Tuesday, March 22, 2005

One word answer to All the World's Problems - "Internet"

Hi folks!

I often find myself wandering into this topic deep into discussions about major global issues. It seems to me that if we can avoid fatal global catastrophies for just a bit longer the Internet itself will be the vehicle for solving the root causes. The reason the Internet solves all the world's problems lies in the answer to this question:

"What happens when every living human has access to all information and is free to decide what to do with it?"

The Case of the Syrian Shopkeeper

Bill McGee and I have been discussing this trend and comparing notes and examples of progress we find laying about for more than ten years. One such shared tidbit about two years ago comes to mind frequently in this context. I was reading a newpaper in Amsterdam and came across a short article about Internet access creating pressure for change in Syria. A 24-year-old Syrian shopkeeper was quoted as saying, "They can't hide anything from us anymore. The world is one big ball. We want the same things everyone else does."

I immediately called up Bill and rehashed the implications of 24-year-old Syrian shopkeepers being *capable* of making such statements. These are the kinds of things I watch for and had expected to see all along, but like so many other examples I've seen this brief quote struck me to the core. Here was an individual who only a few dozen months earlier would never have had the ability to acquire information through anything other than the few controlled media within his physical reach.

Tianammen Square

In 1990 I got in a heated debate with someone in Usenet political newsgroups (well, actually that happened quite a lot, but this pertains to one specific instnace), and we took our argument off the main list and emailed back and forth. We digressed to topics we agreed on - specifically the impact of the Internet on geopolitics - and he told me this story.

His son was a 22-year-old Canadian exchange student in China in 1989. He happened to be in Beijing when the uprising broke out. Since he had been travelling in places where phone connections could be as simple as a set of wires he had a modem in his laptop with alligator clips. He found himself in a room facing Tianammen Square and a pair of live telephone wires. He dialed his laptop into the university in Hong Kong and from there sent his father detailed descriptions of what was going on as the tanks rolled. Today with digitial cameras he would be sending pictures and video as well.

Just how *does* a dictatorial government maintain the control of information that creates their power base, once the Internet exists?

The Phillipino Cabbie

I arrived in Toronto once last year and had to take an airport limo for an hour long ride. Being in a boisterous mood, I immediately engaged in a conversation with the driver and threw down my most contenscious gauntlet - "freedom of information and ubiquitous access (specifically, the Internet) solves all the world's problems". Much to my surprise he agreed emphatically. This is the story he told me.

In ~1970 he had been living in Manila under the Marcos regime. I put him around fifty now, so at that time he would have been in his mid twenties, full of fire and daring. So much so, that he and five friends said some things publically against the corruption and injustice of the Marcos gang. Two nights later while the six of them were together in the evening some gentlemen in dark clothing stopped by to hold all his friends down and blow their brains out while he watched. They then put him in a basement cell for five months, and then brought him out into a field at night and made this offer:

"You can go free, everything's cool, we would just ask that you make a big point out of telling everyone how much you realy *love* Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, their assorted thugs, cronies and murderous freaks." If that was a problem for him, his hosts would be happy to shoot him right then and there. Well, his answer wasn't appropriate so they shot him and left him for dead.

[Normally this isn't screwed up - I mean, if you are going to do something as serious as actually killing someone at your feet you think you'd pay attention and finish the job - but I suppose when you do anything over and over again you will botch the task sooner or later. Anyway, other than a scar in his chest he's none the worse for wear now.]

For all of the Real Life Action/Adventure that led up to this man landing on an airplane in Toronto, it is an experience on the airplane that caused the most emotion in his account. He said that there was a Saturday Toronto Star on the plane (the Very Thick edition), and when he looked up from reading it the plane was empty. He hadn't noticed the plane land, or anyone else get off --- because he had never seen anything resembling the truth in print in his life.

"The only truth in the newspapers under Marcos were the weather and the sports scores.", he said.

Ivory Coast, Africa

There is a village on the coast in The Ivory Coast that has been a subsistence fishing village. The loss of children to malnutrition was high, as was the loss of husbands and fathers to storms at sea.

Some group (not sure who, this was from a CNN Talkback Live episode, circa 2000, with John Morgridge) for their own reaons chose to put two cheap computers and a modem in the one-room schoolhouse in the village, to assist with education.

No one knew that the men in the community would discover that they could study ocean currents and satellite weather maps to fish more efficiently and more safely. Every day before dawn the fishermen gather in the schoolhouse and check data. Orphanhood is down and children do not die of starvation.

In Afghanistan at this moment there is a small child who will change the world for the better, as long as the information is there for that child to use. I, for one, intend to do what I can to make sure that the access is there when that child wants to use it.




René Bliemel said...

Hi Chris,

I often discussed this topic with my former father-in-law. And despite some doubts mainly connected to the problem of the access to the information we came to the same conclusion, that the free access to information will change the world.

bye bye
Rene "managed-to burn-away-all-those-profiterole-fat" Bliemel

Frank Lange said...

What new problems may be caused by having access to just any information?

I think we are living in a world of information overload and the question is what 'information' actually means. Is it just a fact or is it a message which is targeted on something? In most of the cases esspecially on the media you will find messages based on unsure or unkown sources. So one effect is that you could simply believe what is being told and therefore you might be controlled or even manipulated to a certain direction. The big challenge of handling the information overload is to decide whether a messages is likely or not. In my opinion this could only be achieved by having consolidated knowledge and a wealth of experience. In these times we need to use our brains as often as possible. The history showed us this issue many times.

Frank :-)

Chris Blask said...

Hey Frank!

Sorting out which data any one of us needs or rationally desires to obtain is key, of course. I have a higher-than-average regard for the average brain and how its owner uses it, so I'm sure we'll work it out, and likely in real cool ways (a semi-autonomous software agent and a more human-form interface would be a good start and a decent eng team will knock that out shortly, I bet).

The reason that ubiquitous access to limitless data so inevitably drives cretion of solutions found in the distributed and multi-threaded nature six billion people consume that data over time.

On any one topic at any one time it is always possible that most people are not considering the topic at any depth. If all information related, tangential and (to all appearances) unrelated - even all true and all false information - is available for any individual to access, then it is likely that at least a small number of individuals are paying a great deal of attention to the topic and are attempting to make sense of it. The results of the research being done by these individuals will propogate as they create cognizant patterns (memes) out of the available data.

Even when the conclusions drawn by such research on a given topic are wrong, they provide a starting-point for a broader discussion of the topic. If the topic is seen by enough people to be of measurable importance, these starting-points lead to further clarification as more brains are brought to bear.


For any one of us, sorting through the effectively infinite amount of data we are immersed in is indeed the main struggle we face. As an aggregate group this is not the same dynamic.

Every instant there are 6 billion individuals processing information. At any one time, there are n" number of individuals processing a given subset of data. Our ability as a group to have as many of those individuals capable of obtaining whichever subset of data they are interested in at a given moment is directly related to our ability as a group to solve problems.


The issue of megacorps and governments controlling the media is, imho, primarily solved by providing even more access to even more data and letting people work out for themselves what to do with it.

I, for one, want Al Jazeera to be available to me. I want to hear how people talk about global and local topics in Ethiopia. When a topic interests me - changes in global climate patterns over recent centuries, to pick one out of thin air - I will be able to create more well-developed memes if I have access to all data available. Not just statistical data, but even attitudes of energy consumers in, say suburban Shanghai.

On the grand scale it may not matter what information I have on that particular topic, but it is quite possible that a key meme leading to positive means of understanding or dealing with global climatology will be created by a casual observer.


Other than doing one's bit to promote the sharing of information or resisting any doomed attempt at regulation of communication, there is little one need do to bring about effective ubiquitous access to the entire global population. The closest analog we have is the spread of the telephone system, but that's a crude pencil sketch compared to the speed of growth and sheer impact of the Internet.



P.S. - The Internet will not cease to function prior to the end of mankind (or, inversely, the end of function of the Internet will coincide with the day mankind ceases to exist).