Things a post-Singularity spime should know..

How to Face the Digital Future Without Fear
by Ben Hammersley
Hodder & Stoughton,434pp.

Reviewed: 4 August 2012

I suppose the future has always been alarming for those who thought much about it. Hence the pious pray for salvation from Hell, and Gen X geeks speculate excitedly about the coming of the Singularity, when machine intelligence is prophesied to out-manoeuvre human intelligence and take over the world.

Less apocalyptically, many average citizens worry about how to control email inboxes or how long we can avoid committing our lives to smart-phones and social networking.

Ben Hammersley seeks to bring aid to the anxious. But non-geeks, to whom this book is specifically addressed, may find that despite its garnish of sage advice it is more alarming than soothing. Hammersley is a British explainer and prober of the directions and affects of the revolution in computerized communications, Editor-at-Large of the geek journal Wired, and the “UK Prime Minister’s Ambassador to Tech City” (an Internet industry concentration in London).

He also sports a trademark waxed moustache that evokes more the steam-punk Edwardian era of a Jules Verne than a shaven-headed cyber-punk from Silicon Valley.

Sixty-four is a nice binary number (the 6th power of two) so “64 Things” has an appropriate digital ring to it. In fact, there is a bonus chapter. Following the convention of binary counting, the first chapter is number 00, so Chapter 64 is actually the 65th. But it’s all arbitrary, since any reader may find many more, or many less, than 64 things you need to know.

Let’s just say that there are sixty-five blessedly brief chapters, averaging about 700 words apiece, that raise issues of broad interest about Internet and associated technology with implications for our individual and collective futures. It’s not a linear narrative and you can skip randomly about as if browsing around Wikipedia. There are at least sixty-four ideas worth thinking about, but readers will differ as to which are worth worrying about.

The Singularity (Thing 53), for example, is an idea that has been around since earliest science fiction, whereby artificial intelligence created by humans evolves itself to escape the control of its creators, like Frankenstein’s monster. This idea animates several commercial movies per year, but they remain archetypal fairy-tales recast in technological imagery. Singularity prophets claim we humans will be subjugated by machines, sometime before 2050.

As a harbinger of what a Singularity could do, Hammersley cites the Wall Street “Flash Crash” of May 2010, when computerized automatic trading systems wrought havoc on the global financial system over a period of minutes. I demur. The Flash Crash was entirely human error, being a predicted consequence of a technological arms race between competing high-volume trading corporations in a rashly de-regulated market. This was failure of human intelligence, not triumph of machine intelligence. Except for the gilded few master speculators, we all continue to pay for this and similar follies.

Several “Things” concern individual rights, identity and privacy, and these are worth taking seriously. Libertarians and democrats have rejoiced at the extraordinary capacity the Internet has brought for individuals to form new communities and to participate in forms of public life. But the technologies that have allowed idealistic youth to mobilise anonymously against dictators are the same technologies that have allowed paedophiles and violent extremists of all shades to organize attacks on other individuals and groups. Governments now debate how far they can wind back anonymity without crushing individual freedoms and creativity.

The important social and political issues are bound tightly to the commercial interests of individuals and corporations. A number of Hammersley’s Things address the challenge to conventional media, publishing and distribution models for every kind of information or product that can be replicated, instantly and at no cost, anywhere in the connected world. He sees print and subscription media, and even broadcast media businesses, surviving the onslaught of online competition, but only by providing their customers with a value-added experience that is more like membership of a community than like purchase of a mass product. The loss of monopoly need not mean the loss of opportunity.

For a royalty-earning print author, Hammersley’s views on copyright are refreshingly trenchant. He sees the extension of copyright terms as shameless rent-seeking by parties who in most cases had nothing whatsoever to do with the creative process, and whose speculation in portfolios of “intellectual property” subverts the original purpose of temporary copyright protections, which was to reward creativity with a short-term legal monopoly. Now, under mostly American international pressure, copyrights extend seventy years from the death of an author, for most of which time all that the inheritors or intellectual property speculators can do is prevent later writers, musicians or coders from building creatively on the dead creator’s cultural legacy.

This is hostile not only to essential popular culture of jazz, re-mix and mash-up, so prevalent on the Web, but also to the classical processes of learning and development through imitation that have informed all human cultural and scientific endeavour, and underpin our greatest cultural institutions. And Hammersley adds to the chorus of geek cognoscenti who insist that, in the digital world, information can not possibly be controlled. Lawyers, start your engines!

Like many futurists, Hammersley is inclined to personify the Internet, as in “when the Internet turns its eye upon any industry, it destroys it and remakes it in its own image”. The Internet doesn’t have one eye. Yes, there may be trends and collective tendencies, but decisions will still be made by individually motivated humans. That’s one reason it is good for the interested, but non-technical, to be offered a book like this, full of stimulating arguments served up in bite-sized chunks that allow for domestic discussion between chapters.

I still enjoy learning a new word and this book has taught me “spime”. Apparently this is a “self-documenting object that can interact with the world by tracking its own process of production and gathering information about its usage”. The object gains in value as it accrues information about itself. Come the Singularity, I’d like to be recycled as a spime.

Richard Thwaites worked for some years in the Australian Government’s National Office for the Information Economy.