A Path to the Infosphere

Futurama_Comic_S1Eric Schmidt of Google recently made headlines when he said: “The Internet will disappear.” By that he meant that it will become so seamless that it will surround us everywhere. Obviously a lot of things have to happen before we can all move to the ubiquitous infosphere. For instance, as I just covered in another blog, we will need small nonintrusive wearables. Gone will be the fitness trackers and smartwatches and even the cell phones. We’ll instead have to have some small device that is always with us and that can communicate with us both audibly and visually. This could be an earbud or even implanted chip along with some device that can cast images into our retinas, something far less clunky than Google glass.

But aside from better devices, the biggest change is going to have to be in the way the web functions. Gone would be today’s interface with the web through browsers where we interface with one program or one website at a time. The way we work on computers today is too linear and while we may have many programs running, each of them is separate, and we dip into them one at a time.

The wireless world has already shown us a partial path to the future by virtue of having moved to a world of apps rather than URL websites. But apps still suffer from the same problem of being used one at a time, and there is very little linking between apps today. There are apps today that want to dip into other apps to grab existing data, but I normally get the impression that this is more for the benefit of the app company than it is for the user. I constantly run across apps that ask if they can have access to my contacts list on Facebook or LinkedIn and I always say no. Unless it’s some sort of a communications app, these companies are just fishing for more leads to try to sell their product. We don’t need more advertising linking, but functional linking.

There is an attempt in the app world to establish better links between apps. For instance, Google’s App Indexing and Facebook’s App Links are the start of an effort to create what the industry is calling deep linking, which are ways for apps to usefully share data for the benefit of the user. There are a number of other software companies working in this area.

Today, content providers build custom cross-linking libraries to fulfill this function. The cross-linking process makes it possible to move seamlessly from one app to another. But such links are custom-made and are very specific to a small set of apps. The links share data fields so that a customer using one app can be sent to a second app without logging in again and without having to provide basic data about who they are.

But what’s really needed in the long run, if we are going to get to a seamless infosphere, is a software system that automatically allows a user to shift from one app to another without ever having to log in. The whole idea of logging in has to go away. We need apps that can authenticate who we are and that don’t have to ask us basic questions about who we are. So another thing that is needed for a seamless infosphere is some sort of foolproof authentication. Apps need to be able to trust that we are who we say we are.

But the flip side of that is that as users we need to know that apps won’t spy on us and suck out every bit of information about us. When apps can talk to each other without our permission, we need to have some sort of privacy matrix established that defines what we are willing to share and not share. And the apps must follow the rules that each of us establishes. So another thing needed for us to feel safe in the infosphere is some sort of trustworthy privacy rules that all programs we interface with will follow.

One of the early dangers I see from the linking process is that it could become very proprietary. If Google, Facebook, or Apple develops a suite of linked apps that work well together but that don’t link to outside apps, then we will have taken a step backwards and will have undone the intent of the recent net neutrality ruling. That ruling ensures that large ISPs don’t restrict entry of new competitors into the web market. But that ruling does not protect against the large content providers getting so large and ubiquitous that they kill off competitors by locking them out of linked systems. So eventually we are going to need net neutrality rules for content providers.

So we are almost there for a ubiquitous web. All we need are a total migration to apps, better wearable devices, foolproof authentication, better privacy screens to protect our data, rules that allow any app to safely link with others, and net neutrality rules that don’t let any content provider control the infosphere. Come on Silicon Valley. We’re waiting.

Are Computers Changing Us?

Fourth RevolutionI recently read the The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality by Luciano Floridi. He is a leading figure in modern philosophy and in this book he looks at how our relationship with information technology is changing us. Floridi believes that mankind in the midst of profound change due to our interactions and immersion in computer technology.

He thinks that information technology is the fourth scientific breakthrough in our history that has fundamentally changed the way that we see ourselves in relation to the universe. The first transformational scientific breakthrough was when Copernicus shook mankind out of the belief that we were the center of the universe. The second was when Darwin showed mankind that it was not the center of the animal kingdom but had evolved alongside and was related to all other life on earth. The third revolution started when Freud showed us that we are not even transparent to ourselves and that we have an unconscious side that is not under our direct control. The fourth big change in our perception of our role in the universe has come through the development of computers and information technology. Our relationship with computers and data has shown mankind that people are not disconnected and individual agents, but instead with the web and computer technology we have become an integral part of the global environment.

He labels any technology that enables the transmission of information as an ICT (Information and Communication technology). The first ICT was writing, but we now have become inundated by ICTs such as the Internet of Things, Web 2.0, the semantic web, cloud computing, smartphone apps, augmented reality, artificial companions, driverless cars, wearble tech, virtual learning, social media and touch screens. ICTs are changing so rapidly that these ICTs will quickly become obsolete and will be replaced by many more that we can’t even imagine. Increasing computer power, smaller chip sizes and ways to handle big data mean that mankind is headed for a time when technology is indispensable to our lives, and will be integrated into our lives.

His most surprising conclusion is that this new technology and our interface with it is fundamentally changing us as people. I have recently read some literature about childhood development that corroborates this concept, in that kids who are immersed in advanced technology from birth develop differently than those before them. They literally develop different neural pathways and different brain characteristics than historical mankind. He thinks we are entering an age of not only new technology, but of a new mankind.

Floridi argues that the boundaries between life online and life offline are blurring and that our kids will always be online, even if not physically connected to a computer. We already see the beginning of this in that our roles in social networks and other online activities now don’t rely on us always being actively there. As computers become more and more a part of our we clearly will always be connected. Floridi labels this new phenomenon ‘onlife’.

Our onlife now defines a lot of our daily activities – how we shop, learn, care for our health, get entertainment, relate to other people. It affects the way we interface with the realms of law, politics, religion and finance. It even has changed the way we wage war. Floridi says that what we are experiencing as a society is more than us just using newer technologies and that the real significance is how these technologies are changing us. He says that ICTs are transforming the way that we interface with the world.

I found this book fascinating. It brings a way to understand a lot of the things we see in modern life. For instance, it gives is a way to understand why young kids seem to think differently than we do. If Floridi is right then the world is at a crucial point in its history. We still have a tiny number of primitive people in the planet that are living in pre-history. But most of the people in the planet are living in history, that is, they are from a mindset that we have had for thousands of years since the advent of writing and other forms of communication. But we also now have a generation of people who are moving into hyper-history and are becoming part of the infosphere. Children growing up in the infosphere and particularly their children will think differently than the rest of mankind. People of my generation are users of technology, but this next mankind is immersed in technology and is a part of that technology. It’s going to be interesting to see how the world deals with a generation that is fundamentally different than the rest of mankind.