the ubernet

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The spread of the ‘Ubernet’ will diminish the meaning of borders, and new ‘nations’ of those with shared interests may emerge and exist beyond the capacity of current nation-states to control.1

In the Pew Internet Research paper, David Hughes, an Internet pioneer, who from 1972 worked in individual to/from digital telecommunications, responded, “All 7-plus billion humans on this planet will sooner or later be ‘connected’ to each other and fixed destinations, via the Uber (not Inter) net. That can lead to the diminished power over people’s lives within nation-states. When every person on this planet can reach, and communicate two-way, with every other person on this planet, the power of nation-states to control every human inside its geographic boundaries may start to diminish.”2

From events in the Ukraine over the course of the past month it should be clear to all that we haven’t yet learned to operate in a post bi-polar superpower world. We optimistically thought the balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union had given way to the United States being the only power in the world to be reckoned with. But in the 22 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we have seen China rise as an economic power and groups like Al Qaeda with no claims to any boundaries or national limits acting independently against anyone they consider their enemies. And instead of using our power to improve the lot of everyone in the world, we seem bogged down in an internal battle over the definition of just who is a patriot, with large numbers of Americans claiming those in government cannot be trusted. We haven’t learned yet how to reach a win-win conclusion with our former enemies, who are also our neighbors, on the planet.

Having spent most of my professional life in the Foreign Service, I know how difficult it is for governments of all sorts to deal with other governments when the borders that define each are unclear. When the former Soviet Union fell apart, the new nations that were formed as successors all remained defined by the borders of the soviets, the “states” of the Soviet Union. The autonomous regions within the former Soviet Union, such as Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia and nearly 20 more you have probably never ever heard of, all remained part of Russia. Transnistria, a sliver of land at the eastern edge of, and within the internationally recognized borders of, the country of Moldova, has never accepted that it should be part of Moldova and not Russia. No member of the United Nations recognizes Transnistria as an independent state, more evidence that states have difficulty dealing with movable borders. Yet for 22 years, Transnistria has operated without recognizing the authority of the government in Moldova. The facts on the ground would indicate Transnistria is a separate country. But there is no political will to recognize that because doing so violates the primacy of immutable borders.

Then there are other groups whose populations span more than one country, such as the Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. They can’t so easily simply declare themselves independent because they are not all within the boundaries of a single country. It may not seem fair, but the world is easier to keep safe when borders remain the same even though the people in power may change. Our representative system of government ensures that we may change our leaders without the risk of changing our borders. And in spite of the rhetoric in the declaration of independence about it being the duty of a people to throw off oppressive governments, secession from the union was not an acceptable means of dealing with differences of opinion in the 19th century and it is no less acceptable now.

Yet JP Rangaswami, chief scientist for Salesforce.com, observed in the Pew Internet report, “The problems that humanity now faces are problems that can’t be contained by political borders or economic systems. Traditional structures of government and governance are therefore ill-equipped to create the sensors, the flows, the ability to recognize patterns, the ability to identify root causes, the ability to act on the insights gained, the ability to do any or all of this at speed, while working collaboratively across borders and time zones and sociopolitical systems and cultures. From climate change to disease control, from water conservation to nutrition, from the resolution of immune-system-weakness conditions to solving the growing obesity problem, the answer lies in what the Internet will be in decades to come. By 2025, we will have a good idea of its foundations.”3 

If traditional structures of government are ill-equipped to handle these challenges, just how are we expected to accomplish the work outside of government structures? Are we to expect that kind-hearted people with good intentions are going to be able to address them? My critter brain is going crazy thinking about those prospects.

more peaceful change

Political awareness and action will be facilitated and more peaceful change and public uprisings like the Arab Spring will emerge.1

This one sounds really good. REALLY good. More peaceful change. Who can object to that for the future?

But it really sounds too good. The Arab Spring brought about change, and at the time those changes appeared to be peaceful – or at least without much violence. But we haven’t seen the long-term results of those changes. Syria is still going through its Arab Spring and it hasn’t been anything like what we saw in Tunisia or Libya or Egypt. Even Egypt is still going through changes that I wouldn’t characterize as all that peaceful.

This thesis seems so incredibly naive and western-world-centric, especially U.S.-centric. We don’t have the same sense of history that is felt so deeply in other parts of the world. A mere two hundred plus years are all that provide our historical framework. In Europe, that framework is many more centuries, although the most recent centuries seem to hold the greatest sway on intellectual life. But in the Middle East, the events of more than a millennium ago form the backdrop for intellectuals, political leaders, poets, and individuals. Those previously in power can afford to wait to take back what they feel is rightfully theirs. History is on their side.

Watching events in the Ukraine also make me feel that it is presumptuous of us to believe that events on one day – or week or month or season – that are unmarked by violence and therefore are declared “peaceful” – are sufficient for a declaration that the long-term series of events will remain so.

The ease with which information can be shared and exchanged also means rumors, gossip, and conspiracy theories also may spread quickly. The strongly expressed opinions of nearly everyone I know seem to make their way into Facebook posts.

I’ve been reading about and watching presentations on neuroscience lately. One set of presentations by Christine Comaford, an executive coach, centers around the three areas of the brain – the reptilian, mammalian, and cortex. According to Comaford, the reptilian brain deals with issues of safety, the mammalian brain with issues of belonging, and the cortex with issues of mattering. Together, the reptilian and mammalian brain control the fight-flight-freeze reaction when we feel threatened. Comaford calls the reptilian and mammalian brain the critter brain while the cortex is the portion of the brain that allows us to operate in a smart state. Her goal is to provide those she coaches with information to help them keep themselves as well as those they supervise operating in that smart state, outside of the critter brain state.

Comaford’s reference to the three brains reflects Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs quite well, with Maslow’s lowest two needs – physiological and safety – corresponding to the reptilian brain, the next one – love and belonging – to the mammalian brain, and the upper two needs – esteem and self-actualization – corresponding to the cortex.

I have been thinking about these three centers of the brain to reflect on which of them Facebook posts appeal to. And far more than I am comfortable with seem to appeal to the critter brain – engendering fear by pointing out how the way someone else thinks is threatening or on the differences between people that indicate some people don’t belong to the same group as I do.

The Pew Internet article quotes Rui Correia, director of Netday Namibia, a non-profit supporting innovations in information technology for education and development, as saying, “With mobile technologies and information-sharing apps becoming ubiquitous, we can expect some significant improvement in the awareness of otherwise illiterate and ill-informed rural populations to opportunities missed out by manipulative and corrupt governments. Like the Arab Spring, we can expect more and more uprisings to take place as people become more informed and able to communicate their concerns.”2 These thoughts appeal to the smart brain, the cortex. But the thought that “otherwise illiterate and ill-informed rural populations” do not operate much of the time from their critter state minds is incredibly optimistic. Education doesn’t ensure we rise above operating in the critter state. But I hope it helps.

Another contributor to the Pew Internet article, Nicole Ellison, an associate professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan, predicted, “As more of the global population comes online, there will be increased awareness of the massive disparities in access to health care, clear water, education, food, and human rights.”3 Again, I am concerned that issues of disparities in precisely those areas of life are likely to result in reactions from the critter brain, to Maslow’s bottom two needs, rather than in the smart state. And the outcome I see when there is greater awareness of disparities is anger about the lack fairness in access.

Or so my critter brain fears.

augmented reality

Augmented reality and wearable devices will be implemented to monitor and give quick feedback on daily life, especially tied to personal health.1

It seems like wearable computers have been promised for the future for years. Until Google Glass, however, the only wearable devices to appear have been digital watches that also are calculators, calendars, and – I recall fondly from nearly thirty years ago when a friend used to lend me his watch during lunch breaks at work – games. Or maybe it is just that they are the only wearable devices I have noticed. After all, if it weren’t for the fact that one of my Toastmasters friends is a Google Glass beta tester, I might not have noticed that wearable device either. As far as I know, virtual reality goggles are still just props for science fiction movies.

I have seen You Tube videos of augmented reality, like the one below.

Instead of generating enthusiasm, however, they freak me out by their appearance of facilitating stalking behavior.  My first thought after watching the video above was that in the world of the future, requesting people to remove their glasses before they enter a social event might become standard practice in order to preserve the privacy of those attending. But then I read about smart contacts designed for diabetics to monitor blood sugar levels continuously. It they are smart today, they will be able to augment reality some tomorrow. Those smart contacts are an example of what Aron Roberts, software developer at the University of California-Berkeley, was referring to when he said, “We may well see wearable devices and/or home and workplace sensors that can help us make ongoing lifestyle changes and provide early detection for disease risks, not just disease. We may literally be able to adjust both medications and lifestyle changes on a day-by-day basis or even an hour-by-hour basis, thus enormously magnifying the effectiveness of an ever more understaffed medical delivery system.”2

Daren C. Brabham, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, University of Southern California, predicted, “We will grow accustomed to seeing the world through multiple data layers. This will change a lot of social practices, such as dating, job interviewing and professional networking, and gaming, as well as policing and espionage.”3

No kidding.

Here’s another view of augmented reality that focuses on the positive potential:

This video offers big promises for augmented reality in education since the tagging of physical objects such as newspapers, pictures, and books with video content can exponentially expand the resources that can be brought into classrooms, with students controlling when they access the additional materials instead of having to line up in rows as a teacher turns on a TV or computer with large monitor to show everyone the same video at the same time.

The children reacted to the appearance of the augmentations as if there was magic involved. And what child isn’t fascinated by magic? Perhaps I am being too pessimistic. Perhaps in five years it will not be difficult to explain to a child what is real, what is augmented, and what is fantasy. I hope so. Because if we can’t, we may find many more people being treated by psychiatrists for being unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy because what is augmented reality will have blurred the line. Or we will face an epidemic of children being manipulated by unscrupulous persons because we hadn’t taught children to distinguish between those adults they can trust and those they can’t. Or both.