhere: the good and the bad. Among its recognitions, the book won the Freedom of Speech Award from the American Library Association.

For a look a few years ahead from now, consider Rainbow's End, 2006, by futurist / computer scientist / author Vernor Vinge. Among Vinge's claims to fame is popularizing the (for now, not yet upon us) technological Singularity. No matter how entertaining much cyberpunk fiction can be, for me not much of it feels credible. This novel feels all too real.

Food for thought ...

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