On Shouldermonkeys and Corporate Big Brothers

Technopolis 1.1, by Michael Jensen
originally published in Breeze, November, 1995.

I want my ShoulderMonkey. I want to be able to ask the little box that rides on my shoulder: Who was the narrator of Moby Dick? Who was Lincoln's secretary of state? When was it I met Ted Nelson? Which bar has Pilsner Urquelle? Where was I when I first used the term ShoulderMonkey?

It'll come. Assuming I survive ten years, or even five years, I'll have one. But I'm impatient. I'm ready for it NOW. And here's the reason for my impatience: my ShoulderMonkey only needs a few things-- voice recognition, language parsing, voice generation, a wireless link to my own encyclopedic database of my own experience, and a wireless link to an encyclopedic resource. "Oh, is that all," I've been asked sarcastically. Yes, that's all, and we have it all now.

We have voice recognition software and hardware--you train it to your own voice, your own diction, over a few weeks, correcting it as you go. After training, it knows how you speak, and does a creditable job generating a dictated letter.

We have language parsing--for the last four years, in a variety of venues, computer mechanisms for turning the vulgate into structured queries have existed. I ask "how many widgets have I sold to Framish Incorporated in the last six months" and the software generates the appropriate database query.

We have free-form databases that can reside on a PC, which automatically records the date of an entry, allowing it to be retrieved up at whim.

We have the Encyclopedia Brittanica Online (currently available only in subscription mode to universities at $1/student/year, but soon to be sold to individuals), with its astonishing search and retrieval mechanism which can interpret "Lincoln's Secretary of State" as "President Lincoln" not "Lincoln, Nebraska", "Secretary" as a big cheese in politics rather than a wageslave coordinator of events and phonecalls, and "State" as "Nation" rather than "function of existence."

We have wireless communications in place, or being put in place, through a variety of digital mechanisms including satellite links, subsonics, infrared communications, cellular telephony, digital radio, and the like.

So I ask my ShoulderMonkey who the narrator of Moby Dick was. It transforms that into a text string which is then sent cellularly to my home machine, which decides that that's a Brittanica question, sends it off over the Internet to the Encyclopedia Online (or out into free etherspace--but that's another article). The question is parsed, searched for, and, if a single answer obtains, sends that answer back to my home machine, which sends it back to my 'Monkey, which whispers the answer in my ear like some Senator's aide.

So where's my ShoulderMonkey? I want it now. It's what is, to my mind, the Next Big Thing, because my ShoulderMonkey will be what lets me turn on my air conditioning an hour before I arrive home, will let me check my voicemail (and e-mail) as I drive, will keep track of my schedule ("when was that meeting I was having with Sam?"), my checkbook balance ("can pay this now or do I have to charge it?"), and my credit balance ("Shit. So do I have enough space on my Visa to get this widget?"), not to mention innumerable other dumb tasks and even dumber record-keeping.

Is this the natural technological answer to Attention Deficit Disorder? Yes. Is this like some perverse version of <2001's> HAL? Perhaps. Is there tremendous potential for 1984-style abuse? Sure. Are there going to be "schedule hackers" who use your data to generate mechanisms for advertisers to somehow get a Coke advert to you moments before you get to the next Coke machine? Why not? They may even pay you for the privilege.

What the ShoulderMonkey is, to me, is this: a touchstone for decisionmaking. We have had, as a political body and a social system, a *reactive* policy-making habit. That is, our decisions--our policies, our laws, our conventions--have been generated in reaction to changes in our capabilities as a people. Antitrust laws didn't exist until Big Steel and Railroad interests generated the need for them. "Common Carrier" laws didn't exist until well after telephone systems were possible.

Well of course, you say. But that doesn't really work anymore, and it certainly doesn't work for technology policy. Things are changing too fast. We're in a transformation period, driven by technological change. If we as a nation make policy only *re*actively, we citizens will get left behind. We citizens must begin to believe a tenet of the nanotechnology movement: we must plan based on the principle that what we can conceive, as a species, we will eventually actualize.

Whatever we can imagine, we can eventually make.

That astonishing proposition is also quickly becoming obvious. As I read in the August issue of , some biomathematicians have made a DNA computer which can solve the DES encryption algorithm, in about three months, something which would take supercomputers gazillions of years to decrypt. It's outrageously massive parallel computing, which is perfect for some kinds of problems--particularly those where simply trying out trillions of possibilities and keeping track of the success rates results in a final "best" answer. And as Richard Adelman, the conceiver of this process, slightly hyperbolizes, "it can be done in a bathtub."

We are living in a period of unprecedented technological and scientific development. That truism we've finally come to accept. But what we aren't doing is getting past that and beginning to make policy with the expectations of the future in mind.

The ShoulderMonkey is a natural result of the technologies available right now. It will serve human needs for simplifying--and perhaps even making elegant--the mundane aspects of our lives. The ShoulderMonkey also is an example of what we should be imagining as we make digital policy today, even though we can't yet buy it at Radio Shack.

The current thrust of technology and telecommunications deregulation is still reactive, though Congress is trying to restructure and deregulate the entire industry. Many of the Big Money Boys, who see the dollar signs in the future, have a clearer notion of what's possible than Congress does. Consequently, and with the help of campaign contributions, they are driving the debate. Because the people on the street aren't well informed about what's going on in technology--how fast it's moving, what's possible, how it might affect us--we don't understand what they're doing.

It's incumbent upon all of us to begin thinking about what's inevitable technologically, and become informed about how legislative actions taken today may affect the scope of possibilities tomorrow.

Here's a simple one: there are two models of digital cash--the kind of money used for automatic payments for everything from a burger to your rent---that are under discussion right now. In one, the bankers and credit card folks keep explicit records of everything you spend. Current law does not prohibit them using that information in creative ways--like selling your consumer profile to advertisers, like generating "likely criminal" profiles for the police, like generating "dangerous insurance risks" profiles. These profiles could be exceedingly lucrative--even moreso than banking.

The other model is a "blind transaction" system, where my payment is confirmed by the bank, and arrives guaranteed from me to you, without records ever being kept on what the transaction was *for*. This is as much like cash as it can be in the digital environment. Will that allow a huge black market to flourish? Potentially. Will that encourage a flat federal transaction tax, instead of an income tax? Perhaps. It will also hamper a corporate Big Brother.

This small decision--of what model of digital cash to use as the "standard"--has broad ramifications for the kind of nation, and the kind of world, we can expect.

I personally don't want to have tailored ad for CarReNu being inserted into my cable feed because Amex knows that I just bought a used car. But I do want my ShoulderMonkey to help the mundane aggravations of my life. Must we have one to have the other? I don't think so--but that's the way the Big Money Boys are trying to make it.

In order for us to understand these things, we need to be imagining the future. We can make the world we choose, as long as we know what we're aiming for, and as long as we don't completely abdicate the authority to make the decisions about technology and policy. If we let the Microsofts and the BankCards and the TCIs and Disneys decide our future by creating the playing field in their own interests, we will have one set of possible futures. If we can make sure that technology is aimed at improving society as well as providing a capital bonanza, then we'll have a different set of possible futures. This set of futures looks much more humane to me.

As an alarming postscript--Congress has effectively killed the Office of Technology Assessment, a small-budget collection of scientists, researchers, and analysts who wrote nonpartisan and noncommercial reports for Congress about the current state of knowledge of, and the implications of, various technical issues--the true cost of energy, the mechanisms and and potentials for recycling, the effectiveness of medical treatments, etc. My brother is an analyst there, so I got to hear about this inside-the-beltway murder from the inside. They are (were) a truly shining example of what government can do well: they produced objective, detailed, broadbased reports that were used to inform the rulemakers, and which were frequently cited by researchers and reporters alike.

Without the OTA, there will be no institutional bodies for Congress to turn to for objective information about the impact of technology. Whether nefariously intended or not, that's the result. And this will lead to bad public policy.

The foxes want to guard the coop. The guys that think of us as "consumers" are trying to define our future for us. We have to use our own imaginations to define it for ourselves--and to defend ourselves from the carnivores.

Over to Technopolis 1.2, MonkeyCams and Change

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