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Newsletter Section 6

Soap Box

The Embedded Internet

(David Kline)

If you want to glimpse the future of the Internet (and of computing itself), look to the history of the electric motor.

A hundred years ago, electric motors were relatively large “stand-alone” devices. They had to be constructed from machined parts or purchased and installed by trained mechanics. More than just a little skill was required to operate these devices.

Over the course of several decades, however, the design and operation of electric motors became more standardised, their power requirements and internal mechanisms miniaturised and their manufacture and sale commoditised. By 1918, the Sears, Roebuck and Co catalogue offered a 5-pound Home Motor, suitable for a variety of applications, for only US$8.75 - equivalent to about £55 today.

“The many attachments shown on this page,” the catalogue advertisement promised, “may be operated by this motor and help to lighten the burden of the home.” And indeed, surrounding the ad for the Home Motor were companion ads for what might loosely be called “plug-ins” or “helper applications”. There was a Beater Attachment (“whips cream and beats eggs when used in conjunction with the Home Motor”), a Fan Attachment (“includes fan and guard, which can be quickly attached to Home Motor”), a Churn and Mixer Attachment (“for which you will find many uses”), Buffer and Grinder Attachments (“will be found very useful in many ways around the home”) and, last but not least, a Vibrator Attachment (“includes three applicators and handle”). To what uses the Vibrator Attachment was put was not explained - and readers will probably find their still-living grandmothers or great- grandmothers somewhat less than forthcoming on the subject.

In those days, the new Home Motor was the subject of excited discussion at work, in cafes and around the dinner table, much as home PCs and the Internet are today. It is easy to imagine industrial age early adopters evangelising about the benefits of home motor technology to their friends and relatives (“You can beat 20 eggs in the time it takes you to do two by hand.”). Curmudgeons of the day can be pictured rolling their eyes at all those frothy motorheads (“Pardon me, but who needs 20 eggs?”), just as comedians poke fun at Netheads today.

Today, of course, the Home Motor is no longer a cultural icon. Indeed, electric motor technology has become invisible, embedded inside thousands of everyday products, from hair dryers and pencil sharpeners to dishwashers and toys. Hardly obsolete, the Home Motor is instead a victim of its own success, ignored precisely because of its ubiquity. It has become a central - albeit invisible - fact of daily life.

Can it be that, as the electric motor went, so goes the Internet? More to the point: what will it take for the Net to become so embedded in social and economic life, so central to everyday communication and commerce, that it becomes as invisible and ubiquitous a feature of daily life as the electric motor?

We may have the answer to that question sooner than we think. A little-known technology, far more significant than Java, is about to be deployed on the Internet. This technology could rapidly transform the Net into a medium with genuine mass-market penetration in our society. It will not only greatly expand the Net's role as a mass consumer medium, but will also change it into a powerful industrial force which, by the end of this decade, will reshape the market dynamics and the competitive strategies of businesses.

This miracle technology is called “embedded systems”: tiny crash-proof computers that are embedded or hardwired into everyday products and dedicated to the performance of specific tasks or groups of tasks. Already used in a host of industrial and consumer products, from anti-lock brakes to VCRs to microwaves, embedded systems typically offer significantly faster, cheaper and much more reliable real-time performance than the cumbersome multipurpose or “fat” software used in PCs. In fact, 90% of the world's microprocessors are used not in PCs, but hidden inside common household or electronics products.

Now, thanks to new technical advances made by embedded systems developers, these invisible computers have become Internet-ready. Embedded software now offers automated Net connectivity with about one-hundredth the memory that Windows and other PC operating systems require, at about one-tenth the cost.

For David St Charles, president and CEO of Integrated Systems Inc (ISI), the $100 million market leader among embedded systems developers, this sort of cheap Net connectivity opens up enormous new possibilities. He offers a vision of a truly universal Internet, in which the common artifacts of daily life - a car, a TV, a CD player, a phone, a photocopier, a natural gas meter, a PC - are all connected via cheap automated software in a global network he calls the “embedded Internet”.

“This is the next stage,” St Charles says in his measured, Canadian voice. “This is where we make the Internet real. And I mean as ubiquitous as electric motors or telephones, where all sorts of devices and systems are linked invisibly together. Where people and devices easily and automatically communicate with each other with no one having to know anything about computers or software or TCP/IP stacks or anything else. It is everywhere, it does everything and it's absolutely a no-brainer to use. The push-button Internet!”

Here, at last, is a vision of the Internet for the masses, in their hundreds of millions and ultimately in their billions. In it, the Net is no longer just a publishing or an

entertainment or a personal communications medium, but rather a fundamental and indispensable engine that drives social and economic life. It is an industrial medium that enables automated monitoring and reporting on factory-floor production; a home security and emergency response medium far more reliable than today's phone-based system; a medical medium through which patient treatment plans are automatically routed to relevant providers; a consumer appliance and office equipment medium that checks the status of devices and initiates electronic repairs; a utility management medium in which power usage is read and managed remotely. You name the application, the Net will be essential to it.

In this vision is, at last, an Internet set free from its PC-centric straitjacket; a cyberspace transformed from just another platform into an omnipresent glue that binds the whole of society, with all its trillions of daily social and economic interactions, into a truly connected civilisation.

But the secret to all this, insists St Charles, is invisibility. “If you want the Internet to be everywhere,” he says, “it has to be visible nowhere. It has to be unseen, unnoticed, undiscussed.”

Disappearing Act

“Unseen” is certainly not a word we would normally use to describe either the Net or the computing devices we use to access it. As Interval Research Corp's Brenda Laurel so adroitly puts it, using computers is like going to the cinema and having to watch the projector instead of the movie.

In similar fashion, St Charles regards the current iconisation of the Internet in media and cultural circles as a sign, not of its assimilation into social and economic life, but of how far it still must go to become a medium of commerce and communications for the masses. In his view, we will know that the Net has truly arrived when there are no more Internet cafes, no more Internet seminars and no more Internet magazines (or, for that matter, articles such as the one you are reading now).

This makes sense when you look at technologies that have achieved genuine mass-market penetration in our society. After all, you don't see any magazines called Dial Tone Today featuring the latest ins and outs of the Net's closest cousin, telephony. In fact, we hardly even see the telephone anymore - we simply use it, thinking only of what we want to do with it. The technology, in direct proportion to its becoming a central fact of daily existence, has become invisible.

“Invisibility, you might say, is my business,” says St Charles. “It's what I do for a living - I make technology disappear.”

He is not kidding. Once called the “Microsoft of hidden computers” by Forbes magazine, ISI's technology appears to be everywhere. It is embedded inside Sony direct broadcast satellites, Motorola communications satellites, Kodak and Xerox printers and copiers, Hewlett-Packard interactive TV set-top boxes, Sega karaoke

systems. Gilbarco automated gas pumps, Boeing planes, Avis rental car navigation systems, Philips consumer appliances and AT&T, Northern Telecom and Alcatel switching equipment, to name but a few.

“Most people have no idea what our industry does or how deeply our work affects their lives,” St Charles notes, “despite the fact that in many ways it has probably done more than Microsoft and the whole PC industry to bring computing technology into people's day-to-day lives. If you ask people how many computers they use, they'll probably say one - their desktop PC. But the reality is, it's probably more like 15. They use computers to drive the tape in their VCRs and they use them in their microwaves, cars, automatic teller machines, gas pumps and phone systems. You name it, these days it's probably got an embedded computer in it.”

So what exactly is an embedded computer? Very simply, an embedded computer is a microprocessor, a real-time operating system and application that has been built into a larger product to handle the control functions of that product. Typically, an embedded systems company delivers just the master software - the real-time operating system and application code - to the end- product manufacturer, which buys and installs the micro-processors and other hardware components.

The advantage of embedded systems is that, partly because they are dedicated to the performance of a single task or specific group of tasks, they can be optimised to deliver a level of speed, reliability and cost that PC hardware and software manufacturers could never in their wildest dreams hope to achieve. And as for ease of use - let's just say that the PC industry is not even on the same planet as ordinary consumers.

Only in the PC industry is it considered customary to sell products so unreliable and confusing that nearly a third of buyers are unable to use them without help. According to Dataquest, some 200 million calls to PC technical support hotlines will be made this year/ And of the calls made during peak hours, only one in seven will even get past a busy signal. In contrast, when was the last time you had to “install” your TV, your phone, or your VCR? And when was the last time you had to call technical support because your microwave wouldn't work or you couldn't figure out how to use it?

Truth be told, the PC is radically different in design from any other technology or appliance used by the general consuming public. Indeed, if Intel and Microsoft had designed our kitchens, we'd probably all be using $3,000 multipurpose “Kitchen Processors” rather than the low-cost, dedicated push-button appliances we now have. These Kitchen Processors, or course, would need to be configured and launched to, say, heat coils for a toasting application, and then reconfigured and relaunched to heat incandescent filament for a lighting application.

As the basis for a truly ubiquitous Internet, today's PC simply will not cut it. But will the embedded Internet approach be realised only in the far-distant future?

Apparently not, for Integrated Systems has already built Java and HTML capability into its open embedded operating system, known as pSOS. And the company has already signed a deal with Philips for an under-$300 Net-communicating browser appliance. It is also in talks with a number of other telecom, industrial and consumer electronics firms to embed Net-ready computer systems into everyday consumer products, from smart kitchen appliances that communicate among themselves to automated automobile diagnostic systems that flag mechanics about required repairs.

And ISI is not the only company bringing its hidden computer expertise to the world of the Net. Iowa-based Microware Systems Corp has also announced an embedded Internet strategy and is working with Mitsubishi on a TV with Web capability integrated into its circuitry for release this autumn. This Web TV enables VGA- quality graphics, something that cannot be done via a Web box atop the TV, and it will cost only $200 more to produce than regular TV models. Microware has also signed with Uniden to produce an Internet-capable phone that collects email, and with Hongkong Telecom IMS to deliver a Java- enabled version of DAVID, a highly regarded digital TV platform, to provide online services over television to homes in Hong Kong.

The Industrial Net

Even more significant than the consumer uses of embedded Internet technology may be the industrial potential. Indeed, systems that use the Net to reduce industrial costs and streamline commercial operations (the “industrial Net”, if you like) are likely to deliver far, far more in the way of real bankable revenues in the next few years than will consumer applications.

ISI is working with Xionics and other office equipment firms to embed low-cost Net capability into millions of printers and other office peripherals. These firms hope to achieve multimillion-dollar savings in labour and service costs by performing remote equipment diagnostics and maintenance via the Net.

How would each printer get connected to the Net? It could be through phone lines, electrical wiring, a LAN or even a “spread- spectrum” system using low-power radio signals to feed the data to a wired or wireless gateway.

And why use the Net rather than simple phone lines? Only the Internet can serve as the infrastructure for a truly connected world. As a medium, it is much cheaper than the phone network. It provides standardised interoperability between all types of disparate devices, networks and systems. The Net is also a better platform than the phone system for adding intelligence and agent technology. And the Net's distributed architecture makes it more efficient at rerouting communications around damage and bottlenecks.

But perhaps most importantly, the Net's packet-switched approach to handling communications is simply better suited to handling the billions or even trillions of

relatively short data transmissions likely in a future connected world than the phone network is, where each connection essentially requires a dedicated link for the entire duration of the transmission.

One can easily imagine a host of other industrial possibilities. Remote meter reading over the Net by power utilities? Net-communicating smart sensors to remotely manage factory production processes? Low-cost Net-connected alarm systems for the fast-growing home security industry? The potential of embedded Internet technology for industrial uses is enormous.

But beyond its many industrial and consumer applications, a truly Net- connected world requires that the medium be woven into the basic infrastructure of society, including our public services.

“Think about 911” (the US equivalent of 999), suggests Microware's founder and CEO, Ken Kaplan. “Everyone has access to it and it's pretty much basic to societal functioning, right? Well, I can foresee a really cheap 911 device that costs just a few dollars and has only one button on it - an embedded Internet pager-like gadget with a GPS (Global Positioning System) chip and a wireless connection to the Net. You get mugged or have a heart attack - just push the button and help is on the way. It could even be self-actuating if you use a smart sensor to monitor heart activity. The technology already exists for it. All we need is cheap connectivity through a ubiquitous, low-cost, public switched-network that can be automated and doesn't require voice or other human intervention - in other words, the Net.”

“You know, maybe I shouldn't have mentioned this idea of a 911 device,” worries Kaplan. “I mean, this could be the killer application of the embedded Internet and here I've gone and given it away.”

However, he needn't worry about competition, at least from the ranks of PC hardware and software vendors. To build a 911 device linked to universal Internet will require design characteristics and product features that are simply not intrinsic to the PC industry. Chief among these are low cost, fast performance, utter simplicity of use and total crash-proof reliability.

Unlike multipurpose PC operating systems such as Windows, which must take into account every conceivable users input and be able to support a huge variety of applications, an embedded system typically must support only a narrow suite of functions and needs to respond to only a very limited range of human input - like a foot depressing a car brake pedal to activate a computer-controlled anti-lock braking mechanism. As a result, embedded systems have far smaller memory requirements. ISI's Internet-ready version of its pSOS operating system uses 16Kb of memory, which is about one-hundredth the memory used by Windows 95.

This enables embedded systems to offer a far more economical approach to building cheap, Net-browsing appliances than those touted by traditional PC industry vendors,

such as Oracle with its stripped-down network computer. A full embedded system - hardware and software - that uses Microware's OS-9 operating system only costs about $150. That includes a Net-ready operating system (at $10 a pop), a 32-bit PowerPC processor, and all the components needed for video, input and output ports, a graphical user interface and a browser. Not bad.

For products not requiring a user interface or input-output extensions, the cost can be even less. An Internet-ready system embedded in your gas meter that enables the power company to conduct remote meter- reading could cost just a few dollars, as presumably would Kaplan's 911 device.

Wiring Joe Six-pack

The superior performance of embedded systems also derives from the fact that their operating systems are real-time operating systems, meaning that Microware's OS-9 and ISI's pSOS react in a rapid and consistent way to events that occur outside the computer, with little if any delay imposed by the computer itself. This is partly due to the entirely different design methodology that embedded computer companies have adopted to sell systems to companies that use them in mission-critical applications.

Consider, for example, that when a PC user types a keyboard command and the system hangs for a moment, it is at most an annoyance. But when a driver speeding along a rain-slicked freeway at 65mph slams his foot on the brakes and a wheel locks up, any delay by the computer in modulating the brakes could be a fatality.

“Bugs?” says Microware's Kaplan. “For us they're a disaster. For PC software companies, they are an additional revenue opportunity.” Meaning, of course, that this year's software bug is next year's purchasable upgrade.

Indeed, Kaplan argues, few people realise how different embedded software design is from the approach used in the desktop PC industry. “In the PC world, software design is an iterative process. Back and forth it goes, from the programmers to the internal test group and then back to the code writers, until it's more or less ready to test on beta users. Microsoft sent its re-release Windows 95 OS out to about half a million beta testers. Those people managed to catch some of the bugs but, as we all know, not all. Well, there's no way in hell that we can send beta software to Boeing and then wait for planes to start falling from the sky to discover the bugs.”

According to Kaplan, each stage of the embedded systems design process has specification and quality objectives that absolutely must be met before the code moves on to the next stage - an approach more typical of aerospace firms than PC companies.

Translate those very different design methodologies of the PC and embedded systems industries to the world on Net- enabled 911 devices imagined by Kaplan. Would you trust your life to an emergency- response device built by a PC vendor, even

assuming it could be built at a consumer price point? There does not seem to be much point in having a 911 device if it is going to crash from time to time.

The need for mission-critical design is not limited just to applications where lives are at stake. “Even in the world of everyday consumer electronics,” notes Kaplan, “customers simply will not put up with the glitches and breakdowns and user confusion common to PCs. Anyone who wants to bring the Net to the masses had better understand that.”

Furthermore, when we imagine Net-enabled applications used by hundreds of millions of people, there must be a degree of social assurance - much like the certainty of hearing a dial tone when we pick up the phone - that somehow, in the background somewhere, the whole underlying system is doing its job and performing as promised.

The invisible Internet does not mean the end of PCs - indeed, the ranks of today's fully featured PC users will continue to grow. Nor does it mean that Net capabilities must be dumbed down to only those applications and uses possible in a simple push-button device. The concept of the embedded Internet simply recognises that epochal technological change generally comes to the world on the world's terms, shaped by human nature and our existing political economy. Slowly and imperceptibly at first, new technologies also reshape us. But the starting point for tomorrow's great technology-induced social changes must be the masses of technologically unsophisticated ordinary consumers.

“These are the people who need to become wired if the Net is really to grow into the enormous social and economic force it is capable of becoming,” insists Kaplan. “You say the Net will change the world? Well, those people are the world. So you had better design a Net-connected world that ordinary people can really understand and use.” In other words, instead of trying to get everyone to buy a PC and master its arcane methodology, simply put Net connectivity inside the everyday devices and systems that people already use. Bring the mountain to Mohammed, as it were.

ISI's St Charles: “Embedded systems are the only way to make the Internet as cheap, easy and transparent as the electric motor or the phone. It's the only way to make the Net a basic and ubiquitous fact of life. It's that simple.”

David Kline is a contributing writer to Wired, commentator for National Public Radio and co-author of “Road Warriors: Dreams and Nightmares Along the Information Highway”. This article originally appeared in Wired, November 1996.

The Transparent Society

(David Brin)

[brin] This is a tale of two cities. Cities of the near future, say, 20 years from now. Barring something unforeseen, you are likely to live in one of these two cities. Your only choice may be which.

At first sight, the pair of near-future municipalities in the tale look pretty similar. Both contain dazzling technological marvels, especially in the realm of electronic media. Both suffer familiar urban quandaries of frustration and decay. If any progress is being made in solving human problems, it is happening gradually. Some kids seem perhaps better educated. The air may be marginally cleaner. People still worry about overpopulation, the environment and the next international crisis.

None of these features are of interest to us at the moment, for we have noticed something about both 21st century cities that is radically different. A trait that sets them distinctly apart from any metropolis of the late 1990s.

Street crime has nearly vanished from both towns. But that is only a symptom, a result. The real change peers down from every lamppost, rooftop and street sign.

Cameras. Tiny cameras, panning left and right, surveying traffic and pedestrians, observing everything that is in open view. Is this an Orwellian nightmare? Have the burghers of both towns banished muggings at the cost of creating a Stalinist dystopia?

Consider City Number One. In this place, the myriad cameras report their urban scenes straight to Police Central, where security officers use sophisticated image processors to scan for infractions against public order - or perhaps against a way of thought. As citizens walk the streets they are aware that any word or deed may be noted by agents of some mysterious bureau.

Now let's skip across space and time.

At first sight, things seem quite similar in City Number Two. Again, there are the ubiquitous cameras, perched on every vantage point. Only here we soon find a crucial difference. The devices do not report to the secret police. Rather, each and every citizen of this metropolis can use his or her wrist-watch-cum-TV to summon up images from any camera in town.

Here, a late evening stroller checks to make sure no one lurks beyond the corner she is about to turn.

Over there, a tardy young man dials to see if his dinner date is still waiting for him by the fountain in the town centre.

A block away, an anxious parent scans the area to find out which way her child has wandered off.

In the shopping centre, a teenage shoplifter is taken into custody, but gingerly, with minute attention to ritual and rights, because the arresting officer knows the entire process is being scrutinised by unknown numbers of people who watch intently, lest his neutral professionalism lapse.

In City Number Two, such micro cameras are banned from many indoor places - except police headquarters. There, any citizen may tune in to see charges and

arrests and especially the camera control room itself, making sure that the agents on duty look out for violent crime - and only crime.

Despite their similarities, these are very different cities. Disparate ways of life representing completely opposite relationships between citizens and their civic guardians. Both situations may be thought somewhat chilling. Both futures may seem undesirable. But can there be any doubt which city we would rather live in, if these two were our only choice?

They may prove to be our only options. Because the cameras are on their way, along with data networks that will send myriad images flashing back and forth, faster than the speed of thought.

The beginning of the future has already arrived. Several dozen British cities and towns have already followed the example first set by King's Lynn, Norfolk, where 60 remote-controlled video cameras were installed to scan known trouble spots and viewed directly by the police. The resulting reduction in street crime exceeded all predictions, dropping to one-seventieth of the previous amount in or near the areas under surveillance. The savings in policing costs alone paid for the equipment within a few months.

More than 250,000 cameras are now in place throughout Britain, transmitting round-the-clock images to 100 constabularies, all of which report decreases in public misconduct. Polls report that the cameras are extremely popular with the public, although civil libertarian John Wadham and others bemoan this proliferation of snoop technology. “It could be used for other purposes,” he says; “it could be abused.”

This trend has been slower to take off in the US, but it appears about to find a foothold. After initial experiments garnered widespread public approval, the city of Baltimore is planning to have police cameras scanning 106 road junctions by the end of 1996.

No one denies the obvious and dramatic short-term benefits of this early surveillance technology. But that is not the real issue. Over the long run, the people of Baltimore and countless other communities will have to make the same choices as the inhabitants of mythical Cities One and Two: who will ultimately control the cameras?

Consider a few more scenarios:

Engineers can already squeeze the electronics for a video pickup into a package smaller than a sugar cube. Inexpensive units half the size of a pack of cigarettes are available to buy. Soon, cheap pickups will be so small that passers-by will not be able to spot them.

Cameras are not the only surveillance devices which are proliferating. In Redwood City, California, south of San Francisco, several police departments have begun placing sound pickups that transmit directly back to headquarters around their districts. Using triangulation techniques, officers can now pinpoint bursts of gunfire and send police cars swiftly to the scene, without having to wait for vague phone reports from witnesses. In 1995, the US Defence Department awarded at US$1.7 million contract for Secures, a proto-type system created by Alliant Techsystems, to test more advanced pickup networks in Washington, DC and other cities. The department hopes to distinguish not only types of gunfire, but human voices crying for help. From there, further refinements are only logical.

Or take another piece of James Bond-style apparatus now available to anyone with ready cash. Night-vision goggles that use state-of-the-art infrared optics equal to those used by the military can now be ordered from a catalogue. They cost about the same as a video camera. Military and civilian enhanced-vision technologies are now progressing concurrently, as they have done in the computer field for years.

What difference will this make to people's lives? It means that darkness no longer offers even a promise of privacy. Nor does your garden wall. Bang goes the supposed privacy enjoyed by sunbathers in their own backyards. In late 1995, Admiral William A Owens, vice chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, described a sensor system that he expected to be operational within about a year. It uses a pilotless drone equipped with a TV camera and two-way video links to provide airborne surveillance for soldiers in the field. Camera drones in the US$1 million range have been flying in the military for many years, allowing aerial reconnaissance without risk to human pilots. The difference this time is the new system's low cost and simplicity. Instead of requiring a crew of dozens, it is controlled by one semi-skilled soldier. The price per drone will be minimal, since each unit fits in the palm of the hand. Miniscule and nearly silent, such remote-piloted vehicles, or RPVs, can flit between trees and over fences to survey the area near a rifle platoon, seeking potential threats. Owens expects them to be mass-produced in huge quantities, driving down unit prices.

Can models for public use be far behind? Could such an outcome be prevented by restricting these cameras to the military?

No. No law will stop their proliferation. Oh, the public will surely call for legislation. Official regulations may multiply, in response to public outrage.

But no matter how many bills are passed, the arrival of such implements in our towns and cities will not be much delayed. The rich, the powerful and figures of authority will have them, whether legally or surreptitiously. The contraptions are going to spread. And they will get smaller, faster, cheaper and smarter with each passing year. Moreover, surveillance cameras are the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Just another entrancing and invasive innovation of the information age. Other examples abound.

Will a paper envelope protect correspondence sent by old-fashioned surface mail, when scanners can trace the patterns of ink inside without ever breaking the seal?

Say you correspond by e-mail and use a computerised encryption program to ensure that your messages are read only by the intended recipient. What good will all the ciphers and codes do if some adversary can fly a gnat-sized camera into your room, station it above your desk and watch every keystroke that you type?

The same issues arise when contemplating the proliferation of vast databases containing information about people's lives, habits, tastes and personal histories. From the cash register scanners in millions of supermarkets and video shops there already pours a steady flow of statistical data about customers and their purchases, ready to be correlated, helping companies serve us more efficiently - and giving them the unfair advantage of knowing much more about us that we do about them. Computers will soon hold financial and educational records, legal documents and medical analyses that record individuals all the way down to their genes. Any of this might be accessed by strangers without your knowledge or even against your will.

As with our allegorical streetlamp cameras, the choices made regarding future information networks - how they will be controlled and who can access the data - will affect our lives, our children's lives and the lives of their descendants.

It is already too late to prevent the invasion of cameras and databases. No matter how many laws are passed, it will prove impossible to legislate away the new tools and techniques. They are here to stay.

The real issue facing citizens of a new century will be how mature adults choose to live, how they might compete, co-operate and thrive in such a world. In a transparent society.

Take those cameras for instance, the ones topping every lamppost in City Number One and City Number Two: we can see that very different styles of urban life resulted from just one decision. From how people in each town answered the following questions: will average citizens share, along with the mighty, the right to these universal monitors? Will common folk have, and exercise, a sovereign power to watch the watchers?

Back in City Number One, Janet and John Smith may walk through an average day never thinking about the micro cameras overhead. They might even believe statements made by officials claiming that all the spy eyes were banished and dismantled a year or two ago (when in fact they were only made smaller and harder to detect). Janet and John stroll along, secure in the belief that their neighbours cannot spy on them. Except, of course, for those casually peering down from windows on all sides, a burden people have lived with for centuries without much apparent harm. In other words, Janet and John blissfully believe they have privacy.

The inhabitants of City Two know better. They realise that, outdoors at least, privacy has always been an illusion. They know that anyone in town can tune into that camera on the lamppost over there .. and they don't much care. They perceive what really matters: that they live in a town where the police are efficient, respectful and above all accountable. A place where homes are sacrosanct, but out on the street anyone, from the richest to the poorest, can walk both safely and with the power to zoom at will from vantage point to vantage point, viewing all the lively wonders of the vast but easily spanned village the metropolis has become - as if by some magic power it had turned into a city not of men and women but of birds.

Sometimes, inhabitants of City Two find it tempting to wax nostalgic about the old days, before there were so many cameras, or before TV invaded the home or before the telephone and automobile. But for the most part, City Two's population knows those times are gone, never to return. Above all, one thing makes life bearable - the surety that each person knows what is going on and has a say in what will happen next. A say equal to any chief of police or billionaire.

Of course, this little allegory, like all allegories, is a gross oversimplification. For instance, in our projected city of “open access”, citizens will have 10,000 decisions to make, like:

.     Can a person order a routine search to pick another person's face out of a crowd?

.     Since these devices could conceivably be used to follow someone home, should convicted felons be forbidden access to the camera network? Or will that problem be solved by having the system tell you exactly who is watching you? (The mutual- transparency solution.)

.     When should retailers be allowed to bring these cameras indoors? True, it might hinder shoplifting, but whose business is it what aisle of the bookstore I go browsing in?

.     If cameras keep getting smaller and mobile (mosquito-scale drones), what kind of defences might protect people from Peeping Toms or police spies flying such devices through the open windows of our homes?

The list of possible quandaries goes on and on. Such an endless complexity of choices may cause some inhabitants of City Two to envy the simplicity of life in City One, where only big business, the State and certain well-heeled criminals possess these powers. That elite will, in turn, try to foster a widespread illusion among the populace that the cameras do not exist. Some folk will prefer a fantasy of privacy over the ambiguity and arduous decisions that the citizens of City Two will face.

There is nothing new in this, of course. All previous generations faced quandaries, the outcomes of which changed history. When Thomas Jefferson prescribed a revolution every few decades, he spoke not only politically but about the constant need to

remain flexible, ready to adapt to changing circumstances; to innovate at need while at the same time staying true to those values we hold precious.

Our world is already a noisy one for precisely that reason - because we have chosen freedom and mass sovereignty, which means the population itself must constantly argue out all the details, instead of leaving them to some committee of sages.

What differs today is not only the pace of events, but also the toolkit for facing the future. What marks this civilisation as different has been its knack of applying one extremely hard-won lesson from the past: in all of history, there has been only one cure for error discovered, one partial antidote against making grand, foolish mistakes. One remedy against self-deception. That antidote is criticism. Alas, criticism has always been what human beings, especially leaders, hate most to hear.

I call this contradiction the “Paradox of the Peacock”. Its effects have been profound and tragic for centuries. Accounts from the past are filled with woeful events in which societies and peoples suffered largely because openness and free speech were suppressed, leaving the powerful at liberty to make devastating blunders without comment or dissent from below.

If western civilization has one new trick in its repertoire, a technique more responsible than any other for its success, that trick is accountability. Especially the knack, which no other culture ever mastered, of making accountability apply to the mighty. True, we still don't manage it perfectly: gaffes, bungles and inanities do still get covered up. Yet you can look at any newspaper or television and see an eager press at work, supplemented by hordes of righteously indignant individuals (and their lawyers), all baying for waste or corruption to be exposed, secrets to be unveiled and nefarious schemes to be nipped in the bud. Disclosure is a watchword of the age, and politicians in the US at least have grudgingly responded by passing the Freedom of Information Act, a truth-in- lending law, open-meeting rules, then codes to enforce candour in housing, in dietary content of foodstuffs, in the expense accounts of lobbyists and so on. This morality pervades our culture, in which nearly every modern film or novel seems to preach the same message: suspicion of authority.

Nor is this phenomenon new to our generation. Schoolbooks teach American children that freedom is guarded by constitutional “checks and balances”. But those same provisions were copied, early in the 19th century, by nearly every new nation of Latin America, and not one of them has remained consistently free.

In North America, constitutional balances worked only because they were supplemented by a powerful mythic tradition, expounded in story, song and now every Hollywood film: that any undue accumulation of power should be looked on with concern. Above all, we are encouraged to distrust government.

In The Open Society and its Enemies, philosopher Karl Popper pointed out the importance of this mythology during the

dark days before and after the Second World War. Only by insisting on accountability can we constantly remind our public servants that they are servants. It is also how we try to maintain some confidence that businesses are not cheating us, or that factories are not poisoning the water. As inefficient and irascibly noisy as it seems at times, this habit of questioning authority ensures freedom far better than any of the older social systems that were based on reverence or trust.

And yet, another paradox rears up every time one interest group tries to hold another accountable in today's society: whenever a conflict appears between privacy and accountability, people demand the former for themselves and the latter for everybody else.

This rule seems to hold in almost every realm of modern life, from the NIMBY (not in my backyard) syndrome to demands that criminal records of sex offenders be made public, and in the battles over things like credit reporting and caller ID. The penchant is especially profound in recent debates over how to organise new institutions of the information age, from the Internet to new cable and broadcast media.

Above all, floods of books, articles and public pronouncements have appeared, proclaiming dire threats to our precious right of privacy.

In just the last year or so, there have erupted widespread calls to “empower” individuals and corporations with tools of encryption - the creation of ciphers and secret codes - so that the once open corridors of the Internet, and even our telephone lines, may soon fill with a blinding fog of static and concealed messages, habitual masks and routine anonymity.

Some of society's best and brightest minds have taken recently to extolling a coming “golden age of privacy”, when no one need fear snooping by the big, bad government anymore.

It is a risky thing to stand against such a near-universal outpouring of moral umbrage. The Electronic Frontier Foundation's John Perry Barlow, Mike Godwin and John Gilmore, among others, have been especially indignant, demanding that people be armed with unlimited power to conceal their words, actions and identities. If not, claim the paladins of privacy, freedom itself will surely be forfeit.

In opposing this modern mania for personal secrecy, let me first emphasise that I happen to like privacy. Moreover, as a novelist I need it, probably as much or more than the next guy. All my instincts run toward reticence, to protecting my family from invasions of our private space.

Going back to the earlier example, I would find it hard to get used to living in either of the cities described in those early paragraphs. I don't care to be peered at by hovering cameras. But a few voices out there - Stewart Brand, Nick Arnett and Bruce Sterling, for instance - have begun pointing out the obvious: that those cameras on every street corner are coming, as surely as the new millennium. Nothing will stop them.

Oh, we can try. We might agitate, demonstrate, legislate. But in rushing to pass so-called privacy laws, we will not succeed in preventing hidden eyes from peering into our lives. The devices will get tinier, more mobile and more clever.

In software form, they will cruise the data highways. The rich, the powerful, police agencies and a technologically skilled elite will always be able to find out whatever they want to know about you and me.

In the end, as author Robert Heinlein prophesied years ago, the chief effect that “privacy” laws have is to “make the bugs smaller”. And, I might add, to prevent you and me from learning anything more about the rich and powerful.

Given a choice between privacy and accountability, I must sadly conclude that there is no choice at all.

Privacy is a highly desirable product of liberty. If we remain free and sovereign, then we will have a little privacy - in our bedrooms and sanctuaries. We will be able to demand some.

But accountability is no side benefit. It is the one fundamental ingredient upon which liberty thrives. Without the accountability that derives from openness, enforceable upon even the mightiest individuals and institutions, freedom must surely die.

As this was true in the past, so it will be true a thousandfold in the information age to come, when cameras and databases will sprout like crocuses - or weeds - whether we like it or not.

One of the basic decisions we all face in times ahead will be this: can we stand living our lives exposed to scrutiny - our secrets laid out in the open - if in return we get flashlights of our own, that we can shine on the arrogant and strong?

Or is privacy's illusion so precious that it is worth any price, including surrendering our own right to pierce the schemes of the powerful?

There are no easy answers; asking questions is a good first step.

David Brin is a scientist and bestselling science-fiction novelist. This story is an excerpt from a non-fiction work-in-progress, The Transparent Society, and first appeared in Wired, December 1996.
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