Category Archives: social media

Prejudice is an essential predictive tool

Prejudice has a bad name but it is an essential tool evolution has given us to help our survival. It is not a bad thing in itself, but it can cause errors of judgement and misuse so it needs to be treated with care. It’s worth thinking it through from first principles, so that you aren’t too prejudiced about prejudice.

I like a few people, dislike a few others, but don’t have any first hand opinion on almost everyone. With over 7 billion people, no-one can ever meet more than a tiny proportion. We see a few more on TV or other media and may form a narrow-channel opinion on some aspects of their character from what is shown in their appearances. Otherwise, any opinion we may have on anyone we have not actually met or spent any time with is prejudice – pre-judgment based on experiences we have had with people who share similarities.

Prejudice isn’t always a bad thing

Humans are good at using patterns and similarities as indicators, because it improves our chances of survival. If you see a flame, even though you have never encountered that particular flame before, you are prejudiced about how it might feel if you stick your hand in it. You don’t go all politically correct and assume that making such a pre-judgment is wrong and put your hand in it anyway, since it may well be a very nice flame that tickles and feels good. If you see a tiger running towards you, you probably won’t assume it just wants to cuddle you or get stroked. Prejudices keep us alive. Used correctly, they are a good thing.

Taking examples from human culture, if a salesman smiles at you, you may reasonably engage some filters rather than just treating the forthcoming conversation like any other. Similarly, if a politician promises you milk and honey, you may reasonable wonder who will pay for it, or what they are not telling you. Some salesmen and politicians don’t conform to the prejudice, but enough do to make it worthwhile engaging the filters.

Prejudices can be positive too. If you see some nice strawberries, you probably don’t worry too much that they have been poisoned. If someone smiles at you, you will probably feel warmer emotions towards them. We usually talk about prejudice when we are talking about race or nationality or religion but all prejudice is is pre-judgement of a person or object or situation based on any clues we can pick up. If we didn’t prejudge things at all we would waste a great deal of time and effort starting from scratch at every encounter.

Error sources

People interpret situations differently, and of course experience different situations, and therefore build up quite different prejudice databases. Some people notice things that others don’t. Then they allocate different weightings to all the different inputs they do notice. Then they file them differently. Some will connect experiences with others to build more complex mindsets and the quality of those connections will vary enormously. As an inevitable result of growing up, people make mental models of the world so that they can make useful predictions that enable them to take advantage of opportunities and avoid threats. The prejudices in those models are essentially equations, variables, weightings and coefficients. Some people will use poor equations that ignore some variables completely, use poor weightings for others and also assign poor quality coefficients to what they have left. (A bit like climate modelling really, it is common to give too high weightings to a few fashionable variables while totally ignoring others of equal importance.)

Virtues and dangers in sharing prejudices

People communicate and learn prejudices from each other too, good and bad. Your parents teach you about flames and tigers to avoid the need for you to suffer. Your family, friends, teachers, neighbors, celebrities, politicians and social media contacts teach you more. You absorb a varied proportion of what they tell you into your own mindset, and the filters you use are governed by your existing prejudices. Some inputs from others will lead to you editing some of your existing prejudices, for better or worse. So your prejudices set will be a complex mix of things you have learned from your own experiences and those learned from others, all processed and edited continually with the processing and editing processes themselves influenced by existing and inherited prejudices.

A lot of encounters in modern life are mediated by the media, and there is a lot of selective prejudice involved in choosing which media to be exposed to. Media messages are very often biased in favour of some groups and against others, but it is hard to avoid them being assimilated into the total experience used for our prejudice. People may choose to watch news channels that have a particular bias because it frames the news in terms they are more familiar with. Adverts and marketing generally also have huge influence, professionally designed to steer our prejudices in particular direction. This can be very successful. Thanks to media messages, I still think Honda makes good cars in spite of having bought one that has easily had more faults than all my previous cars combined. I have to engage my own rationality filters to prevent me considering them for my next car. Prejudice says they are great, personal experience says they are not.

So, modern life provides many sources of errors for our prejudice databases, and many people, companies, governments and pressure groups try hard to manipulate them in their favour, or against others.

Prejudice and wisdom

Accumulated prejudices are actually a large component of wisdom. Wisdom is using acquired knowledge alongside acquired experience to build a complex mental world model that reliably indicates how a hypothetical situation might play out. The quality of one’s mental world model hopefully improves with age and experience and acquired knowledge, though that is by no means guaranteed. People gain wisdom at different rates, and some seem to manage to avoid doing so completely.

So there is nothing wrong with prejudice per se, it is an essential survival shortcut to avoid the need to treat every experience and encounter with the same checks and precautions or to waste enormous extra time investigating every possible resource from scratch. A well-managed prejudice set and the mental world model built using it are foundation stones of wisdom.

Mental models

Mental models are extremely important to quality of personal analysis and if they are compromised by inaccurate prejudices we will find it harder to do understand the world properly. It is obviously important to protect prejudices from external influences that are not trustworthy. We need the friendly social sharing that helps us towards genuinely better understanding of the world around us, but we need to identify forces with other interests than our well-being so that we can prevent them from corrupting our mindsets and our mental models, otherwise our predictive ability will be damaged. Politicians and pressure groups would be top of the list of dubious influences. We also tend to put different weightings on advice from various friends, family, colleagues or celebrities, sensibly so. Some people are more easily influenced by others. Independent thought is made much more difficult when peer pressure is added. When faced with peer pressure, many people simply adopt what they believe to be the ‘correct’ prejudice set for ‘their’ ‘tribe’. All those inverted commas indicate that each of these is a matter of prejudice too.

Bad prejudices

Where we do find problems from prejudice is in areas like race and religion, mainly because our tribal identity includes identification with a particular race or religion (or indeed atheism). Strong tribal forces in human nature push people to favour those of their own tribe over others, and we see that at every level of tribe, whether it is a work group or an entire nation. So we are more inclined to believe good things about our own tribe than others. The number of experiences we have of other tribes is far higher than it was centuries ago. We meet far more people face to face now, and we see very many more via the media. The media exposure we get tends to be subject to bias, but since the media we choose to consume is self-selected, that tends to reinforce existing prejudices. Furthermore, negative representations are more likely to appear on the news, because people behaving normally is not news, whereas people doing bad things is. Through all those combined exposures, we may build extensive personal experience of many members of a group and it is easy to apply that experience to new encounters of others from that group who may not share the same faults or virtues. One way to reduce the problem is to fragment groups into subgroups so that you don’t apply prejudices from one subgroup incorrectly to another.

Inherited experiences, such as those of columnists, experts brought into news interviews or even the loaded questions of news presenters on particular channels are more dangerous since many of the sources are strongly biased or have an interest in changing our views. As a result of massively increased exposures to potentially biased representations of other groups in modern life, it is harder than ever to maintain an objective viewpoint and maintain a realistic prejudice set. It is very easy to accumulate a set of prejudices essentially determined by others. That is very dangerous, especially bearing in mind the power of peer pressure, since peers are also likely to have such corrupted prejudice sets. We call that group-think, and it is not only the enemy of free thought but also the enemy of accurate prediction, and ultimately of wisdom. A mental model corrupted by group-think and inherited biases is of poor quality.

Debugging Prejudices

Essential maintenance for good mental models includes checking prejudices regularly against reality. Meeting people and doing things is good practice of course, but checking actual statistics is surprisingly effective too. Many of us hold ideas about traits and behaviors of certain groups that are well away from reality. Governments collect high quality statistics on an amazing range of things. Pressure groups also do, but are far more likely to put a particular spin on their figures, or even bury figures that don’t give the message they want you to hear. Media also put spins on statistics, so it is far better to use the original statistics yourself than to trust someone else’s potentially biased analysis. For us Brits, is a good source of trustworthy official statistics, relatively free of government or pressure group spin, though finding the data can sometimes involve tricky navigation.

It is also a good idea to make sure you consume media and especially news from a variety of sources, some explicitly left or right wing or even from pressure groups. This ensures you see many sides of the same story, ensures you stay aware of stories that may not even appear via some channels, and helps train you to spot biases and filter them out when they are there. I read several newspapers every day. So should you. When I have time, I try to go to the original source of any data being discussed so I can get the facts without the spin. Doing this not only helps protect your own mental model, it allows you to predict how other people may see the same stories and how they might feel and react, so it also helps extend your model to include behaviour of other groups of people.

If you regularly debug your prejudices, then they will be far more useful and less of an error source. It will sometimes be obvious that other people hold different ones but as long as you know yours are based on reality, then you should not be influenced to change yours. If you are trying to work out how others might behave, then understanding their prejudices and the reasons they hold them is very useful. It makes up another section of the world model.

Looking at it from a modelling direction, prejudices are the equations, factors and coefficients in a agent-based model, which you run inside your head. Without them, you can’t make a useful model, since you aren’t capable of knowing and modelling over 7 billion individuals. If the equations are wrong, or the factors or coefficients, then the answer will be wrong. Crap in, crap out. If your prejudices are reasonably accurate representations of the behaviours and characteristics of groups as a whole, then you can make good models of the world around you, and you can make sounds predictions. And over time, as they get better, you might even become wise.

Will making fun of people soon become illegal?

I don’t think I need to add much more than the title really, but here’s a little encouragement to think about it yourself:


I enjoy watching comedy a lot, and I would hate for it to be restrained even further than it already is, but taking an outside view, trends certainly suggest a gradual closing down of any form of aggression or intimidation or discrimination towards any type of person for any reason. Much of comedy could be considered a form of aggression or bullying as anyone who has been made fun of could testify. A lot more could be considered intimidation and a lot more is discriminatory, certainly from a party viewpoint.

Gender, sexuality, religion and race comedy have all been closing rapidly except to those from the victim groups, who may use comedy as a form of defense, or to cast light on particular problems, or let’s face it, to make money by exploiting the monopoly created by forbidding others to joke about it.

Comedians are very often extremely left or right wing. They do have influence on people’s voting because nobody wants to be the butt of a joke. It is not impossible that comedy shows could fall into regulatory control to ensure fairness during political campaigns, just as party political broadcasts and air time on debates.

In the election, a huge amount of comedy was simple making fun of the candidates personally, not based on their views, but simply based on how they look (Sturgeon portrayed as Jimmy Crankie), or how they tackle a bacon sandwich. I am very pleased Miliband lost, but I’m not the most photogenic person in the world either and I have to empathise with the personal attacks on his nerdity and awkwardness during the campaign, which have nothing to do with his political views or capability (or in his case otherwise). If you go frame by frame through a video of almost anyone as they talk, you can eventually find an expression to support almost any agenda you want. I think that people should develop a thick skin if they are in the public eye, or should they? Should they be defended against blatant and possibly hurtful personal attacks.

I laugh as much as anyone at jokes at someone else’s expense. I’m no politically correct saint. I am happy to suffer occasional jokes at my expense if I can laugh at others, but maybe that’s just because I don’t get all that many. But as a futurist, it seems to me that this sort of comedy is likely to be in the firing line soon too. It may not happen, and I hope it doesn’t, but PC trends are heading that way.

Will networking make the world safer?


If you want a more detailed answer:

A long time ago when the web was young, we all hoped networking would make a better world. Everyone would know of all the bad things going on and would all group together and stop them. With nowhere to hide, oppressors would stop oppressing. 25 years on…

Since then, we’ve had spectacularly premature  announcements of how the internet and social networking in particular was responsible for bringing imminent peace in the world as the Arab spring emerged, followed not long after with proof of the naivety of such assumptions.

The pretty good global social networking we already have has also failed to eradicate oppression of women in large swathes of the world, hasn’t solved hunger or ensured universal supply of clean fresh water. It has however allowed ISIS to recruit better and spread their propaganda, and may be responsible for much of the political breakdown we are now seeing, with communities at each others’ throats that used to get along in mutual live-and-let-live.

The nets have so far failed to deliver on their promise, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they never will. On the other hand, the evidence so far suggests that many people simply misunderstood the consequences of letting people communicate better. A very large number of people believe you can solve any problem by talking about it. It clearly isn’t actually true.

The assumption that if only you would take the time to get to know other people and understand their point of view, you would get on well and live peacefully and all problems will somehow evaporate if only you talk, is simply wrong. People on both sides must want to solve the problem to make that work. If only one side wants to solve it, talking about it can actually increase conflict.

Talking helps people understand what they have in common, but it also exposes and potentially reinforces those areas where they differ.  I believe that is why we experience such vicious political debate lately. The people on each side, in each tribe if you like, can find one another, communicate, bond, and identify a common enemy. With lots of new-found allies, they feel more confident to attack, more confident of the size of their tribe, and of their moral superiority, assured via frequent reinforcement of their ideas.

Then as in much tribal warfare over millennia, it is no longer enough to find a peace agreement, the other side must now be belittled, demonized, subjugated and destroyed. That is a very real impact of the net, magnifying the tribal conflicts built into human nature. Talking can be good but it can also become counterproductive, revealing weaknesses, magnifying differences, and fostering hatred when there was once indifference.

Given that increasing communication is very two-sided, making it better and better might not help peace and love to prosper. Think about that a bit more. Suppose ISIS, instead of the basic marketing videos they use today, were to use a fully immersive virtual reality vision of the world they want to create, sanitized to show and enhance those areas of their vision that they want recruits to see. Suppose recruits could see how they might flourish and reign supreme over us infidel enemies, eradicating us while choosing which 72 virgins to have. Is that improving communications likely to help eradicate terrorism, or to increase it?

Sure, we can talk better to our enemies to discuss solutions and understand their ways and cultures so we can empathize better. Will that make peace with ISIS? Of course it won’t. Only the looniest and most naive would think otherwise. 

What about less extreme situations? We have everyday tribalism all around all the time but we now also have social reinforcement via social networks. People who once thought they had minority viewpoints so kept relatively quiet can now find others with similar views, then feel more powerful and become more vocal and even aggressive. If you are the only one in a village with an extreme view, you might have previously self censored to avoid being ostracized. If you become part of a worldwide community of millions of like mind, it is more tempting to air those views and become an activist, knowing you have backup.  With the added potential anonymity conferred by the network and no fear of physical attack, some people become more aggressive.

So social networks have increased the potential for tribal aggression as well as making people more aware of the world around them. On balance, it seems that tribal forces increase more than the forces to reduce oppression. Even those who claim to be defending others often do so more aggressively. Gentle persuasion is frequently replaced by inquisitions, witch hunts, fierce and destructive attacks.

If so, social networking is a bad thing overall in terms of peaceful coexistence. Meeting new people and staying in touch with friends and family still remain strongly beneficial to personal emotional well-being and also to cohesion within tribes. It is the combination of the enhanced personal feeling of security and the consequential bravery to engage in tribal conflict that is dangerous.

We see this new conflict in politics, religion, sexual attitudes, gender relations, racial conflicts, cultural conflicts, age, even in adherence to secular religions such as warmism. But especially in politics now; left and right no longer tolerate each other and the level of aggression between them increases continually.

If this increasing aggression and intolerance is really due to better social networking, then it is likely to get even worse as more and more people worldwide come online for longer and learn to use social networking tools more effectively.

As activists see more evidence that networking use produces results and reinforces their tribe and their effectiveness, they will do more of it. More activism will produce more extremism, leading to even more activism and more extremism. This circle of reinforcement might be very hard to escape. We may be doomed to more and more extremism, more aggressive relations between groups with different opinions, a society that is highly intolerant, and potentially unstable.

It is very sad that the optimism of the early net has been replaced by the stark reality of human nature. Tribal warfare goes back millennia, but was kept in check by geographic separation. Now that global migration and advanced social networking are mixing the tribes together, the inevitable conflicts are given a new and better equipped battlefield.




The future of publishing

There are more information channels now than ever. These include thousands of new TV and radio channels that are enabled by the internet, millions of YouTube videos, new electronic book and magazine platforms such as tablets and mobile devices, talking books, easy print-on-demand, 3D printing, holograms, games platforms, interactive books, augmented reality and even AI chatbots, all in parallel with blogs, websites and social media such as Facebook, Linked-In, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr and so on. It has never been easier to publish something. It no longer has to cost money, and many avenues can even be anonymous so it needn’t even cost reputation if you publish something you shouldn’t. In terms of means and opportunity, there is plenty of both. Motive is built into human nature. People want to talk, to write, to create, to be looked at, to be listened to.

That doesn’t guarantee fame and fortune. Tens of millions of electronic books are written by software every year – mostly just themed copy and paste collections using content found online –  so that already makes it hard for a book to be seen, even before you consider the millions of other human authors. There are hundreds of times more new books every year now than when we all had to go via ‘proper publishers’.

The limiting factor is attention. There are only so many eyeballs, they only have a certain amount of available time each day and they are very spoiled for choice. Sure, we’re making more people, but population has doubled in 30 years, whereas published material volume doubles every few months. That means ever more competition for the attention of those eyeballs.

When there is a glut of material available for consumption, potential viewers must somehow decide what to look at to make the most of their own time. Conventional publishing had that sorted very well. Publishers only published things they knew they could sell, and made sure the work was done to a high quality – something it is all too easy to skip when self-publishing – and devoted the largest marketing budgets at those products that had the greatest potential. That was mostly determined by how well known the author was and how well liked their work. So when you walked through a bookshop door, you are immediately faced with the books most people want. New authors took years of effort to get to those places, and most never did. Now, it is harder still. Self-publishing authors can hit the big time, but it is very hard to do so, and very few make it.

Selling isn’t the only motivation for writing. Writing helps me formulate ideas, flesh them out, debug them, and tidy them up into cohesive arguments or insights. It helps me maintain a supply of fresh and original content that I need to stay in business. I write even when I have no intention of publishing and a large fraction of my writing stays as drafts, never published, having served its purpose during the act of writing. (Even so, when I do bother to write a book, it is still very nice if someone wants to buy it). It is also fun to write, and rewarding to see a finished piece appear. My sci-fi novel Space Anchor was written entirely for the joy of writing. I had a fantastic month writing it. I started on 3 July and published on 29th. I woke every night with ideas for the next day and couldn’t wait to get up and start typing. When I ran out of ideas, I typed its final paragraphs, lightly edited it and published.

The future of writing looks even more fun. Artificial intelligence is nowhere near the level yet where you can explain an idea to a computer in ordinary conversation and tell it to get on with it, but it will be one day, fairly soon. Interactive writing using AI to do the work will be very reward-rich, creativity-rich, a highly worthwhile experience in itself regardless of any market. Today, it takes forever to write and tidy up a piece. If AI does most of that, you could concentrate on the ideas and story, the fun bits. AI could also make suggestions to make your work better. We could all write fantastic novels. With better AI, it could even make a film based on your ideas. We could all write sci-fi films to rival the best blockbusters of today. But when there are a billion fantastic films to watch, the same attention problem applies. If nobody is going to see your work because of simple statistics, then that is only a problem if your motivation is to be seen or to sell. If you are doing it for your own pleasure, then it could be just as rewarding, maybe even more so. A lot of works would be produced simply for pleasure, but that still dilutes the marketplace for those hoping to sell.

An AI could just write all by itself and cut you out of the loop completely. It could see what topics are currently fashionable and instantaneously make works to tap that market. Given the volume of computer-produced books we already have, adding high level AI could fill the idea space in a genre very quickly. A book or film would compete against huge numbers of others catering to similar taste, many of which are free.

AI also extends the market for cooperative works. Groups of people could collaborate with AI doing all the boring admin and organisation as well as production and value add. The same conversational interface would work just as well for software or app or website production, or setting up a company. Groups of friends could formulate ideas together, and produce works for their own consumption. Books or films that are made together are shared experiences and help bind the group together, giving them shared stories that each has contributed to. Such future publication could therefore be part of socialization, a tribal glue, tribal identity.

This future glut of content doesn’t mean we won’t still have best sellers. As the market supply expands towards infinity, the attention problem means that people will be even more drawn to proven content suppliers. Brands become more important. Production values and editorial approach become more important. People who really understand a market sector and have established a strong presence in it will do even better as the market expands, because customers will seek out trusted suppliers.

So the future publishing market may be a vast sea of high quality content, attached to even bigger oceans of low quality content. In that world of virtually infinite supply, the few islands where people can feel on familiar ground and have easy access to a known and trusted quality product will become strong attractors. Supply and demand equations normally show decreasing price as supply rises, but I suspect that starts to reverse once supply passes a critical point. Faced with an infinite supply of cheap products, people will actually pay more to narrow the choice. In that world, self-publishing will primarily be self-motivated, for fun or self-actualization with only a few star authors making serious money from it. Professional publishing will still have most of the best channels with the most reliable content and the most customers and it will still be big business.

I’ll still do both.

Stimulative technology

You are sick of reading about disruptive technology, well, I am anyway. When a technology changes many areas of life and business dramatically it is often labelled disruptive technology. Disruption was the business strategy buzzword of the last decade. Great news though: the primarily disruptive phase of IT is rapidly being replaced by a more stimulative phase, where it still changes things but in a more creative way. Disruption hasn’t stopped, it’s just not going to be the headline effect. Stimulation will replace it. It isn’t just IT that is changing either, but materials and biotech too.

Stimulative technology creates new areas of business, new industries, new areas of lifestyle. It isn’t new per se. The invention of the wheel is an excellent example. It destroyed a cave industry based on log rolling, and doubtless a few cavemen had to retrain from their carrying or log-rolling careers.

I won’t waffle on for ages here, I don’t need to. The internet of things, digital jewelry, active skin, AI, neural chips, storage and processing that is physically tiny but with huge capacity, dirt cheap displays, lighting, local 3D mapping and location, 3D printing, far-reach inductive powering, virtual and augmented reality, smart drugs and delivery systems, drones, new super-materials such as graphene and molybdenene, spray-on solar … The list carries on and on. These are all developing very, very quickly now, and are all capable of stimulating entire new industries and revolutionizing lifestyle and the way we do business. They will certainly disrupt, but they will stimulate even more. Some jobs will be wiped out, but more will be created. Pretty much everything will be affected hugely, but mostly beneficially and creatively. The economy will grow faster, there will be many beneficial effects across the board, including the arts and social development as well as manufacturing industry, other commerce and politics. Overall, we will live better lives as a result.

So, you read it here first. Stimulative technology is the next disruptive technology.


The future of youth

Been stalling a while wondering which Y to pick (yellow was my previous target) but my mind was made last night when I watched a news interview about young people’s behavior. The article contrasted the increasingly exciting lives of the elderly with the increasingly lonely lives of the young. It made very sad listening. Youth should be a time of joy, exploration and experimentation, reaching out, stretching boundaries, living life to its full. It’s always had plenty of problems to deal with too, but we’re adding to all the natural stresses of growing up.

The main thrust was that young people are lonely, because they don’t have enough cash to socialize properly so make do with staying in their room and using social media. That is a big enough problem, but a different one caught my attention this time.

The bit that worried me was the interview with a couple of people hoping to start off in professional careers. One pointed out that she had once got drunk and pictures had been uploaded onto social media so now she doesn’t dare drink any more because she doesn’t want pictures or anything else on social media damaging her career prospects. She is effectively living a censored life to protect her career, feeling that she is living her life in camera all the time.

Celebrities are well used to that, but celebrities usually have the compensations of a good income and guaranteed social life so they don’t have to worry about buying a home or seeing other people. Young people are now suffering the constant supervision without the benefits. We’ve had ‘friends with benefits’, now we’re seeing ‘celebs without benefits’ as people are thrust for all the wrong reasons into the spotlight and their lives wrecked, or constantly self-censoring to avoid that happening to them.

This trend will worsen a lot as cameras become even more ubiquitously tied in to social media, via Google Glass and other visors, button cams, necklace cams and a wide range of other lifestyle cameras and lifestyle blogging devices as well as all the smartphones and tablets and smart TV cameras. Everyone must then assume that everything they do and say in company (physical or online) may be recorded.

There are two main reactions to total privacy loss, and both make some sense.

A: Nobody is perfect so everyone will have some embarrassing things about them out there somewhere, so it doesn’t matter much if you do too.

B: The capture of embarrassing situations is subject to pretty random forces so is not equally distributed. You may do something you’d really regret but nobody records it, so you get away with it. Or you may do something less embarrassing but it is recorded, uploaded and widely shared and it may be a permanent blemish on your CV.

Both of these approaches make some sense. If you think you will be in an ordinary job you may not feel it matters very much if there is some dirt on you because nobody will bother to look for it and in any case it won’t be much worse than the people sitting beside you so it won’t put you at any significant disadvantage. But the more high profile the career you want, the more prominent the second analysis becomes. People will be more likely to look for dirt as you rise up the ladder and more likely to use it against you. The professional girl being interviewed on the news was in the second category and understood that the only way to be sure you don’t suffer blemishes and damaged career prospects is to abstain from many activities previously seen as fun.

That is a very sad position and was never intended. The web was invented to make our lives better, making it easier to find and share scientific documents or other knowledge. It wasn’t intended to lock people in their rooms or make them avoid having fun. The devices and services we use on the internet and on mobile networks were also invented to make our lives richer and more fulfilled, to put us more in touch with others and to reduce isolation and loneliness. In some cases they are doing the opposite. Unintended consequences, but consequences nonetheless.

I don’t want to overstate this concern. I have managed to live a very happy life without ever having taken drugs, never having been chained naked to a lamppost, never gone to any dubious clubs and only once or twice getting drunk in public. There are some embarrassing things on the web, but not many. I have had many interesting online exchanges with people I have never met, got involved in many projects I’d never have been involved with otherwise, and on balance the web has made my life better, not worse. I’m very introvert and tend to enjoy activities that don’t involve doing wild things with lots of other people pointing cameras at me. I don’t need much external stimulation and I won’t get bored sitting doing nothing but thinking. I can get excited just writing up a new idea or reading about one. I do self-censor my writing and talks though I’d rather not have to, but other than that I don’t feel I need to alter my activity in case someone is watching. There are pluses and minuses, but more pluses for me.

On the other hand, people who are more extrovert may find it a bigger burden having to avoid exciting situations and suffer a bigger drop in quality of life.

Certainly younger people want to try new things, they want to share exciting situations with other people, many want to get drunk occasionally, some might want to experiment with drugs, and some want to take part in political demonstrations.  and would suffer more than older ones who have already done so. It is a sad consequence of new technology if they feel they can’t in case it destroys their career prospects.

The only ways to recover an atmosphere of casual unpunished experimentation would be either to prevent sharing of photos or videos or chat, basically to ban most of what social networks do, and even the people affected probably don’t want to do that, or to make it possible and easy to have any photos or records of your activity removed. That would be better but still leaves problems. There is no obvious easy solution.

If we can’t, and we almost certainly won’t, then many of our brightest young people will feel shackled, oppressed, unable to let their hair down properly, unable to experience the joy of life that all preceding generations took for granted. It’s an aspect of the privacy debate that needs aired much more. Is it a price worth paying to get the cheap short-lived thrill of laughing at someone else’s embarrassment? I’m not sure it is.

OLED fashion contact lenses

Self explanatory concept, but not connected to my original active contact lens direct retinal projection concept. This one is just fashion stuff and could be done easily tomorrow. I allowed a small blank central area so that you aren’t blinded if you wear them. This version doesn’t project onto the retina, though future versions could also house and power devices to do so.

Fashion contacts

OK, the illustration is crap, but I’m an engineer, not a fashion designer. Additional functionality could be to display a high res one time code into iris recognition systems for high security access.

The future of X-People

There is an abundance of choice for X in my ‘future of’ series, but most options are sealed off. I can’t do naughty stuff because I don’t want my blog to get blocked so that’s one huge category gone. X-rays are boring, even though x-ray glasses using augmented reality… nope, that’s back to the naughty category again. I won’t stoop to cover X-Factor so that only leaves X-Men, as in the films, which I admit to enjoying however silly they are.

My first observation is how strange X-Men sounds. Half of them are female. So I will use X-People. I hate political correctness, but I hate illogical nomenclature even more.

My second one is that some readers may not be familiar with the X-Men so I guess I’d better introduce the idea. Basically they are a large set of mutants or transhumans with very varied superhuman or supernatural capabilities, most of which defy physics, chemistry or biology or all of them. Essentially low-grade superheroes whose main purpose is to show off special effects. OK, fun-time!

There are several obvious options for achieving X-People capabilities:

Genetic modification, including using synthetic biology or other biotech. This would allow people to be stronger, faster, fitter, prettier, more intelligent or able to eat unlimited chocolate without getting fat. The last one will be the most popular upgrade. However, now that we have started converging biotech with IT, it won’t be very long before it will be possible to add telepathy to the list. Thought recognition and nerve stimulation are two sides of the same technology. Starting with thought control of appliances or interfaces, the world’s networked knowledge would soon be available to you just by thinking about something. You could easily send messages using thought control and someone else could hear them synthesized into an earpiece, but later it could be direct thought stimulation. Eventually, you’d have totally shared consciousness. None of that defies biology or physics, and it will happen mid-century. Storing your own thoughts and effectively extending your mind into the cloud would allow people to make their minds part of the network resources. Telepathy will be an everyday ability for many people but only with others who are suitably equipped. It won’t become easy to read other people’s minds without them having suitable technology equipped too. It will be interesting to see whether only a few people go that route or most people. Either way, 2050 X-People can easily have telepathy, control objects around them just by thinking, share minds with others and maybe even control other people, hopefully consensually.

Nanotechnology, using nanobots etc to achieve possibly major alterations to your form, or to affect others or objects. Nanotechnology is another word for magic as far as many sci-fi writers go. Being able to rearrange things on an individual atom basis is certainly fuel for fun stories, but it doesn’t allow you to do things like changing objects into gold or people into stone statues. There are plenty of shape-shifters in sci-fi but in reality, chemical bonds absorb or release energy when they are changed and that limits how much change can be made in a few seconds without superheating an object. You’d also need a LOT of nanobots to change a whole person in a few seconds. Major changes in a body would need interim states to work too, since dying during the process probably isn’t desirable. If you aren’t worried about time constraints and can afford to make changes at a more gentle speed, and all you’re doing is changing your face, skin colour, changing age or gender or adding a couple of cosmetic wings, then it might be feasible one day. Maybe you could even change your skin to a plastic coating one day, since plastics can use atomic ingredients from skin, or you could add a cream to provide what’s missing. Also, passing some nanobots to someone else via a touch might become feasible, so maybe you could cause them to change involuntarily just by touching them, again subject to scope and time limits. So nanotech can go some way to achieving some X-People capabilities related to shape changing.

Moving objects using telekinesis is rather less likely. Thought controlling a machine to move a rock is easy, moving an unmodified rock or a dumb piece of metal just by concentrating on it is beyond any technology yet on the horizon. I can’t think of any mechanism by which it could be done. Nor can I think of ways of causing things to just burst into flames without using some sort of laser or heat ray. I can’t see either how megawatt lasers can be comfortably implanted in ordinary eyes. These deficiencies might be just my lack of imagination but I suspect they are actually not feasible. Quite a few of the X-Men have these sorts of powers but they might have to stay in sci-fi.

Virtual reality, where you possess the power in a virtual world, which may be shared with others. Well, many computer games give players supernatural powers, or take on various forms, and it’s obvious that many will do so in VR too. If you can imagine it, then someone can get the graphics chips to make it happen in front of your eyes. There are no hard physics or biology barriers in VR. You can do what you like. Shared gaming or socializing environments can be very attractive and it is not uncommon for people to spend almost every waking hour in them. Role playing lets people do things or be things they can’t in the real world. They may want to be a superhero, or they might just want to feel younger or look different or try being another gender. When they look in a mirror in the VR world, they would see the person they want to be, and that could make it very compelling compared to harsh reality. I suspect that some people will spend most of their free time in VR, living a parallel fantasy life that is as important to them as their ‘real’ one. In their fantasy world, they can be anyone and have any powers they like. When they share the world with other people or AI characters, then rules start to appear because different people have different tastes and desires. That means that there will be various shared virtual worlds with different cultures, freedoms and restrictions.

Augmented reality, where you possess the power in a virtual world but in ways that it interacts with the physical world is a variation on VR, where it blends more with reality. You might have a magic wand that changes people into frogs. The wand could be just a stick, but the victim could be a real person, and the change would happen only in the augmented reality. The scope of the change could be one-sided – they might not even know that you now see them as a frog, or it could again be part of a large shared culture where other people in the community now see and treat them as a frog. The scope of such cultures is very large and arbitrary cultural rules could apply. They could include a lot of everyday life – shopping, banking, socializing, entertainment, sports… That means effects could be wide-ranging with varying degrees of reality overlap or permanence. Depending on how much of their lives people live within those cultures, virtual effects could have quite real consequences. I do think that augmented reality will eventually have much more profound long-term effects on our lives than the web.

Controlled dreaming, where you can do pretty much anything you want and be in full control of the direction your dream takes. This is effectively computer-enhanced lucid dreaming with literally all the things you could ever dream of. But other people can dream of extra things that you may never have dreamt of and it allows you to explore those areas too.  In shared or connected dreams, your dreams could interact with those of others or multiple people could share the same dream. There is a huge overlap here with virtual reality, but in dreams, things don’t get the same level of filtration and reality is heavily distorted, so I suspect that controlled dreams will offer even more potential than VR. You can dream about being in VR, but you can’t make a dream in VR.

X-People will be very abundant in the future. We might all be X-People most of the time, routinely doing things that are pure sci-fi today. Some will be real, some will be virtual, some will be in dreams, but mostly, thanks to high quality immersion and the social power of shared culture, we probably won’t really care which is which.



The future of prying

Prying is one side of the privacy coin, hiding being the other side.

Today, lots of snap-chat photos have been released, and no doubt some people are checking to see if there are any of people they know, and it is a pretty safe bet that some will send links to compromising pics of colleagues (or teachers) to others who know them. It’s a sort of push prying isn’t it?

There is more innocent prying too. Checking out Zoopla to see how much your neighbour got for their house is a little bit nosy but not too bad, or at the extremely innocent end of the line, reading someone’s web page is the sort of prying they actually want some people to do, even if not necessarily you.

The new security software I just installed lets parents check out on their kids online activity. Protecting your kids is good but monitoring every aspect of their activity just isn’t, it doesn’t give them the privacy they deserve and probably makes them used to being snooped on so that they accept state snooping more easily later in life. Every parent has to draw their own line, but kids do need to feel trusted as well as protected.

When adults install tracking apps on their partner’s phones, so they can see every location they’ve visited and every call or message they’ve made, I think most of us would agree that is going too far.

State surveillance is increasing rapidly. We often don’t even think of it as such, For example, when speed cameras are linked ‘so that the authorities can make our roads safer’, the incidental monitoring and recording of our comings and goings collected without the social debate. Add that to the replacement of tax discs by number plate recognition systems linked to databases, and even more data is collected. Also ‘to reduce crime’, video from millions of CCTV cameras is also stored and some is high enough quality to be analysed by machine to identify people’s movements and social connectivity. Then there’s our phone calls, text messages, all the web and internet accesses, all these need to be stored, either in full or at least the metadata, so that ‘we can tackle terrorism’. The state already has a very full picture of your life, and it is getting fuller by the day. When it is a benign government, it doesn’t matter so much, but if the date is not erased after a short period, then you need also to worry about future governments and whether they will also be benign, or whether you will be one of the people they want to start oppressing. You also need to worry that increasing access is being granted to your data to a wider variety of a growing number of public sector workers for a widening range of reasons, with seemingly lower security competence, meaning that a good number of people around you will be able to find out rather more about you than they really ought. State prying is always sold to the electorate via assurances that it is to make us safer and more secure and reduce crime, but the state is staffed by your neighbors, and in the end, that means that your neighbors can pry on you.

Tracking cookies are a fact of everyday browsing but mostly they are just trying to get data to market to us more effectively. Reading every email to get data for marketing may be stretching the relationship with the customer to the limits, but many of us gmail users still trust Google not to abuse our data too much and certainly not to sell on our business dealings to potential competitors. It is still prying though, however automated it is, and a wider range of services are being linked all the time. The internet of things will provide data collection devices all over homes and offices too. We should ask how much we really trust global companies to hold so much data, much of it very personal, which we’ve seen several times this year may be made available to anyone via hackers or forced to be handed over to the authorities. Almost certainly, bits of your entire collected and processed electronic activity history could get you higher insurance costs, in trouble with family or friends or neighbors or the boss or the tax-man or the police. Surveillance doesn’t have to be real time. Databases can be linked, mashed up, analysed with far future software or AI too. In the ongoing search for crimes and taxes, who knows what future governments will authorize? If you wouldn’t make a comment in front of a police officer or tax-man, it isn’t safe to make it online or in a text.

Allowing email processing to get free email is a similar trade-off to using a supermarket loyalty card. You sell personal data for free services or vouchers. You have a choice to use that service or another supermarket or not use the card, so as long as you are fully aware of the deal, it is your lifestyle choice. The lack of good competition does reduce that choice though. There are not many good products or suppliers out there for some services, and in a few there is a de-facto monopoly. There can also be a huge inconvenience and time loss or social investment cost in moving if terms and conditions change and you don’t want to accept the deal any more.

On top of that state and global company surveillance, we now have everyone’s smartphones and visors potentially recording anything and everything we do and say in public and rarely a say in what happens to that data and whether it is uploaded and tagged in some social media.

Some companies offer detective-style services where they will do thorough investigations of someone for a fee, picking up all they can learn from a wide range of websites they might use. Again, there are variable degrees that we consider acceptable according to context. If I apply for a job, I would think it is reasonable for the company to check that I don’t have a criminal record, and maybe look at a few of the things I write or tweet to see what sort of character I might be. I wouldn’t think it appropriate to go much further than that.

Some say that if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear, but none of them has a 3 digit IQ. The excellent film ‘Brazil’ showed how one man’s life was utterly destroyed by a single letter typo in a system scarily similar to what we are busily building.

Even if you are a saint, do you really want the pervert down the road checking out hacked databases for personal data on you or your family, or using their public sector access to see all your online activity?

The global population is increasing, and every day a higher proportion can afford IT and know how to use it. Networks are becoming better and AI is improving so they will have greater access and greater processing potential. Cyber-attacks will increase, and security leaks will become more common. More of your personal data will become available to more people with better tools, and quite a lot of them wish you harm. Prying will increase geometrically, according to Metcalfe’s Law I think.

My defense against prying is having an ordinary life and not being famous or a major criminal, not being rich and being reasonably careful on security. So there are lots of easier and more lucrative targets. But there are hundreds of millions of busybodies and jobsworths and nosy parkers and hackers and blackmailers out there with unlimited energy to pry, as well as anyone who doesn’t like my views on a topic so wants to throw some mud, and their future computers may be able to access and translate and process pretty much anything I type, as well as much of what I say and do anywhere outside my home.

I find myself self-censoring hundreds of times a day. I’m not paranoid. There are some people out to get me, and you, and they’re multiplying fast.




The future of karma

This isn’t about Hinduism or Buddhism, just in case you’re worried. It is just about the cultural principle borrowed from them that your intent and actions now can influence what happens to you in future, or your luck or fate, if you believe in such things. It is borrowed in some computer games, such as Fallout.

We see it every day now on Twitter. A company or individual almost immediately suffers the full social consequences of their words or actions. Many of us are occasionally tempted to shame companies that have wronged us by tweeting our side of the story, or writing a bad review on tripadvisor. One big thing is so missing, but I suspect not for much longer: Who’s keeping score?

Where is the karma being tracked? When you do shame a company or write a bad review, was it an honest write-up of a genuine grievance, or way over the top compared to the magnitude of the offense, or just pure malice? If you could have written a review and didn’t, should your forgiving attitude be rewarded or punished, because now others might suffer similar bad service? I haven’t checked but I expect there are already a few minor apps that do bits of this. But we need the Google and Facebook of Karma.

So, we need another 17 year old in a bedroom to bring out the next blockbuster mash site linking the review sites, the tweets and blogs, doing an overall assessment not just of the companies being commented on, but on those doing the commenting. One that gives people and companies a karma score. As the machine-readable web continues to improve, it will even be possible to get some clues on average rates of poor service and therefore identify those of us who are probably more forgiving, those of us who deserve a little more tolerance when it’s our own mistake. (I am allegedly closer to the grumpy old man end of the scale).

I just did a conference talk on corporate credit assessment and have previously done others on private credit assessment. Financial trustworthiness is important, but when you do business, you also want to know whether it’s a nice company or one that walks all over people. That’s karma.

So, are you someone who presents a sweet and cheerful face, only to say nasty things about someone as soon as their face is turned. Do you always see the good side of everyone, or go to great effort to point out their bad points to everyone on the web? Well, it won’t be all that long before your augmented reality visor shows a karma score floating above people’s heads when you chat to them.