Thursday, October 22, 2015

This day ... two years ago (2)

(Re-posting from 2013)
In what seems like centuries ago, though it has been less than three decades, I came to USC for graduate studies.  Those days, work rules for us "aliens" were a lot less restrictive than they are now.  Thus, in order to supplement my meager graduate assistantship, I applied for a student worker position with the university's computing services.

My "home" at USC--the VKC and WPH buildings

The first day on the job, my supervisor--I think his name was Mike, who a year later had a horrible motorcycle accident that affected his motor and mental skills--took me around the facilities.  He led me to the inner sanctum and said something like, "here is our DARPA center."  And then explained that DARPA stood for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and how USC was one of the very few universities and agencies connected to its network.

That connection, network, was, of course, the internet.

Those were the primitive days of the internet.  It was well before the days of the graphic user interface of Windows, when knowing the DOS commands was enough to impress a few.  A couple of Unix commands made quite a few swoon with admiration.  Within this primitive internet were user groups, through which was how I came to know about Zia's death in Pakistan--almost a few minutes after the plane went down.  I loved reading the endless number of jokes on groups. I easily adopted the internet.  I downloaded files from FTP sites.  I graduated.  It was still the pre-www world.

And then came the web and Mosaic and Netscape and AOL and Internet Explorer.  The world changed in a hurry.  I was now at the mercy of AOL and the slow dialup modem.  Then the faster dialup. And then DSL broadband.  It is one heck of a different world now.

Even the best minds had a difficult time figuring out what all those meant.  As this essay in the New York Review of Books notes, even the mighty Paul Krugman was dead wrong when he wrote:
“The growth of the Internet will slow drastically [as it] becomes apparent [that] most people have nothing to say to each other,” the economist Paul Krugman wrote in 1998. “By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s…. Ten years from now the phrase information economy will sound silly.”
It is not Krugman's fault that he got it dead wrong.  It is a measure of how rapidly things have changed.  The future has never been this difficult to predict when even next year could be dramatically different.

The internet has created quite a few monsters along the way.  The ease with which data can be collected about you and me and the seven billion others is that Faustian Bargain that we didn't quite imagine thirty years ago. Even twenty years ago.
[Not] obvious was how the Web would evolve, though its open architecture virtually assured that it would. The original Web, the Web of static homepages, documents laden with “hot links,” and electronic storefronts, segued into Web 2.0, which, by providing the means for people without technical knowledge to easily share information, recast the Internet as a global social forum with sites like Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare, and Instagram.
Once that happened, people began to make aspects of their private lives public, letting others know, for example, when they were shopping at H+M and dining at Olive Garden, letting others know what they thought of the selection at that particular branch ofH+M and the waitstaff at that Olive Garden, then modeling their new jeans for all to see and sharing pictures of their antipasti and lobster ravioli—to say nothing of sharing pictures of their girlfriends, babies, and drunken classmates, or chronicling life as a high-paid escort, or worrying about skin lesions or seeking a cure for insomnia or rating professors, and on and on.
I certainly did not imagine this when I got to the internet 26 years ago.  The life we now live would have been science fiction to me then. 
you are not only what you eat, you are what you are thinking about eating, and where you’ve eaten, and what you think about what you ate, and who you ate it with, and what you did after dinner and before dinner and if you’ll go back to that restaurant or use that recipe again and if you are dieting and considering buying a Wi-Fi bathroom scale or getting bariatric surgery—and you are all these things not only to yourself but to any number of other people, including neighbors, colleagues, friends, marketers, and National Security Agency contractors, to name just a few.
 When phrased thus, yes, it certainly would have been nothing but science fiction back then.  Back then as in a mere 26 years ago.  How crazy is that!  How scary is that!
How all this sharing adds up, in dollars, is incalculable because the social Web is very much alive, and we keep supplying more and more personal information and each bit compounds the others.
 Not only are supplying the data, others are also providing the data.  It is important to keep in mind that:
Data—especially personal data of the kind shared on Facebook and the kind sold by the state of Florida, harvested from its Department of Motor Vehicles records, and the kind generated by online retailers and credit card companies—is sometimes referred to as “the new oil,” not because its value derives from extraction, which it does, but because it promises to be both lucrative and economically transformative.
In a report issued in 2011, the World Economic Forum called for personal data to be considered “a new asset class,” declaring that it is “a new type of raw material that’s on par with capital and labour.” 
So, how much is this new raw material worth?  You see that reflected, for instance, in the market valuation of Facebook at more than 80 billion dollars--from the more than 800 million users there.  As the quantity and quality of this raw material increases, the value of Facebook will also increase--ironically, we the people make the company worth that much by providing the data voluntarily!  Facebook is merely one example.  Google, Amazon, the NSA, ...
while we were having fun, we happily and willingly helped to create the greatest surveillance system ever imagined, a web whose strings give governments and businesses countless threads to pull, which makes us…puppets. The free flow of information over the Internet (except in places where that flow is blocked), which serves us well, may serve others better. Whether this distinction turns out to matter may be the one piece of information the Internet cannot deliver.
Not really what I imagined the world would be towards the end of 2013 back in 1987 when I was taken around the computing facilities at USC.  A mere 26 years ago that was!


Ramesh said...

The "mighty" Paul Krugman is usually dead wrong. What's new.

Sriram Khé said...

So, can you tell me again how much you love Paul Krugman's views? ;)

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