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[infowar.de] "911.net" by Bruce Sterling
by Bruce Sterling
Late last month I had the joy and privilege
of hanging out with a big crowd of American computer
scientists who were, basically, trying to find some
reasons to live.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, they've
definitely got some reasons.
When you go to a conference which is very high-energy,
with a lot of paradigmatic reassessment going on, where
ideas are being flung around bodily well outside the box,
well, that's an impressive thing. But it's my principle
as a sometime working journalist not to get all carried
away whenever I witness something like that. They might
well be drinking their own bathwater. This sort of thing
generally requires a reality check from some *other*
So, I'm now fresh back from Colorado, from the yearly
meeting of the High Ground Design Conversation. These are
my best pals in the industrial design world, some dear,
long-time friends of mine, whose judgment I always trust.
And why would a science fiction writer trust the judgment
of industrial designers? Well, because they're very
*trendy.* They're very shrewd, and very stylish, and very
hands-on people. They're peculiarly self-effacing and modest,
yet quite imaginative. Better yet, they're even practical.
So they're kind of like science fiction writers, only with
much better shoes.
Usually when I go to this High Ground event, I just
deliver some wacko chat about popular aspects of
cyberculture and then I take some worshipful notes. But!
I have to report that when I took them my notes from the
"CRA Grand Challenges in Computation" conference, I was
bringing the noise.
This is the first time I have ever seen their jaws
drop. They're still kinda wringing their hands over the
dotcom boom and the Ka-boom. They miss those glory days of
the World Wide Web == because for them, that was the
Graphic Designers Full Employment Act. So they're pretty
broke, and they're a little shell-shocked, so I guess they
should join the club. But when I brought them *this*
stuff == a rather extensively worked-out vision in
worldbuilding from the point of view of ubiquitous
computation in the 21st century... Well, of course this
is merely a scenario, but to me, "911.net" smells like the
And frankly, it doesn't smell good. But that's all
right. Because these aren't good times. These are rather
harsh, dark times, and in its own peculiar way, 911.net is
a similarly harsh, dark concept.
"Ubiquitous computation" is by no means a new idea.
The guy who invented the term is dead, and even his R&D
lab doesn't look all that great these days. Ubicomp has
been around for quite some time == in the table-napkin,
handwaving stage. But it's lacked the means, motive and
opportunity to get any real-world traction.
I believe that may be changing. If so, it's mostly due
to the events of September 11. After that experience,
ubicomp has got motive and opportunity as it never had
before. And the means, although they are still
speculative, are starting to make some sense.
What am I talking about when I use the term "ubicomp"?
Well, the term is a grab-bag, a congelation of different
technologies. Some are here, commercially available off
the shelf; some are in the lab; and some may be physically
Let's get down to some brass virtual tacks. What are
the key technical drivers for widely distributed, self-
organizing networks of sensors, processors and actuators,
embedded in the physical world? And what do you do with
Okay, number one: fuel cells. Not chemical
batteries. Small, portable, dependable, long-lasting,
power sources with some punch. They may not be fuel cells
as they are now known. They might be MEMS fuel cells, or
aluminum-air cells, or something enzymatic, I don't care;
just something much, much better than today's batteries.
Portable power is the crux. Ubicomp's future, if it has one,
entirely hinges on this. If we don't get some seriously
advanced, portable sources of power then everything I am
about to tell you is a sci-fi phantasm. (Not that there's
anything wrong with that!)
Number two, RFID. Radio-Frequency ID == gotta have
some taggers. Gotta be on the Net. It'd be nice if they
had some powered processors in them. Something internal,
pervasive, a little computational action that is going on
inside physical objects.
Number three, wireless broadband. Getting real close
Number four, dongles. I think this part is seriously
underappreciated. This is the weird part of ubicomp, the
part that may turn out to be its Achilles heel: some way
to turn the damn thing off. And to *know* it's off. The
problem of the authorized user. The authorized
administrator, the authorized access. This is likely to
play out as ubicomp's functional equivalent of the
Internet's intellectual-property problem. In other words,
it's a very serious issue which is going to be neglected
from the get-go, as people are eagerly building the basic
infrastructure. Then, as they lamely try to build it in
later, they are going to find out that they have
inadvertently poisoned the water-stream for everybody.
You don't want to wander into a Kazaa and Napster
version of George Orwell. Ubiquitous computation, unlike
information, does not "want to be free." This is not a
technology of freedom. Ubiquitous computation wants to
make you its slave. Try to remember that, for all our
sakes, all right? This is not a water-cooler for gossip,
like the Internet is. This is a hard-case, hard-times,
hands-on, rather ruthless command-and-control system.
Number five, GPS, global positioning systems. Been
there, done that.
Number six, convoy traffic. I think this is also
underestimated, for when I started looking at serious
applications for ubicomp, time and again, rapidly shipping
large amounts of physical material in and out of the
ubicomp zone is a killer application. Getting stuff in,
numbering it, assembling it, moving it out. Lots of it.
Train loads, truck loads, bus loads. And airlifts.
Bringing up the van, a whole bunch of other ubi-stuff,
of varying degrees of use and practicality. High speed
fiber optic networks, check. Massive storage and routers,
check. Big databases, check, but they need to be fast and
flexible. Some "MobiHoc" action: mobile ad-hoc self-
assembling networks: networks that are always
reconfiguring in real-time, always on the move.
Facial recognition has a considerable number of
ubicomp applications, by no means all of them good. Human
presence-sensing systems? Oh yes. Ruggedized hardware
suitable for outdoor deployment in all conditions and
weathers. Real-time simulation of ongoing major
situations. Toxin detectors of various kinds,
environmental monitoring of almost every sort, biometric
ID... I have a long list of these. I'm cross-checking
them. I'm using them to build scenarios.
One thing about 911.net makes it very distinct from
earlier visions of ubicomp. This is not Microsoft Windows
for Housekeeping. This is a hard, tough web that you
throw down fast over dire emergencies. The key concept
here is that we are finally moving computation out of the
ivory tower, for good and all. No more glass boxes of the
1950s, no more clean abstractions of cyberspace. We are
deploying computation at unheard-of speed, into the
darkest, dirtiest, most dangerous places in the world.
It is a resilient security apparatus for emergencies.
That is 911.net.
Now, you might well argue that ubicomp is very
invasive of privacy. That's just what my industrial
design pals said about it, immediately, and they were
right. It's been hard to find reasonable deployments for
ubicomp in peacetime commerce and in private homes,
because it is so Orwellian. However. Under certain
circumstances, other social circumstances do trump this
For instance, when you are breathing your last under a
pile of earthquake rubble, you don't really care much
about privacy under your circumstances. What you really
want is a smart bulldozer, a tourniquet, and some direct
pressure against your open wounds. And that is what
911.net is about == or will be about, should it find its
way out of the computer-science talking-shop and into
It is an emergency response system for the planet's
open wounds. And those wounds exist in plenty. There are
more of them all the time.
I rather doubt that the Orwellian version of ubicomp
has much of a future. That's a scenario that I have
dubbed "Terrorspace", which is ubicomp in the context of
airports and nuclear power sites. If you've been in
airports recently, I believe you are seeing a pretty apt,
early version of Terrorspace. At any random moment, you
can have your possessions rifled through by strangers.
Your shoes are scanned, and various small but vital
objects in your pockets can be confiscated by semi-
educated security geeks. They're either pathetically
under-trained for the job (in which case you certainly
feel no safer), or else they are intelligent and capable
people (in which case you pity them and wish they had some
other job, for the sake of general human happiness and the
GNP). Rather than making us any safer, Terrorspace
airports serve as political indoctrination centers that
humiliate our voting population on a broad scale. They are
meant to inure us to ever-escalating levels of
governmental clumsiness and general harm.
The difficulty with this Terrorspace approach is that
airports and airlines are going broke. Airports are
hemorrhaging money trying to maintain this terrorspace
apparatus. It is likely to spread to the brittle power of
nuclear power plants, nuclear waste dumps, bio-sites,
chemical sites, liquid petroleum gas centers and so forth.
That will hugely increase the overhead of all these
That's a very considerable tax burden. So, though
Terrorspace may serve as a full employment program for the
loyal and slightly stupid, that's not going to pay off
socially or economically in the long run.
However, 911.net is a different matter. An air-
deployable 911.net that allowed first responders to
rapidly deal with fires, floods and other major disasters
would *save* money, especially for the insurers, who are
already on the ropes.
The actual September 11 event, 9/11, was a rare and
remarkable thing. And, with fewer than 3,000 people dead,
it's just not that big a deal as genuine catastrophes go.
Politically, theologically and militarily it was huge, but
a workaday 911.net wouldn't fret much about terrorism.
Instead, it would have to deal mostly with floods, fires,
climate change, earthquakes, volcanoes and (let's hope
never) asteroids and weapons of mass destruction.
So, basically, with 911.net, we are describing a social
re-definition of computer geeks as firemen. Native
twenty-first century computer geeks as muscular, with-it,
first-responder types. I think this would be pretty good
for the computer industry. We all need to take the
dysfunctional physical world far more seriously. This
week, Italy's flooding, Texas is flooding, Colorado's on
fire. This morning, the brand-new wilderness forests
around the site of the former Chernobyl are on fire,
spewing radioactive ash hither and yon. Chunks of
Antarctica the size of Rhode Island have fallen into the
sea. I could go on.
This is the sort of activity that humanity is required
to deal with in this new century. If we build a successful
method with which to do this, those useful tactics will
spread across the fabric of our civilization. I believe
they are already spreading. An innovation like 911.net
will likely serve as a camel's nose in the tent for a
whole series of ubicomp applications across society.
I've been speculating about these new forms of
ubicomp, and giving them some flashy neologisms, because
that is what science fiction writers bring to the table.
We build little scenario worlds and make up names for
them. First we've got "911.net," then "Terrorspace," but
there are others.
BATTLESPACE. A term already much-used by the Pentagon.
Battlespace means military C4ISR. The "Revolution in
Military Affairs." I would point out that the military,
unlike some sectors, is not reneging on their enthusiastic
commitment to the digital revolution. On the contrary. I
haven't seen anybody in the military saying that they long
to go back to the good-old-fashioned, solid, easy-to-
understand methods of the War in Vietnam. The military
are very into "network-centric warfare," and they couldn't
be happier about their spysats and surveillance drones.
PROSTHETIC UBICOMP. This is eldercare. A huge, steadily
growing market. Alzheimer's disease is a flat-out domestic
catastrophe that lasts seven years. Any computational
help here == in elder-proofing spaces, tracking the sick
and so forth == would be of huge benefit to society.
CRADLE.NET. Babies have no privacy. Children have little
privacy. Child-proofing a room against a crawling tot...
if you've ever done this, you can realize how much use it
might be to have this process automated. Any two-year-old
always wonders: "Why can't Mr Fork and Miss Wall Socket
be friends?" A real-time checklist, at the very least!
And then we're faced with the interesting, large-scale
prospects of "K-12.net."
STREET.NET. This would be traffic management and urban
systems management. Water networks, power networks,
subways, sidewalks and so forth.
PUNISH.NET. Two million people are in the American prison
population. They've got no privacy. They've gotta be
watched all the time. They're basically crammed in iron
INDUSTRIAL UBICOMP. Managing supply chains, industrial
assembly and so forth. This will eventually be the
SO/HO UBICOMP. Ubicomp in the home, the home office and
small office. Some very interesting consumer uses here,
but in the grand scheme of things, not that big a deal.
SAFETYSPACE. These would be military bases, U.N. safety
zones, refugee camps, and disaster evacuation centers.
It's fairly easy to imagine ubiquitous computation as a
sinister "gated community" that walls off privileged areas
under threat. But we can also think of it as importing
some human comfort, solidarity, mercy and safety into
various benighted areas that are severely disturbed. One
can imagine a Gorazde UN safe zone version of this, new
and improved of course: a black helicopter ghosts over in
the dead of night, deploys a scattering of small drones,
smart-mines and sensors, and suddenly the war just stops
within these bounds of Safetyspace. Rapine, looting,
sacking, smashing and burning are ruled out of existence
through computer awareness. The handiness of a technique
like that for life in the 21st century... well, it might
be a bit underestimated.
And last, coming up with a bullet should the good times
return in all their carefree glory: UBITOPIA. This I
take to be ubicomp as an Urban Entertainment Destination.
You go there for fun just because there is cool, wacky
stuff embedded in the physical world, and it's behaving in
a way that brings joy and hilarity and good spirits, like
the funhouse mirror at a digital carnival.
When and if Ubitopia really hits, it will mean that
humanity's basic relationship with our material goods has
been radically redefined. That is the apotheosis of
ubiquitous computation. Just: material goods, and the way
we deal with them, are different. Different in character,
different in quality. Not recognizable by 20th century
So. I have no idea if the Homeland Security
department, or FEMA or DARPA or the NSF, are going to pony
up any money for any of these notions. That's not my
lookout. I'm a science fiction writer. And ladies and
gentlemen, with this material, I have struck platinum.
This stuff is really hot. This is a great, attractive,
contemporary idea that is really new, really different,
and really ominous. The implications are huge and they
spread across the board of society. I am going to be a
very busy guy with this material. If you want to help me,
send some email.
Thanks a lot for your attention.
Speech at TTI Vanguard: "Designing for Resiliency"
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