Where Are We Going? No Really, Where Are We Going?

Google Glass: 2012 preview, for release to consumers in 2014. Image Source: Extreme Tech.

The first twenty years of the Internet involved playing mental catch-up as the industry excitedly released each new application, operating system, or gadget. Except for think pieces at Wired, which launched in 1993 as a glossy magazine, few tried to grasp the implications as the sites and services rolled out - AOL (1991); Amazon (1994); eBay (1995); Yahoo! (1995); Craigslist (1995); Netflix (1997); PayPal (1998); Google (1998); Wikipedia (2001); Second Life (2003); Blogger (2003); Linked In (2003); Skype (2003); Facebook (2004); Digg (2004); YouTube (2005); Reddit (2005); Twitter (2006); Tumblr (2007); Pixlr (2008); Kickstarter (2009); Pinterest (2010); Instagram (2010). These are just the giants, with no mention of the porn sites, which do join the giants in the top rankings for traffic. See the Alexa Top 500 Global Sites for hundreds more of the most world's most popular Web hubs. There are also thousands more Web apps and services which you will have never heard of, unless they meet your particular needs.

The book reader of the future, from Everyday Science and Mechanics magazine (April 1935). Image Source: Paleofuture.

As great as these sites, services and devices are, if you are lucky, you can remember what life was like before they came along. It was far from perfect. But all someone had to do to become inaccessible was not answer the telephone. Now it takes a lot of willpower, excuses and effort to disconnect.

Wireless Emergency Alert System: "'Many people do not realize that they carry a potentially life-saving tool with them in their pockets or purses every day,' said W. Craig Fugate, administrator of FEMA." Image Source: NYT.

On the night of 5-6 August, a friend who lives in California was wakened in the middle of the night by cell phones in the house ringing an alarm he had never heard before: this was the state amber alert for a child abduction:
California issued its first cellphone Amber Alert late Monday, as phones in Southern California received an alert of two missing children in San Diego.

The timing differed from phone to phone but sometime between late Monday and early Tuesday many mobile phones across Southern California received an alert regarding James Lee DiMaggio, suspected of killing Christina Anderson, 44, and kidnapping one or both of her children, Hannah, 16, and Ethan, 8, the Los Angeles Times reported. ...

Some cellphones received only a text message, others buzzed and beeped as part of the Wireless Emergency Alert program, a cellphone equivalent of the Emergency Alert System that creates a high-pitched test tone on television.
The amber alert frightened many people when their mobile phones began ringing strangely (listen here). The system also warns the public about any other kind of major threat:
When you get an Amber Alert on your phone, you will definitely know. The sound is somewhere between a squeal, a siren and a series of tones. Even if you have your phone on silent or vibrate, or have enabled a "Do Not Disturb" or "Sleep" setting, your device may make this sound. The alert will appear as a text message including all pertinent information. ...
At the end of 2012, CTIA-The Wireless Association announced the transition from a Wireless Amber Alert program to a Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) program. ... Now, the WEA program sends messages to users within the area of the suspected abduction. For example, if a child in Orlando is abducted, all eligible devices within that area will broadcast the alert. A representative from the California Highway Patrol told HLN that Amber Alerts have previously been issued through wireless carriers regionally, but Monday's alert was the first to be broadcast statewide. It is of note that the WEA system also broadcasts other types of emergency alerts, such as severe weather warnings and imminent threat alerts.
To my friend, the alert brought home the point that mobile phones have erased privacy and are just "personal tracking devices that we also use as telephones." Smartphones are good for tracking criminals. They're also good for tracking everyone else.

A system like this can be a very powerful tool, as Orson Welles discovered in 1938. The Emergency Alert even entered the English language: This is only a test. - Or - This is not a test. In February 2013, hackers hacked a Montana TV station's Emergency Alert System and aired a fake zombie apocalypse warning to demonstrate the system's vulnerabilities. Ars Technica reported in June 2013 that the TV and radio Emergency Alert System is generally hackable. I could not find comment online about whether the Wireless Emergency Alerts program is also hackable, but presumably it is.

Some would argue that worrying about the future is pointless and unhealthy. In a July post, Maria Popova noted that anxiety is often associated with contemplation of the future; also, recent psychological research links the suicidal mind with an over-contemplation of the future:
In Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception ... BBC’s Claudia Hammond explores the psychology of mitigating our worries: Ad Kerkhof is a Dutch clinical psychologist who has worked in the field of suicide prevention for 30 years. He has observed that before attempting suicide people often experience a period of extreme rumination about the future. They sometimes reported that these obsessive thoughts had become so overwhelming that they felt death was the only way to escape. Kerkhof has developed techniques which help suicidal people to reduce this rumination and is now applying the same methods to people who worry on a more everyday basis. He has found that people worry about one topic more than any other — the future, often believing that the more hours they spend contemplating it, the more likely they are to find a solution to their problems. But this isn’t the case.
But what happens when the future becomes the present? As the technological future approached over the past 20 years, there seemed barely time to digest what was happening. It was enough to just keep up with the changes. There is a need to stand back, to see the big picture, to contemplate how we are changing as human beings, to understand what is happening to society, politics, the economy.

Devin Coldewey a Seattle-based writer and photographer, has a number of interesting articles for Tech Crunch (here) in which he tries to make sense of the impact of the Technological Revolution with reference to the past. In 2009, he compared Google and its many services to the construction of Roman roads (here). It was a metaphor-laden piece and pretty clumsy in its historical analogy. Nevertheless, Coldewey's comparison - between Google's messy-but-often-cool labs projects and the Roman road system - was intriguing. But Coldewey misunderstood the potential parallel in his historical comparison. The Roman road system was technologically revolutionary, but the purpose the roads served was not revolutionary at all. The Romans were building an empire. And so is Google.
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