Our world - and our selves - will exist online, in
a way that makes today's Internet seem like a pale shadow. The privacy
implications are enormous
IN 1896, Henri Antoine Becquerel discovered that small flecks of uranium
could fog photographic plates. Around ten years later, Einstein wrote his
Special Theory of Relativity and demonstrated that mass and energy were
equivalent: E=MCsquared. Forty years on, Oppenheimer showed what happens
when you mix the two ideas.
I'm looking at a publicity shot of Mew, a new chip from Hitachi. It's
a tiny speck of silicon less than half a millimetre on each side, and it
doesn't do much except squirt a serial number into the ether on request.
Yet combine it with the Internet and it has the potential to change
society just as radically as Einstein's mass-energy equivalence,
because Mew can make information and objects one and the same.
Let's step back a bit. For all that the world of the Internet relates
to the real world we live in, it's not the same. If you send an email to
a pal you won't know where he is when he gets it, and a picture on eBay
is no guarantee that Earle in Wyoming actually has a stuffed wombat for
sale. Information slips around the world as freely and as untraceably
as water, and from this freedom come the joys and the sins of the Net.
But tie physical objects into the system, and things look a lot different.
Hitachi says that one of the big uses of the Mew chip will be to prevent
counterfeit currency and other high-value, very portable items. The chip
is so small and lightweight it can be inserted into a banknote and be detectable
at a distance of around thirty centimetres.
Let's imagine that this happens, ostensibly
for checking the ID of notes in banks and shops. This is wireless, though,
so you can do it anywhere at any time without the owner knowing. Once
there are public sensors, each note
-- and each car, wallet, set of glasses, book, whatever --- that passes
within range will be known to the system, both position and identity.
[THIS IS WHY I STATE USE CASH TO PURCHASE ANYTHING, NOT A CARD
THEY WANT TO DO AWAY WITH CASH FOR THIS SPECIFIC REASON.]
The world will be such a different place when this technology is fully
developed that it's hard to imagine what it will be like to live there.
How could you steal something if the owner just needs to ask his computer
and it will be found? How can you fake something if you can't give it the
same ID as something else -- a duplication will
sound alarm bells -- or a different ID to everything else? There'll
be central registries, and if an ID isn't legit then the system
will know. People will hack the system, sure, but once detected it'll be
desperately simple to find the offenders and stop the problem.
So our world -- and ourselves -- will exist online, in
a way that makes today's Internet seem like a pale shadow. Our current
worries about privacy will pall compared to what might happen if not only
ourselves but every item we own is just another node on the network.
Is there any reason to think this will come
about? Very much so. We've been prepared to countenance security cameras
that recognise our faces when we walk down Newham High Street, and cameras
that report back to HQ when we drive our cars up the M1. The advantages
to the state, and to us, of having God-like
powers of omniscience are far too tempting
to pass up. Little things like income tax could go away,
when every transaction of money or goods can be monitored and a rate of
tax calculated -- and the money taken -- that's appropriate for who's selling,
who's buying and what's being bought. Why go to the hassle of a yearly
return, or having separate sorts of taxation when you can just have a single
transaction tax that's automatic?
There's plenty of new technology needed before we get there, but
none of it is unthinkable. We'll need ubiquitous radio networks,
but we're building those. We'll need tiny, flexible power
supplies: these, too, are on their way. We'll need a way
to identify billions of unique objects and use that information to build
up databases of what, where and when -- just the sort of idea that the
Internet's been playing with.
Most of all, we need to think about what this new world
will be like, and what rules we want in place to cope with the radically
different ideas of personal and state power it implies. The
old contract between the subject and the state will be as inadequate to
the task as the old copyright laws are at coping with peer-to-peer music
sharing. The Internet itself will just be the driest of dry runs for the
big bang to come.
World changing technology in a grain of metal -- and we have no more
idea of where we'll be in fifty years time than Becquerel could foresee
Hiroshima. Welcome to the future.
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