Web/Tech Feed

The New Digital Age: The Future of Terrorism

They predict the "proliferation of sophisticated homemade explosive devices."  This was written before Boston, of course.  They predict that bombing-making will not be something you need an organization or only an expert for.  I wonder if the media and investigators have read this, as it seems that so many people are puzzled by the idea that the Tsarnaev brothers could have manufactured their own bomb.

Their big worry though is "everyman drones."  Even remote-control toys can become drones.  They imagine a number of frightening scenarios, including those that combine physical drones and cyberattacks to bring down response systems.  They believe scenarios like those they describe are inevitable.

"There will be fewer terrorist masterminds altogether.  But those that do exist will be even more dangerous."  Traditional solutions will be increasingly ineffective at responding to terror and more likely to generate more terrorists (as we've already seen in the last 20 years).

Intelligence communities will need to find ways to reach out to and recruit hackers, a group notoriously non-conformist.  They have some hope that this will be difficult for rogue states and terrorist groups.

An irony of Bin Laden's capture is that it was "his lack of Internet access in a large urban home that helped identify him."  Though being on-line would have made him even more easily discoverable.

"The silver lining of cyber terrorism is that, in almost every way, its practitioners will have less room for error. . . .  It takes only one mistake or weak link to compromise an entire network."

They imagine that in the future, governments will not allow, or at least not like, for people to be hidden, and that unconnected people will be on a list that will receive greater scrutiny at airports, etc., because the government will worry what people have to hide.  

So, if you are frightened by this book, and think you should stay or get off-line.  Well, that might not work.

"The only remedies for potential digital tyranny are to strengthen legal institutions and to encourage civil society to remain active and wise to potential abuses of this power."

Technological engagement should lead to more open societies, and be a way of dissuading people from becoming radicalized.  This is their hope for the 52% of world population which is under 30, a vast majority of whom are "socioeconomically at risk."  General Stanley McChrystal said, "What defeats terrorism is really two things.  It's rule of law and then it's opportunity for people."

The New Digital Age: The Future of Revolution

There can be little doubt that the near future will be full of revolutionary movements, as communication technologies enable new connections and generate more room for expression. . . .  But despite seeing more revolutionary movements, we'll see fewer revolutionary outcomes -- fully realized revolutions resulting in dramatic and progressive political turnover.

They have a complex argument for this conclusion.  Successful, sustainable revolutions take years of development and maturing of leadership.  Much contemporary revolutionary activity is the result of the crowds that can be generated using social networking.  The fast moving movements of today don't seem to be developing the organization and leadership to administer the new states.

They quote Henry Kissinger, "It is hard to imagine de Gaulles and Churchills appealing in the world of Facebook."  Instead we will get media celebrities -- they cite Herman Cain as an example.

There is danger if a group cannot shift from online activism to actually organizing, "If society at large loses faith in a rising movement and its ability to deliver, that's enough to stifle a transformative opportunity."

I wondered about some of the activism I've been a part of in recent years.  We have been victorious over our opponents largely because of our mastery of social networking and using it to mobilize supporters to show up, make calls, send e-mails and letters, and to vote.  Are we also developing strong leaders and organizational structures in the process?  I hope so.

One of the benefits of the new digital age is that "Citizens will no longer experience injustice in isolation or solitude."  We've seen this recently in Omaha, where video of a controversial police arrest went viral and led to investigations, firing, and indicts against some police officers.

They predict that dissident and activist groups will now need to compete for attention with one another, so marketing and branding will become essential skills.

Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore's prime minister, worries that "The danger we face in the future is that it will be far easier to be against something than for it."

I see all sorts of people posting their political views on-line, but I wonder how many of them match that with real world political organizing and activity?

The New Digital Age: The Future of States

The authors predict that there will eventually be a number of national or supra-national intranets, cut off from the global web.  Some states will partners with similar thinking allies to develop the technologies and infrastructures.  It is even possible that there will be a visa requirement on the internet in order to visit these closed systems.

Technology companies will be central to national security in the 21st century in the way that aviation companies were in the 20th.  "This is a commercial battle with profound security implications," because "companies export their values along with their products."

Virtual statehoods could emerge, as minority groups, such as the Kurds, could establish on-line networks that perform many of the functions of a state.

They discuss cyber-war, including some of the recent incidents and project what may come in the future.  They ponder what on-line activities will be viewed provocations for physical wars.  They predict that there will be a "perpetual, permanent low-grade cyber war" called the "Code War."

There is a paradox in all of this because, as they write, the Internet was initially "based on a model of trust."

The New Digital Age: The Future of Identity, Citizenship, and Reporting

Whereas chapter one highlighted a number of wonderful developments that await, chapter two I found mostly scary, as it related how a lack of privacy and security could be misused.  Chapter two might make you consider unplugging.

For some time I have puzzled over a basic paradox of the internet.  Back in the 90's one of the joys of the internet was anonymity or pretending to be someone else.  It was fun to go on a chat room and pretend to be somebody else or communicate differently than you would in real life.  We all got clever at developing handles that were not our actual names.  Even into the Aughts, many of my blog friends were writing anonymously so that they could more freely speak about their jobs as ministers, teachers, etc.  Then this radical shift came in the late Aughts with social networking, and now our real lives are lived in the open.  No more can you enjoy anonymity or pretending to be someone else.  They write, "The communication technologies we use today are invasive by design."

The authors write that we will be plagued by data permanence.  Anything we've ever posted on-line is published globally and cannot be deleted.  An foolish or impertinent thing we've ever put out there is still there and will go with us into the future.  They write,

The impact of this data revolution will be to strip citizens of much of their control over their personal information in virtual space, and that will have significant consequences in the physical world.

On the positive side, greater transparency and openness could lead to a better society, but all of this transparency and oppeness will be used and abused by those with power and greed.  And, of course, well-intentioned people who do harm.  The transparency and oppenness should make it harder to perpetuate myths or control populations with falsehoods.  An example of this was a recent YouTube video of Omaha police officers during an arrest.  The video went viral, led to an investigation, and four officers were fired.  This is far less likely to have occurred in the pre-digital past.

One interesting prediction they give is how strategically-minded parents will work to craft their child's on-line presence.  Even how we name children could be affected.  Some parents will want to name their child something distinct so that they will more easily stand out in on-line searches, while other parents will give their children very common names, in order to more easily hide on-line.

Here is good advice, and a little frightening:

Since information wants to be free, don't write anything down you don't want read back to you in court or printed on the front page of a newspaper, as the saying goes.  In the future this adage will broaden to include not just what you say and write, but the websites you visit, who you include in your online network, what you "like," and what others who are connected to you do, say and share.

They then discuss how these developments will play out in three different types of societies -- democracies, authoritarian regimes, and failed states.  This was the most interesting reading of the chapter.  In democracies, information will be exploited by various actors, but the spread of information could lead to greater transparency and a strengthened social contract.  They do believe that democratic states need to catch up with laws to protect people from abuses of privacy and security.  They write that most current politicians don't understand these things, but that a new generation of politicians will and laws will be coming, though there will be a liminal period where harm can occur (cyber-bulling is a good example).  One possibility they suggest is that "online intrusions could well carry the same charge as breaking and entering."

They also write that "Democracies will become more influenced by the wisdom of crowds (for better or for worse)."

Totalitarian states will have a wide array of new technologies to abuse.  One aspect of totalitarianism is robbing people of privacy and safe space, and that will be even easier.  Some dictatorships could even require that people be digitally connected so that they can track them more easily.  They do write about ways for dissidents to get around these intrusions and they are also hopeful that "If autocrats want to build a surveillance state, it's going to cost them -- we hope more than they can afford."

On the positive side, the new digital technologies could also lead to the collapse of dictatorships, as people can communicate and organize and spread information disproving the lies of the state.

For failed states, they mostly see an upside, which is already occuring.  In Somalia, for instance, where warlords have controlled the access to food for decades, mobile technologies are creating new delivery systems to bypass the control of the warlords.  People living in failed states will be able to connect to the wider world and receive some of the goods and services their nations have failed to deliver.  On the other side, tech savvy warlords could find ways to consolidate power at the expense of other people's data.

They write that tech companies will have to develop a thick skin, as they will be viewed as responsible for how their technologies are used and abused by actors around the globe.

Over time, they see the new digital age chipping away at authoritarian regimes.  They point out that currently dictatorships remain, for the most part, in the least connected countries.

At the end of the chapter they acknowledge that "citizens are nervous about the uknowns, the dangers and crises that come with entangling their lives in a web of connected strangers."  Yes, that describes many people I know.  Maybe they were the smart ones?

The New Digital Age -- "Our Future Selves"

After seeing announcements last week of Eric Schmidt's and Jared Cohen's new book The New Digital Age, I ordered it.  It has arrived, and I've begun reading it.  The book contains their predictions on the changes being wrought by digital technologies.  They contend that we have "barely left the starting blocks" but that we will get the future we create.  They write, "Most of all, this is a book about the importance of a guiding human hand in the new digital age."

I found that last quote interesting and am considering how that could be used in church advertising or to structure some series:  "A spiritual guide in the new digital age."

Chapter one is entitled "Our Future Selves" and contains their predictions for how digital technologies will transform everyone's lives, from business to health care.  Many of the ideas are very fascinating.  I was startled by the statistic that there are already 6 billion mobile phone users on the planet!  Many of the changes will result from new connectivity that democratizes access to information and one another.  They imagine employees spread around the globe, poor people being able to innovate businesses that will take off globally, devices that will analyze our health and send the data to our physician, etc.

But I was left with a few questions that weren't addressed, (in this chapter at least, maybe they are in later ones?). 

Where is all the electricity going to come from to power all these new things?  There seems to be what I think is a false assumption that the energy required to power the future life they describe is available (on page 21 he casually mentions that power and electricity are problems to be solved).  Other thinkers write about how our current energy use is unsustainable, so how is all this expanding digital technology going to be?  As fun and exciting as the future herein desribed might be, is it immoral because it is ecologically unsustainable?  

I also wonder what will happen to all the waste, a question first posed for me in the 1990's by Don Delillo's novel Underworld.

They imagine that it is possible that in the future the best graphic designers will come from Botswana and will be employed by global companies (or something like that).  I know we have moved into a new era of human existence (I said that in the 90's as well), but doesn't this forecasting overlook how significant living around other creative, innovative people in creative, innovative centers can be?  Of course digital technologies do allow for some fuzzing of these historical connections, but I still think it is most likely in the future that most innovation will still come from people living and working in major cities and near research universities where interesting, creative things are happening and interesting, creative people live.

Their discussion of education made me realize that our church needs to catch up with on-line activities and curriculum for Christian education.

They mention that in the future "People will have a better way to curate their life stories."  Until recently none of us (or at least most of us) even thought about "curating our life stories."

This, and the entire chapter, raised another question I've been pondering.  As we trained for the foster care system, one thing we learned is that foster kids cannot be pictured or have videos on-line.  I don't even think they can do it for themselves.  So, when we had a foster teen, he didn't have any on-line presence.  This is a problem (though I know it is trying to solve and prevent other problems).

These kids are already disadvantaged and behind their peers in many other areas, and now they will be far behind in the new digital age.  Generationally, they are digital natives, though they are being denied that core generational experience.  They will not have learned the skills necessary to compete in the future economy.  And, they will not have "curated their life stories."  Already the foster agencies push foster parents to help kids create physical life books to keep them in touch with their life stories, but this is not how people do this anymore (physically, I mean).  Decades from now when their peers are looking back on-line at what they did as kids and teens, the foster kids won't have that.  I don't know the solution; I only know the problem.  As they write, "those that can best navigate this multidimensional world will find themselves ahead in the future."

All the new robotic technology imagined in this chapter will deny lots of people employment.  Is that moral?  How are we to transition all those blue collar workers to the digital economy?  Won't some people just not have the aptitude, temperament, and/or desire to do the jobs of the digital economy?  

I'm just imagining Wendell Berry reading this chapter and freaking out.  

So, how do I reconcile my Berry side with my professional and personal needs and desires to stay relevant and up on cultural changes?

They think having microscopic robots in our circulatory system monitoring our health will one day be "as uncontroversial as artificial pacemakers."  That's a little difficult for me to imagine.  Though I know that I have already succumbed to lots of things I didn't think I would -- cell phone, Facebook, loss of privacy and control on-line that I once fiercely defended, etc.

They write about how everything we use personally and professionally will be on the cloud and available to all our many devices.  I for one have always liked to keep these things separate and sometimes am very frustrated with how they currently merge.  There are also ethical implications here.  For instance, working for a church, I cannot engage in partisan political activity, but personally I can.  Right now I work diligently at keeping those two separate.  In this new digitial future, how will that be possible?

I found really humourous their discussion of a future nephew who will not understand the phrase "A dog ate my homework."  Here is what they say:

How could a dog eat his cloud storage drive?  He had never gone to school before digital textbooks and online lesson plans, and he had used paper to do his homework so rarely -- and used cloud storage so routinely -- that the notion that he would somehow "forget" his homework and come up with an excuse like that struck him as absurd.


What does St. Augustine have to say about modern technology?

An interesting post at the New Media Project applies concepts of Augustine's theology and philosophy to issues of contemporary technology.  

Augustine, as interpreted in Brian Brock’s very helpful Christian Ethics in a Technological Age, explained what he saw as the different approaches to the problem of technology in the “city of God” vs. the “city of the world.” In the former, the task of technology, in Brock’s words, is “the discernment of the proper human place within an ordered love of earthly goods and the flourishing of all creation.” In the earthly city, on the other hand, technology is focused on “how best to gain tactical advantage by its application.” That difference is rooted in Augustine’s understanding of the social nature of sin: It’s not our material nature itself that is sinful or evil (as the Manicheans contended), but rather it’s the misuse of the good gifts of creation for selfish reasons, rather than to serve God and the people around us.

Social networking and ethics

An excellent, philosophical summary of the ethical issues related to social networking.  Among the most thought-provoking sections I picked these two excerpts as examples:

Edward Spence (2011) further suggests that to adequately address the significance of SNS and related information and communication technologies for the good life, we must also expand the scope of philosophical inquiry beyond its present concern with narrowly interpersonal ethics to the more universal ethical question of prudential wisdom. Do SNS and related technologies help us to cultivate the broader intellectual virtue of knowing what it is to live well, and how to best pursue it? Or do they tend to impede its development?

And wondering whether social networking adds to discourse in a way that promotes deliberative democracy, there is this:

When SNS in particular are considered in light of these questions, some distinctive considerations arise. First, sites like Facebook and Twitter (as opposed to narrower SNS utilities such as LinkedIn) facilitate the sharing of, and exposure to, an extremely diverse range of types of discourse. On any given day on Facebook a user may encounter in her NewsFeed a link to an article in a respected political magazine followed by a video of a cat in a silly costume, followed by a link to a new scientific study, followed by a lengthy status update someone has posted about their lunch, followed by a photo of a popular political figure overlaid with a clever and subversive caption. Vacation photos are mixed in with political rants, invitations to cultural events, birthday reminders and data-driven graphs created to undermine common political, moral or economic beliefs. Thus while a user has a tremendous amount of liberty to choose which forms of discourse to pay closer attention to, she cannot easily shield herself from at least a superficial acquaintance with the diversity of private and public concerns of her fellows. This has the potential to offer at least some measure of protection against the extreme insularity and fragmentation of discourse that is incompatible with the public sphere.

On-line and embodied

Jim Rice at the New Media Project reflects on how churches should use social media and contends that they should make use of it in ways that reinforce embodiment.

And just as the church must be embodied, it follows that the actions of the church—including activities in the digital realm—should reflect that embodied nature. In other words, just as the church does not exist solely in the spiritual domain, likewise the church’s online activities should not be restricted to the virtual world, but be embedded in and connected to the physical world and (especially but not exclusively) human community.

Is the web driving us mad?

Important article out today from Newsweek.  

I'm one of those who have thought most of the negative views about the web are overwrought, as one simply must maintain balance and moderation with this in the same way one must with everything else out there.  It seems we've discovered that far more people are easily addicted and overcome than I would ahve thought.  Where are the basic skills for human living?  Why isn't the essence of human wisdom better known and applied?  Whence the virtues?

Here's a somewhat alarming paragraph, and further argument for why I would not give my adolescents (if I currently had any) a mobile phone:

This evaporation of the genuine self also occurred among the high-school- and college-age kids she interviewed. They were struggling with digital identities at an age when actual identity is in flux. “What I learned in high school,” a kid named Stan told Turkle, “was profiles, profiles, profiles; how to make a me.” It’s a nerve-racking learning curve, a life lived entirely in public with the webcam on, every mistake recorded and shared, mocked until something more mockable comes along. “How long do I have to do this?” another teen sighed, as he prepared to reply to 100 new messages on his phone.

Folks, find a church or some other social group where your kids can interact physically with other people doing things like service projects and mission trips that disconnect them from the digital world.  Is this really difficult advice that people aren't aware of?

The author concludes:

So what do we do about it? Some would say nothing, since even the best research is tangled in the timeless conundrum of what comes first. Does the medium break normal people with its unrelenting presence, endless distractions, and threat of public ridicule for missteps? Or does it attract broken souls?

But in a way, it doesn’t matter whether our digital intensity is causing mental illness, or simply encouraging it along, as long as people are suffering. 

I feel like First Central has addressed these issues.  We've repeatedly had classes -- for youth, adults, parents -- on internet safety and other issues.  And I've recently preached an entire series on digital technologies, including the ethical concerns but also how it positively connects to spirituality and community.

The Church of Facebook: How the Hyperconnected Are Redefining Community

The Church of Facebook: How the Hyperconnected Are Redefining CommunityThe Church of Facebook: How the Hyperconnected Are Redefining Community by Jesse Rice
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This would have been a more interesting read in 2009 when it was written. Though there are some good lines and thoughts in it, most of it is not new anymore and is filled with pretty obvious and common sense proposals (I did find the writing style engaging). I was hoping for deeper, more thoughtful, theological reflection, which I have found in various blogs, articles, and other books (Phyllis Tickle for one).

View all my reviews