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A sharing society

Updated Thursday, 18th February 2010

Former American vice-president Al Gore is enthusiastic, but Blaine Price warns there are risks alongside the opportunities offered in a sharing society.

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Al Gore is energised by the power of the web to turn us from an audience into empowered citizens.

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Yeah. I mean... I think young people are the same now as they have always been, the neuro-scientists tell us that in fact some parts of the brain when they are used a lot more proliferate the neural connections and some parts of the brain become more elaborated, but I think basically human nature is the same as it’s always been.

When human civilisation has advanced rapidly it has usually been during periods when individuals spread throughout a society have found the means to connect with one another and share the best ideas.

The printing press fostered that kind of cooperation and television suppressed it by turning citizens into members of an audience with a one way form of communication.

The web allows people to express themselves, receive ideas, discuss them with others, reflect on them and then come up with what seem to them better ideas, and that’s the essence of how we can advance.

Intelligence is evenly distributed throughout the human population and when an empowering technology like the web makes it possible for individuals to express themselves freely and to connect their ideas with others, who may or not agree with them but to ignite a dialogue that begins to improve those ideas and through the sharing of perspectives, come up with new ideas, that’s a very exciting and revolutionary prospect.

 

Blaine Price says that new technology offers new ways of safely sharing information - but that freedom brings risks as well as opportunities

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Al Gore made some important points about communication and the internet. I’d like to talk about some computing technologies that have enhanced our communication on the internet. One of them I think is important is anonymisation.

Usually when you make a request on the internet it’s anonymous, no-one knows who it is who’s made the request, but they are actually easy to trace.

If you’re a dissident in a repressive regime or a whistle blower you certainly don’t want to be traced.

You can use software called an onion router to send your request. So, suppose you’re sending your human rights video to the human rights website, what you do is connect an onion router to your computer, that will send your request to another onion router, maybe in a different country, and on to another onion router and so on and so on until one of them finally decides to deliver the request to the real website.

And when the information comes back it goes back through this circuitous route which makes it impossible for authorities to trace who sent the information.

Another computing technology that has been crucial to our use of the internet is encryption.

Every personal computer now has access to military grade encryption. It would take twenty years to crack a message so you can be secure in the knowledge that your internet banking and your sensitive information are safe from prying eyes.

But these are two-edged swords, One, because your digital key to the information if lost will mean you’ve lost all your data as simply as if you’d burned all the paper it was printed on.

It also means that criminals have access to these technologies, it makes them harder to catch, harder for the police to find them and read their information.

And all this communication and access to information can be a blessing. Take Wikipedia for example.

Wikipedia allows experts and novices to post their information on any subject, but it leads to a plethora of information and often information overload. What source do you trust? A Wikipedia entry posted yesterday or a book published ten years ago?

Communication, lots of communication can be a good thing; you can talk to everyone in the world. But one of the adages I leaned as a computer scientist from the 1970s is that if you want to make a project later you add more people to it.

That doesn’t sound intuitive does it? But, if you think about it, as you add people to a project they all have to talk to one another to get the job done and the more time you’re spent talking or sending email to each other, the less time they’re actually doing real work.

So if you’ve ever come back from holiday to 500 email messages you’ll understand that too much communication can be a bad thing. So the next time you’re prompted to maybe send off a half dozen messages to colleagues on some small matter think again, because sometimes less communication is better.

 

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