Tracking is the future of technology

The Edge, an idea-oriented collective of innovators and thinkers, has a new issue here.

It includes a 9,000-word interview with Kevin Kelly, one of the founders of Wired magazine. Kelly ranges across the future of technology, the good and the bad. He says technology is “telling me” it wants to track. I immediately nodded my head, and thought, “We are technology,” and we’re telling ourselves we want to track. Why, for more reasons that we can imagine, and I hope, on balance, it will be a positive phenomenon, and I hope I’m not being characteristically positive here.

Normal computer tracking capabilities (built into the Internet/computer system) and government surveillance are two separate issues, and each will require different answers and regulations to make them work positively within society.

Here’s Kelly on technology and tracking:

“How far will we share, when are we going to stop sharing, and how far are we going to allow ourselves to monitor and surveil each other in kind of a coveillance? I believe that there’s no end to how much we can track each other—how far we’re going to self-track, how much we’re going to allow companies to track us—so I find it really difficult to believe that there’s going to be a limit to this, and to try to imagine this world in which we are being self-tracked and co-tracked and tracked by governments, and yet accepting of that, is really hard to imagine.

Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly

“…How does this work? How can we have a world in which we are all watching each other, and everybody feels happy? I don’t see any counter force to the forces of surveillance and self-tracking, so I’m trying to listen to what the technology wants, and the technology is suggesting that it wants to be watched. What the Internet does is track, just like what the Internet does is to copy, and you can’t stop copying. You have to go with the copies flowing, and I think the same thing about this technology. It’s suggesting that it wants to monitor, it wants to track, and that you really can’t stop the tracking. So maybe what we have to do is work with this tracking—try to bring symmetry or have areas where there’s no tracking in a temporary basis. I don’t know, but this is the question I’m asking myself: how are we going to live in a world of ubiquitous tracking?

“I call myself a protopian, not a utopian. I believe in progress in an incremental way where every year it’s better than the year before but not by very much—just a micro amount. I don’t believe in utopia where there’s any kind of a world without problems brought on by technology. Every new technology creates almost as many problems that it solves. For most people that statement would suggest that technology is kind of a wash. It’s kind of neutral, because if you’re creating as many problems as it solves, then it’s a 50/50 wash, but the difference in my protopian view versus, say, a neutral view is that all these new technologies bring new possibilities that did not exist before, including the new possibility of doing harm versus good.

61jtoj2lJVL“One way to think about this is if you imagine the very first tool made, say, a stone hammer. That stone hammer could be used to kill somebody, or it could be used to make a structure, but before that stone hammer became a tool, that possibility of making that choice did not exist. Technology is continually giving us ways to do harm and to do well; it’s amplifying both. It’s amplifying our power to do well and our power to do harm, but the fact that we also have a new choice each time is a new good. That, in itself, is an unalloyed good—the fact that we have another choice and that additional choice tips that balance in one direction towards a net good. So you have the power to do evil expanded. You have the power to do good expanded. You think that’s a wash. In fact, we now have a choice that we did not have before, and that tips it very, very slightly in the category of the sum of good. …”

“Personally, I want to be optimistic, like Kelly, and see tracking, in spite of the current cultural dread, as becoming a force for positive good in culture and society. On balance, I want to believe it will somehow expand our possibilities for change that is good even though we can’t envision that at this moment – how that will take place. To do otherwise, is to fall into the Big Brother trap. It’s not that simple, and we shouldn’t  reduce tracking to a dangerous rubric or else we help to create Big Brother rather than to see this as a technological moment which moves us into a new future that carries with it all the possibilities of good and bad, just as technology has done throughout history.

“That said, the tracking issue demands some immediate innovative codifications of principles that offer people choices, some protections, and some control over unbridled tracking. This need, of course, will be on-going in order to keep up with technology.

“The challenge is on the par with the long road of codifying democratic and human rights principles. It will take a lot of seriousness of purpose, work and time.”

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2 Comments on “Tracking is the future of technology”

  1. roy hamric says:

    Thanks for the mention and the link, Harvey. Fascinating story in the NY Times today about Snowden using off-the-shelf technology to scoop up NSA secrets; no big deal to achieve tremendous access to the data he acquired.

  2. You might be interested in David Brin’s take on2-way tracking. Brin is a scientist and a well-kn ow science fiction writer. He wrote a nonfiction book, The Transparent Society, on that topic. He is also a prolific blogger: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/


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