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Upsides and downsides of openness — the view from TEDGlobal

Posted on behalf of Philip Campbell.

Let’s start with the bad news. With every technological development that helps to make the world a better place, criminals and terrorists are out there to apply it to their own ends. Hence the use of satellite communications and a high-tech operations centre that allowed the Mumbai terrorists in 2008 to track and maximize their massacre of 172 men, women and children; hence the encrypted national communications infrastructure constructed by Mexican drugs barons; hence the threat of synthetic viruses…

This bad news was the subject of a TED talk at the TEDGlobal meeting in Edinburgh, UK, earlier this week. Yet even this pessimistic vision from global-security futurist Marc Goodman led to a positively open conclusion: get the details out there, he said, and let the crowds source solutions. “We need participatory security,” he said. “Public safety is too important to be left to the professionals.”

Goodman pointed to the growing capacity of three-dimensional printing, an open technology that other TED speakers celebrated for its capacity to empower people. Positive examples included arducopter, a multirotor drone; the Otto musical interface; a sign-language glove; and a Geiger counter developed by Tokyo Hackerspace after the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

The designs of such printable hardware are open source, said Massimo Banzi, originator of the Arduino microcontroller for interactive projects. “Our hardware is open — we publish all design files and circuits online to help others learn. Our hardware, as well as the documents, come with a Creative Commons license. It is a mash-up of open-source techs that allows people to use them easily.”

But Goodman pointed to the downside: guns and rocket launchers can be printed too, as can harmful molecules.

Yes, said academic-turned-biohacker Ellen Jorgensen, people — especially the media — do worry about the threat of do-it-yourself biotechnology, but a US advisory report last year concluded that the positive potential was much greater than the negative. So what will people do with homegrown biotech? One biohacker was able to trace which of his neighbours’ dogs was leaving ‘little gifts’ on his lawn. Another analysed and identified a Japanese species of beetle in his garden. Biohackers could test whether their sushi really does contain tuna, or theycan send a balloon into the stratosphere and analyse the microbes picked up there. “It’s a great time to be a microbiologist,” said Jorgensen. “I could have had a good career in academia, but it’s great to have a space where I can share the technology to be helpful.”

And now there is a network of biohacker groups in many major cities around the world. “We conform to local regulations, we developed a code of ethics last year. And we don’t work with pathogens — any biohacker that does that is a bioterrorist.”

These examples of collaboration involving innovative hardware and software exemplified the TEDGlobal meeting’s theme: ‘radical openness’. Other examples dealt with more everyday stuff. Need transport in France? Join Buzzcar, set up by Robin Chase, a serial entrepreneur in networks that enable people to borrow cars. Or join fiverr to find people to do useful things for you; or, for tough computing challenges, TopCoder; or visit Etsy to buy handmade anything.

Transportation, energy, education, food, health and climate change all have such sites or models. “We’re now bringing the power of companies and supercharging individuals,” says Chase. “But whereas industrial production produces a standard product, peer-production delivers a range of standards, from ‘yuck’ to ‘wow’.”

And that’s where online reputation management gets to matter, said social innovator Rachel Botsman. She highlighted ‘Chris M’, who has become famous for his provision of a service that many are only too delighted to use: assembling your new IKEA furniture. Go to the Taskrabbit website and you’ll find top-rated people competing for your business.

“We have wired our world to rent, barter or share anything, even pets,” said Botsman. But your reputation is a crucial asset in such networks. This helped Chris M to win bids for work and also to be in charge of his style and hours of business. So reputation has a tangible value. And there are millions of pieces of reputation data online. But reputation is largely contextual (being a great IKEA builder doesn’t help if applying for a research opportunity). So what data make sense? There is no single algorithm to answer that. So, said Botsman, build up a complete record of who has trusted you when, where and why.

So much for products and services provided by empowered individuals. But what about established businesses that wish to exploit the power of openness? Certainly some of them need to, says author Don Tapscott. For example, a 50-year-old gold-mining company had geologists who were unable to locate lodes of gold on large areas of its territory. But the chief executive didn’t fire them. Instead, he opened up the problem with a prize of US$500,000 to anyone who could help. The company proceeded to soar in value. So companies can gain by becoming porous and fluid, by pre-competitively sharing data and research.

TED talks are generally full of optimism — for TED speakers, the glass tends to be more than half full. Marc Goodman was one exception. Another was Pankaj Ghemawat, a ‘globalization thinker’ and author of the book World 3.0.

Globalization is vastly overestimated in the public imagination, he concluded after his own analysis of the global stats. Phone calls? Only 2% of them are international. Human mobility? First-generation immigrants amount to 3% of the world’s population. In 2010, less than 10% of investment was foreign direct investment. Ask people about such numbers and they will vastly overestimate them: when US citizens are asked how much of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid, most guess around 30%, whereas the true answer is 1%.

“I call this ‘globalony’,” said Ghemawat. “So why are we prone to this?” Main reason: there is a lot of talk but a dearth of data.

But does this matter, or is globalony harmless? “I say it’s harmful to your health,” says Ghemawat. “Recognizing that a glass is only 10–20% full allows us to see opportunities, and avoiding overstatement reduces and reverses peoples’ fears about globalization.” Ghemawat points to the debate in France about immigration. “People guess that 24% of the population are immigrants. The number is 8%! That might cool the debate.”

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