Justin Li


Our Upcoming Digital World

2010-09-01

Two converging sources led me to write this today.

The first is a duology (or dilogy, to be etymologically correct) by Daniel Suarez, titled Daemon and Freedom (TM). I first heard of Daemon from the Long Now Foundation blog, where the author talked about how the world is increasingly being run by computers. The online preview hooked me, and I've been searching for a copy ever since. I finally got my hands on both books two weeks ago. Michigan's copy of Daemon had been continuously checked out for a long time; I decided to get a copy of Freedom through ILLiad, thinking they would check it out from the Ann Arbor Public Library - I later found my copy came all the way from Yale. They were good reads, techno-thrillers that refuse to be put down. Saying the books are merely techno-thrillers grossly underestimates their scope - Suarez embedded political, economic, and philosophical viewpoints in the narrative - but here I will only address his description of technology and its impact on society.

The storyline of the novels follows a revolution, from a society very similar to our own to one where the digital world is (even more) deeply integrated into the fabric of everyone's lives. This integration is primarily through a computer problem (the titular Daemon, which controls everyone's private information. This consists mainly of three things: a person's unique ID (UID), their credit, and their role and competency in that role. A UID is just that - some name or series of characters which uniquely identifies a person. A person's credit is also a familiar concept: it is the digital currency of the society. Finally, a person's role and competency (or "level") stems from role playing game terminology; it describes what a person is good at, and how good they are at it. For example, the novel often shows articles by high level (say, level 12 or above) journalists.

Each piece of information stored by the Daemon is part of the overall system, but a larger view of the system is needed first. Each member of this new society wears specialized sunglasses, equipped with a head-up display (HUD) and powered by a wearable power source - in most cases, a battery belt. The HUD is a thin client to the Daemon - that is, it only provides access to the system but does not run the Daemon itself. Wireless Internet access is assumed, so the glasses are always connected to the Daemon. It transmits two sets of data to the Daemon: it's current location through GPS, and biometric data of its wearer. This biometric data - everything from fingerprints and iris scans to gait and breathing patterns - is stored together with a person's UID. DNA could presumably be stored as well, although it was not mentioned in the novels. This comprehensive profile of a person makes identity theft near impossible.

The GPS location, on the other hand, allows the Daemon to provide the user with information. Aside from data about people, the Daemon also stores information about objects. These could either be information about locations (think of a history of, for example, the Eiffel Tower) or information about real world objects. The latter is achieved through ubiquitous RFID tags. Pooling these databases together, a user can access information about everything in their surrounding.

A word about RFID tagged objects. In addition to giving information about an object's history (for example), the Daemon can perform other tasks with the help of embedded, integrated circuits in the object. One example is an ownership check: since the Daemon controls the economy (more on this later), it knows who an object belongs to. If an unauthorized person tries to use an object, the Daemon could automatically disable or even destroy the object. Since the Daemon is connected to most digital systems (more on how it did this later), objects could also be given "magical" properties. The books show a ring which will erase the wearer from security camera feeds: the Daemon associates the user and the ring, finds cameras pointed at the users location, and edits the video in real time to cover the user with the background.

Obviously, such an object could be misused - which is where a user's credit and role come into play. Together, these two pieces of information determine what someone is or is not allowed to do. While the idea of credits is easy to understand, role and level requires some explanation. As mentioned above, a person's role shows what the person is capable of doing. This may be production related - the knowledge to use a milling machine, for example - or skill based, such as the knowledge to write programs. The level is some measure of how much experience and how competent the person is with this ability. There is a third piece of data I have not mentioned - a person's reputation. This is again publicly viewable, and is simply an average of how others "rate" their interaction with this person. A low reputation would mean that the user frequently lies, or cheats, or is rude, while a high reputation means the user consistently does their job well. The creation and registration of objects with the Daemon often require several people to cooperate, and any one could refuse base on the others reputation. The Daemon itself performs checks on a person's credit and levels, to ensure that only responsible individuals could use powerful objects like the ring above.

Credit and reputation could be used in another way: to directly influence the society around you. For example, "news" within this society are simply pieces of media produced by users, then rated by other people. The initial rating of a piece of news depends on the reputation and level of the publisher. A person could also use their reputation to create "jobs" - things they want other people to do. Presumably, those who fulfill the requirements of the job - which might be something as simple as transcribing a minute of video - would gain credit or reputation or both.

For a society like the one described to survive, the stability and security of its infrastructure - that is, the Daemon - is crucial. In the novel, the Daemon first gained control as a virus botnet, gaining access to massive computing and storage capability. With this ability, it hacked into the financial and security systems worldwide, thereby forcing the world to accept its presence. The initial selection of people to receive HUD glasses were selected based on highly specific rules; once its members reached a critical mass, newcomers had to be interviewed by members - who are scanned with fMRI for honesty. It is also at this point the Daemon makes its source code publicly available, thus preventing minorities from taking over the system and also allowing the will of the majority to implement new procedures. Finally, the Daemon also executes the punishments in this society, including the removal of credits or in extreme cases, death (through the control of motorcycles with swords).

That concludes the description of Suarez's novel universe.

Before I talk about the second source of inspiration for this post, I want to point out which parts of the novel is science fiction and which parts are existing technology. The fictional aspects are surprisingly limited. The obvious ones include the sword wielding motorcycles, realistic and useful HUDs, fMRI lie detection (although this is a developing field), and (sadly) ubiquitous wireless internet access. Other things which sound fantastical are only fictional in degree: botnets do exist and could potentially harness the computing power to hack commercial networks. RFIDs are embedded in a lot of consumer products - including books, media players, and passports - and the devices needed to read RFIDs are cheap and easy to obtain. GPS is already a widespread technology, and in fact people already broadcast their location through services like Facebook Places, Twitter, and Foursquare. Finally, socially defined value systems are everywhere: Amazon ratings, news sites like Reddit and Digg, and on social networks like Facebook and MySpace. Of course, digital currency has been in use for the past half a century and drives most of today's financial markets. Finally, crowdsourcing is already available to people, through Amazon's Mechanical Turk service (the name of which is inspired by the original Turk, a fake AI).

My second inspiration likes with this later group. I watched a TED talk today by Seth Priebatsch on "The Game Layer on top of the World". Priebatsch is the founder of SCVNGR, an API which allows companies and individuals to build "challenges" at certain locations. These challenges earned the player points, which could be redeemed as coupons for those companies. Although I knew of all the services I mentioned above, it was only with the talk did I realize how near a future Suarez could be describing. Priebatsch's introduced his talk by saying today's social networks are disorganized, despite the potential of harnessing all the information a person puts online. The main difference between our present technology and that of Suarez's - aside from the science fiction elements already mentioned - is the transparency of information. By infecting global financial databases and forcing the system on people, the Daemon had the power to require the transparent broadcast of reputation and ratings. Without this central (and impersonal, unbiased, not-for-profit) force, there will always be concerns of monopoly and anti-trust for any company that gains control.

This was my original topic, by the way: that an open source, transparent program would solve the problems of a Randian utopia I talked about before. I believe that humanity will ultimately become the society described by Suarez, which inherently contains the values of production described by Rand, although policed in a very different form that what Rand envisioned. Technology has grown too quickly for society, especially our customs, to keep up: just look at the debates on net neutrality and digital copyright. Human right issues are related - the Daemon does not care whether you are Caucasian or African American, homosexual or heterosexual, Christian or atheist, but only your ability to give value to those around you.

I don't know what conditions would lead humanity to implement a change like that though.

Last thought: I mentioned that the Daemon's world was opt-in, that you have to decide to meet with interviewers. The current trend of ubiquitous computing is on smart phones, which I have yet to own one. In the novels, the people who stayed with the outside world were left with a dying economy; I wonder what world I will live in if I continue to refuse mobile technology.

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