“It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future,” says a proverb often attributed to Yogi Berra. Imagine the world of freedom, or lack of it. Who could foresee the technologies that make our lives so rewarding and convenient? The same technologies have us all under the government’s giant microscope. Thankfully, the brave have turned the microscope around.
In the months since Edward Snowden revealed the nature and extent of the spying that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been perpetrating upon Americans and foreigners, some of the NSA's most troublesome behavior has not been a part of the public debate.
The problem for NSA apologist is that when guys like Snowden disclose that the government conducts comprehensive surveillance in ways that would have made 1984’s O’Brien drool, it puts the entire progressive agenda in jeopardy.
The east coast and parts of the southern U.S. were to varying degrees paralyzed by blizzards a few weeks ago. The snow as expected rendered the roads treacherous, and in anticipation of slick streets, shoppers flocked to the grocery stores in advance.The rush into grocery stores, and its aftermath, offers worthwhile lessons in economics.First up, […]
The financial world is plodding along like a drunken sailor avoiding debt collectors by keeping no cash in his wallet. It’s not the kind of calm that’s going to last or end well. But the storm will have to wait until after the Olympics.What a game! We’ve never watched ice hockey closely before. But watching […]
In times of war and national emergency, it’s sometimes necessary to sacrifice civil liberties to secure vital gains in public safety. In those cases, we may have to accept a loss of privacy or freedom rather than invite mass slaughter of Americans.The National Security Agency’s domestic phone records collection is not one of those.Never have […]
Last year was quite the year for Bitcoin. We’ve seen exponential growth in Bitcoin’s exchange rate and extensive coverage in the media. Another phenomenon we have witnessed is the proliferation of alternative cryptocurrencies, five of which we’ve provided below.What all of these cryptocurrencies have in common is that they rely on a decentralized network to […]
Image: ShutterstockBitInstant CEO Charlie Shrem, along with alleged co-conspirator Robert Faiella, was arrested by federal authorities last week for allegedly laundering more than $1 million worth of Bitcoins. This is a tiny amount compared to the largest drug-and-terrorism money laundering case ever. Yet when British bank HSBC was found guilty in 2012 of laundering billions, […]
The exercise had an awesome name, inspired by the movies: “Quantum Dawn 2.”On July 18, scads of U.S. banks, stock exchanges and government agencies took part in a digital fire drill — a practice run in the event all of Wall Street came under massive cyberattack.This isn’t the first time banks have come under an […]
The faces of the Detroit bankruptcy are the thousands of pensioners whose promised benefits are suddenly part of the restructure negotiation. When Motown filed for Chapter 9 last July, the city had $11.5 billion in unsecured liabilities. The vast majority of this was pension and health care benefits owed to retired city employees.The images of […]
The New York Times published an interminable article on health care recently. Plenty of facts — how scrupulous are these journalists! — but the article displayed absolutely no comprehension of the basics of cause and effect. I was left wondering about the whole point.The article details how the health care system rewards specialists to an […]
We’ve pointed out in the past that President Obama’s views on the surveillance state shifted completely from when he was Senator to when he was President. As Senator, he supported a bunch of reforms that are very much like the ones his panel have suggested — and which he’s about to ignore. The NY Times […]
Bitcoins are largely considered digital currency (or “crypto currency”) so you’d expect it to be treated like currency on a retail web site. But the Internal Revenue Service might not think so.
The great inventors/businessmen of the First Industrial Revolution, such as James Watt and Matthew Boulton of steam-engine fame, were not just smart but privileged. Most were either born into the ruling class or lucky enough to be apprenticed to one of the elite. For most of history since then, entrepreneurship has meant either setting up […]
Both research and production look poised for a revolution as 3-D printing applies its high-tech charms to the business of creating chemical compounds and turns the production of medicine into a DIY project.
“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”When Capt. Jean-Luc Picard wants a steaming beverage in his ready room aboard the starship Enterprise, he just utters those words. The ship’s “replicator” then assembles the necessary atoms — including those for the cup — and produces it, ready for the drinking. Picard thinks nothing of it — it’s hardly more […]
The market has selected different things as money throughout history. Some of these items have served as money in isolated places for specific periods of time — for instance, cigarettes in prisoner-of-war camps. Cigarettes continue to be a currency in prisons if allowed, but if not, according to Wikipedia, “postage stamps have become a more […]
[Ed. Note: This article originally published on Jan. 24, 2013]Stocks up. Gold down. Bitcoin… waaay up.The S&P 500 busted through the 1,500 mark this morning. Stocks haven’t been this expensive since 2007… right before they got a whole lot cheaper… for a whole lot longer. Gold, meanwhile, dipped a tad. This, despite central bankers of […]
Before the housing market collapsed and the government pumped billions into the economy to save it, there was a programmer named Satoshi Nakamoto. And without much fanfare, he created an idea that’s in the process of changing the world. His idea was Bitcoin.Some background information is in order before I go any further.Think back to […]
Americans are still trying to get a handle on the full extent of the government’s domestic spying activities, including the recent revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting and storing the email address books of ordinary Americans using online messaging services. Many users of such services are looking to tech executives for […]
The online Internet exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act are up and running.OK, they’re up. Uhh, OK, some of them are sort of up.It has been almost a week since last Tuesday’s initial launch, and there have been more than a few problems.Website crashes, excessive response times and other problems have plagued the exchanges. […]
A growing consensus of IT experts, outside and inside the government, have figured out a principal reason why the website for Obamacare’s federally sponsored insurance exchange is crashing. Healthcare.gov forces you to create an account and enter detailed personal information before you can start shopping.This, in turn, creates a massive traffic bottleneck, as the government […]
As much as I love technology, part of me hates being so dependent on a live wall plug wherever I go. You find yourself trapped in some setting without accessible wall plugs and your phone is dying. You charge from you laptop, but that is dying too. You take recourse to your tablet, but that […]
U.S. and British intelligence agencies have successfully cracked much of the online encryption relied upon by hundreds of millions of people to protect the privacy of their personal data, online transactions and emails, according to top-secret documents revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden.The files show that the National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ […]
Today, like most days, I fired up my computer.I read freely available information on the latest developments in technology that would, in the not too distant past, have required a drive to a library to flip through journals too numerous for me to afford. I read the latest national and global news without having to […]
On a Sunday afternoon swim, a 6-year-old boy was bugging me in a sweet sort of way. He rode up and down the handrail on the stairs in the shallow end of the pool where I was trying to sit in peace. He was laughing and talking, but I couldn’t understand a word through the […]
I’ve just completed a heavy schedule of talks at the Agora Financial Investment Symposium in Vancouver. All my talks centered on information economics, Web startups, and the productivity of the Internet and its meaning. As usual, I learned as much from the attendees as (I hope) they learned from my talks. The research I did […]
I’ve just completed a heavy schedule of talks at the Agora Financial Investment Symposium in Vancouver. All my talks centered on information economics, Web startups, and the productivity of the Internet and its meaning. As usual, I learned as much from the attendees as (I hope) they learned from my talks. The research I did to prepare blew my mind concerning the role that the digital revolution has played in our lives.
How huge has it become? Well, 2.5 billion people use the Internet every day, and that’s nearly 80% in North America, 67% in Europe, and 43% in Latin America. I suspect that Africa’s usage of 15.6% is actually underreported, because smartphones are flooding the continent by the day.
Other interesting data include: Nearly 140,000 new websites go live every day, half of users bank online, and social networking users hang out on sites 3.2 hours a day! One point really burned into my mind, because I remember a time in the late 1990s when users were busy burning as much of the Internet as they could onto CDs. It turns out that if you tried to use your home computer today to download all existing content, it could take as long as…wait for it…11 trillion years.
The “cloud” has become the new world in which we live, communicate, network, build our professional and family lives, distribute what we know, find out new things, and generally manage the whole of our lives. The migration to the cloud intensifies in speed and substance every day. If you look at a map of what’s going on, you realize something else. No one in particular is building this world. It is being built without design by the individual choices of people, one choice at a time.
I can’t help but compare this new world with the old. The old world was governed by nation-states with borders and strict organizational charts and categories and plans for all things. The new world transcends states, borders, charts, and plans. It is a spontaneous order, extended constantly by people’s desire to know and connect. It is the most poignant and beautiful example in our midst of the capacity of people to organize their lives on their own, with the assistance of merchants, coders, promoters, entrepreneurs, and property holders.
The CEO of Google recently summed it up in this profound statement: “The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had.”
By “doesn’t understand,” he means that no one person can possibly comprehend the extent, structure, or direction of this order that is emerging in our time. The knowledge that makes it possible is decentralized among billions of users themselves, each of whom grasps only the discrete choices that he or she is making at any one instant. You can see the whole only in the way that you can only see the fullness of a city by flying above it and looking down. The orderliness of it all becomes clear. But from that vantage point, you miss the detail that makes it all work.
The political implications have yet to dawn on this generation. We somehow keep pretending as if governments are in charge. They are not. Yes, they loot, menace, regulate, posture, preen, and hector. But they do not finally control. It simply is not possible. Even the strictest regulations that exist in places like China are a national joke.
If people really understood the implications of the rise of the global order in the digital cloud, everyone the world over would completely bail out of the illusion that our analog-age governments can make any kind of positive contribution to our future.
I was thrilled that there were so many people from older generations who attended my talks and paid such careful attention. They asked so many wonderful questions. Even my discussions of cutting-edge issues like Bitcoin drew an intense amount of interest from older people. This completely defies the stereotype, which I’m convinced is a canard.
Older people see their kids working in industries in which the Internet is central. It has saved them from loneliness by keeping them connected to their kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids. They see their grandchildren starting businesses on the Web, and watch in amazement as the great-grandkids use new tools so effortlessly.
They see the future, and they’re thrilled to see that it is bright. They want to know that when they leave this world, they will leave behind a world of hope and promise. They are seeing hope in this sector, and it thrills them.
Sometimes I play with an alternative history in my mind, one in which the Internet had never been opened to the private sector and there had not been any technological progress since, say, 1990. I’m pretty sure the economic environment would be dreadful beyond anything that’s been experienced in hundreds of years. Despair would have swept the Earth by now. Governments — their taxes, regulations, money manipulations, and controls — would have killed off any hope of prosperity.
But that didn’t happen. We were bequeathed this glorious new space in which to build and live, and it is largely a place that government cannot control with anywhere near the ability with which they once managed the physical world. The innovation essentially gave civilization another shot at survival after humankind made such a mess of the world in the past. Digital spaces unleashed humankind’s creative energy when the masters of the physical world had almost killed it off.
People asked me about my optimism. The best case I can make for it is as follows.
The state in all times and all places wants a population of despairing, dreary, hopeless, and weighted-down people. Why? Because such people don’t do anything. They are predictable, categorizable, pliable, and, essentially, powerless. Such people offer no surprises, threaten no change, and destabilize nothing. This is the ideal world that the bureaucrats, the plutocrats, and the technocrats desire. It makes their lives easy and the path clear. Today is just like yesterday and tomorrow — forever. This is the machine that the state wants to manage, a world of down-in-the-dumps and obedient citizens of the society they think they own.
In contrast, hope upsets the prevailing order. It sees things that don’t yet exist. It acts on a promise of a future different from today. It plays with the uncertainty of the future and dares imagine that ideals can become reality. Those who think this way are a threat to every regime. Why? Because people who think this way eventually come to act this way. They resist. They rebel. They overthrow.
Yet look around: We see progress everywhere. What does this imply? It implies that noncompliance is the human norm. People cannot be forever pressed into a mold of the state’s making. The future will happen, and it will be shaped by those who dare to break bad, dare to disagree, and dare to take the risk to overthrow in favor of what can be.
I realized all this some years ago, and when you begin to look around and see how the power elites do not and cannot rule, you discover the whole secret to social order. It turns out that they are not really in control, not finally. Then it all becomes fun.
It is a blast to see the powerful topple from the thrones they want to sit in so badly. It is a thrill to use and hold technologies, as we know them, that no one among the elite ever gave permission to exist. It is a kick to see how the market — meaning human beings acting with vision toward the future — is so constantly outwitting the arrogant planners who want to freeze history, control our minds, and wreck our world.
To defy them is so simple: Just imagine a future better than the present. You become an enemy of the state, and you begin to love every minute of it. You become part of the solution and see that your life and energies are worthwhile and making a difference. How fortunate we all are to be living in these times.