Image: Snapchat

One of the central conceits of the Internet is that once something is published, it is out in public forever. This is so basic an idea that sitcom characters were joking about back in 1996 (1996!). But in the post-Snowden age, there is greater interest in being able to limit the data shared on the Internet, or to be able to scrub your data later. New laws and a flurry of new products could help make Internet content more ephemeral.

In California, Governor Jerry Brown just signed a bill that would give users under the age of 18 the ability to purge their social media profiles from the Internet. This may be welcome news for kids who want to have fun, but also want to get into good schools, get good jobs, etc.  A report from May 2013 found that 1 in 10 young job applicants missed out on a job due to a social media post and that nearly one-third of Millennials regret some social media posts.

But an alternative to scrubbing data from the Internet is limiting its lifespan. This is the premise behind mobile photo-messaging app Snapchat, which allows user to set a lifespan for how long a message will last in the recipient’s in-box before self-deleting. The service has become wildly popular, with users sending 350 million messages a day. The ‘self-destruct’ feature means that users can send pictures that might be questionable, with less chance they will become permanent.

Akin to Snapchat is a web-based picture service called BlinkLink, which limits the number of people who could view your photo. But whereas Snapchat sets a time limit, BlinkLink sets a viewer limit. Users can set the number of viewers who can see the picture and once the click-through is reached, the photo disappears.

While privacy and control are prime functions of Snapchat, BlinkLink’s limited viewership (which also offers privacy) reveals a second benefit of these kinds of apps: Exclusivity. By publicizing content on Snapchat or BlinkLink and then limiting access to it, via time or number of viewers, users can create exclusivity and demand for their content. Brands looking to generate buzz for new products could do so through the ‘limited-time-only’ features of these apps.

Of course, if none of these laws or apps are enough for you, you could use lasers to create a ‘time hole’ and effectively erase your data from time.

The crowdsourced surveillance that unfolded in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Boston is no surprise to futurists. Indeed, it sounded rather familiar. Poking around, I found this scenario vignette in a paper I wrote for the Proteus security conference five years ago:

They thought they had the assassin: he was at the rally when it happened, affiliated with a radical pro-male group in his homeland; he had ranted violently against Ms. Harstad’s UN activities on his blog, and he had a traditional blowgun like that used to deliver the tiny dart. Crime scene investigators ran the coordinates against public images and video: there were approximately 15,000 still images and 300 videos of the square that day. After a moment’s collation, the computer delivered the three-dimensional reconstruction of the hours around the speech. The team zoomed in on where Mwazi claimed he had been standing. There he was. They watched him from the front and each side, and it became clear: he never raised his hands near his mouth, and never used a visible comm device or even seemed to say anything. Unless they could hold a man for scowling, they were going to have to let him walk.

As I allude to in the vignette, it will be possible to automate many of the processes now being done laboriously and partly by hand. Experiments have shown that public photos can be used to reconstruct 3D images of places.

Meanwhile, the spontaneous crowdsourcing around the Boston case has shown uneven results. The most prominent effort, on Reddit, failed to spot the real suspects, while singling out many uninvolved people, and crowd-based efforts also seem to have misidentified an innocent missing person as a potential terrorist. On the other hand, a bystander did discover a high-quality image of a suspect in one of his snapshots.


Image: Jason Wilson, Flickr

My 2.5 year-old daughter has developed an interesting new behavior: The beeping of the coffee pot, the chirp of the microwave, the bloop-bloop of the TiVo causes her to ask, “What does that noise mean?” Rather than focus on the source of the sound (“What was that noise?”) she is trying to understand and parse the information carried by the sound: That three loud, long beeps means the coffee is ready, that two short, and one long beep means the microwave is done, the whoop-whoop-whoop means someone just bumped into an alarmed car.

Increasingly, wordless sounds are carrying information we can interpret. James Poniewozik, TV critic for Time Magazine, recently Tweeted: “Occupational hazard: need to change all my iPhone alert tones to sounds that are never used in TV episodes.” In a home in which various members are all part of the same technology ecosystem, the new message received tone often has two people scrambling for their phones. And as a user can set different sounds and tones to represent specific functions or people, the ambient sound information can start to get dense and complicated.

Adding to this complication is new start up called Chirp is an app for the iPhone that encodes data—photos, contact lists, documents, web pages—as a two-second, multi-note tone that can be shared. Chirp works as a broadcast, rather than point-to-point, so anyone in listening distance would be able to receive whatever it is being shared. The broadcast aspect is touted as one of Chirp’s key features as a way to cut out the hassle of having to assign a specific address: If a friend (or anyone) nearby is running Chirp, they will get your message. Soon the air may be filled with the sound of a million chirping phones, making my daughters question of “What does that noise mean?” a lot harder to answer.

Whom to ask when you want to know if electronic records are being subtly altered?  A five-year-old, evidently.

My son is in the dinosaur phase, and watches paleontology shows religiously, so we get pretty familiar with them too. One of his favorites, watched via streaming video, recently began to seem <em>different</em> somehow. We could swear certain lines and scenes had shifted, but we had no evidence. But he confirmed it: he knew pretty definitively whether our hunches were right about each little change.

This is likely an innocent matter involving regional broadcasting rights or the like, but it illustrates another effect of information centralization: when everything is electronic and cloud-based, there are new opportunities for information manipulation.

  • Governments or corporations with legal control over content, or sufficient coercive power, might simply modify or erase key sources, using electronic centralization to be thorough about it, or thorough enough. This is especially likely as more governments attempt to control the Internet, or portions of it, and the option of coercion will grow as more governments inclined to censorship increase their economic power. This was much more difficult in the era of paper, though some governments tried: owners of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia would sometimes receive new version of articles to paste in when old versions of history fell out of favor.
  • Hackers might make the same kinds of changes illicitly. Sufficiently adept or targeted changes could sew real confusion. (We saw a preview of this when an American politician garbled some American history, and her supporters attempted to alter the Wikipedia entry so that history fit the candidate’s confusion. The decentralized nature of Wikipedia thwarted this effort.)


Image: denn (Flickr)

Image: BestofWDW, Flickr

I recently had the opportunity to be futurist in the “ask a futurist booth” at the American Association of Museums conference. The intent of the booth was to pose alternative scenarios that would encourage museum folks to think about different possible future environments and what changes they might suggest for the museum experience.

The theme of this year’s conference was The Museum of Tomorrow. In looking toward the future, participants were trying to understand technologies and visitor needs that are changing and what these changes mean to them. Museums do a wonderful job of preserving our heritage and are now working to become social spaces for communities. It’s important to understand where we have been, and both how and why we ended up where we are today. But museums are looking into a rearview mirror.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a Museum of Tomorrows? This museum would present multiple plausible scenarios for the future. Each person that entered could experience different futures and gain more awareness of the possible options. Perhaps we should call our museum, a muesum? Imagine how much more creative and constructive our decision processes would be if we could imagine ourselves in lots of varied environments? We would be driving by looking forward and be able to see many of the possible roads on our journey.

GE created the Carousel of Progress at Disney World in 1967 and it has been updated five times. The attraction created an enduring and shared vision of what technologies and even social changes are possible (remember in the last scene, Mother is the one working). But it was only one, very technology heavy view of our future. So let us imagine what a Muesum of Tomorrows might look like and maybe together we can gain some traction to build one! In the meantime, futurists can continue to help by creating stories and scenarios of many possible futures.

Egyptian with mobile phoneThe raid that killed Osama bin Laden yesterday has to have been one of the most secret operations in the world — and yet it was live-blogged by an inadvertent witness.

Sohaib Athar, an IT consultant trying to get away from it all in the small Pakistani city of Abbottabad , was so irritated by the low-flying helicopters that he began tweeting about them as they were overhead, not realizing that they were American machines carrying out the operation that would end bin Laden’s life.  After Obama’s announcement, Athar added, “Uh oh, now I’m the guy who liveblogged the Osama raid without knowing it.” (He now has 65,000 followers on Twitter.)

Was he the only person on social media in Abbottabad?  No, he explained, but others in the area tend to be on Facebook instead.

Pakistan is not even very wired, with 94% of the population not using the Internet.  But even in that very poor country 38% of the population had mobile phones in 2010, and that number has surely risen.

This is another moment that tells us what a transparent world will be like: an ever-smaller percentage of newsworthy events will occur without witnesses able to record and broadcast what they see.  This may already seem ubiquitous — from NATO plane spotting to Syrians reporting demonstrations — but it has only just begun.


Image courtesy Sierragoddess (Flickr)

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