Paul Canning: Tomorrow’s World + the NSA: James Burke Reflects
James Burke is a British broadcasting legend, one who any Brit over 45 years old would recognise as the face of technological progress.
Most familiar as the chief presenter of the long-running BBC science series ‘Tomorrow’s World’, he also anchored the Moon landing coverage and has written many influential books. The Washington Post has called him “one of the most intriguing minds in the Western world.”
He may be familiar to Americans for his hit PBS series charting how technological progress happens, ‘Connections’, and his writing for Scientific American and Time.
Writing in 1973 for BBC magazine Radio Times he predicted life today and marking that 40th anniversary the BBC has looked back to see how his predictions stack up: they mostly do. He predicted the mass take-up of computers, in-vitro fertilisation and cheap air travel.He got right that the British people would resist identity cards. He got wrong that there would be 300,000 computer terminals by 2000 - there were 134 million.
Burke also predicted “metadata banks” of personal information - Facebook, Google - and that “young people” would be completely relaxed about releasing their personal information.
Speaking to the BBC’s Eddie Mair (audio after the jump), Burke was asked about this attitude to privacy in the light of the current panic about government and privacy.
Burke says that issues like transparency and accountability are new, they have come forward because of the Internet, the ‘information age’. That the general public now has access to more information, and is demanding it - this is “healthy”. But matters of privacy are contextual:
When street numbers came out in the Austro-Hungarian empire in the 1820s there were riots, because nobody wanted others to know what your street number was. Times change. When you tick a box when you buy something online that allows them to put you in their big data pile and find out what you’d really like next time.
Walmart does 300 million transactions an hour and they use that information, for example, when there is a big hurricane predicted they’ll put torches on the shelves exactly where you want to buy them. And pop-tarts because, believe it or not, that’s what people buy when there’s going to be a hurricane.
So it’s a quid pro quo.
Asked if he’s content with this situation (which he had predicted) Burke reflects that when he visited the Soviet Union he was told to be careful of what he said, ‘because everyone is listening’. Says Burke:
Of course they’re not listening. If they had to listen to everything we said in hotel rooms in the USSR in those days they’d be up all day and night.
So called snooping is them looking for metadata, not what you say. Not what you said to Charlie but the fact you talked to Charlie. If Charlie’s unimportant and you’re unimportant the thing they’re happiest to do is dump it because the pile is unmanageably big now.
So called Big Data, the electronic exhaust we leave behind, is unbelievably large and growing at extrapolated rates. Nobody is going to ask me what I said to somebody on the phone yesterday afternoon, they’re not interested. The algorithm will say ‘I see he’s talking to so-and-so and it’s not relevant to us’, and that’s as far as it will go. There’s no other way you can run the system anywhere.
So you’re unperturbed by the NSA and the Edward Snowden revelations and all that?
We’ve been doing that since we left the caves. Anybody who thinks that government’s have not been taking what they can about public behaviour, they haven’t understood the political process.
Of course everyone does it, of course they’ve always done it. Seems to me the press has jumped on the idea that people are snooping without recognising that the amounts of data are so gigantically enormous that there is no way that the NSA cares a rat’s ass about me or you.
We’re in a transition period. I don’t think it’ll be that long before we’ll be able to throw out our own search algorithms to, say, find out if anybody is looking at me!
There’s always a quid-pro-quo with technology. There’s always two sides to every knife.
Speaking about the future, Burke cites one development which will fundamentally change the world: nano-factories. (Video about this after the jump.)