“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 am one of those people who has a seriously deficient sense of direction. In other words, I feel lost most of the time. It’s been this way since I was very young. My parents would take me camping. As soon as I walked out of eyesight of the tent, I was lost and they had to come find me.
As I grew older, the problem never improved. In school, I could never find classrooms or even the buildings. I had to follow people I knew were in the same class. I would leave stores and turn the opposite direction from which I came.
As a driver, it took me years to get to know streets. I would wander for hours looking for my car in parking lots. I would come to new cities and have an overwhelming sense of spatial disorientation.
I adapted over the years with certain habits, which really amount to staying put. If I’m where I am supposed to be, I stay there until I have to be somewhere else, and then I depend on taxis or the kindness of strangers to help me find my way. I never wander far. I’m generally just happy to not be turning in circles, as in some film noir classic, and experiencing that strange sense that I’m a goner, as in The Blair Witch Project.
It must have been about five years ago when I picked up my first GPS device to use in my car. I got the idea after seeing one in operation in a friend’s car. It was a luxury item for the rich. After a few years, it was available to the rest of us.
At the time, some people thought of it as a fancy map and nothing more. For me, it was different. I suspected that this device would change my life, and I was right.
Indeed, the change was so dramatic that it took me six months or so even to believe what had happened. I would never be lost again. I could actually leave my hotel and find it again. I could drive in cities where I had never been. I experienced what it must be like to be suddenly granted sight after a lifetime of blindness.
Even now, I’m still correcting my habits in light of the new realization that I cannot be lost. I can always find my way.
The other day, I was digging around in my glove box and pulled out an old friend, my TomTom 500. I laughed. It seemed like an antique! Now my GPS navigator is on my smartphone as part of the core technology. It talks to me, has an active screen, tells me where I am whether driving or walking, and gives me alternative routes. And this navigation is built into many apps, so I can find a restaurant, grocery store, or movie theater anywhere I happen to be, whether in my neighborhood or somewhere on the other side of the planet.
Not only that: Stand-alone GPS units are still on the market and they look better than ever. TomTom is still going strong, but it has competitors that offer more amazing features.
Do you remember the hysteria about how the iPhone changed its mapping solution? Outrage followed. A few weeks later, everyone decided, “Hmm, this is pretty good, after all.” Well, this new mapping solution had its origin in my own TomTom antique that is now seriously with the times. And TomTom’s stock is on the rise with a possible takeover by Apple. Meanwhile, for those who like Google’s mapping solution, there’s an app for that too (and it’s free).
It’s astonishing, if you think about it. No one born less than 10 years ago will ever have to experience the sense of anxiety and fear that comes with spatial disorientation (unless, of course, he forgets his device). This fear had shaped my life and my pattern of living in ways that I had not entirely realized until it was fixed by technology made available through the private sector. No one in the future will have that same life handicap.
Another human problem is solved. It should be added to the list of problems solved: widespread malnutrition, common infant death, diseases like scurvy and polio, ignorance of essential facts of life, the inability to communicate with people outside your immediate community, the inability to travel without terrible danger, freezing in winter, and so on. There are millions of problems that vex humanity, but people in the private commercial sector are solving them one by one, whenever they are allowed to.
Now, those of you who know about GPS are immediately objecting: The core technology was a government innovation and it is still maintained by government. But look more closely. The idea behind GPS was an innovation of several scientists working for universities, not government. Government saw its usefulness for espionage and nationalized it, keeping it under extreme secrecy for decades and not letting any commercial companies develop it.
It was one of the few achievements of the Reagan administration that it finally loosened up in 1983 and gave GPS to the commons. No one cared at the time. The truth is that this event was huge and important. It was just the beginning. Whereas Reagan’s solution kept the best digital real estate for the military, Clinton went even further and unleashed the whole of the energy to the commercial sector. That’s when the innovation and glory began.
In other words, GPS is like the Internet, generally: something that was of little or no benefit to humanity until the government permitted the private sector to go in, energize it, and make it wonderful. And it has changed life for millions, not only for spatial idiots like me, but for everyone. In the future, and probably in the present, it will seem utterly bizarre to anyone that people would not know where they were or how to get where they want to go.
For most of 2.6 million years, people had no idea where they were on the globe. The Bible tells us that the children of Israel wandered aimlessly in the desert for a full 40 years. Then, about 500 years ago, we had some sense that there were distant oceans and lands, and we developed better means to represent these features of the world in 2-D (which we call mapping).
Mapmakers became more precise in the 20th century. Now here we are, holding a device in our hands, something available to the masses that not only pinpoints our whereabouts with absolute certainty, but tells us where everything we want is.
In all my reading, I can’t recall anyone drawing attention to this dramatic change in the social order and in our sense of the possible. We have found ourselves. We know where we are — after millions of years of struggle. It’s all happened for each of us only in the last five years.
I recall no big announcement that said: Humanity is hereby saved from being lost! No. Not even the official TomTom website includes a word about the history of the company or its technology. As is typical in the private sector, one finds a striking humility. Entrepreneurs rarely congratulate themselves on the past, but rather constantly look to the future.
Who or what granted unto us this astonishing knowledge of time and place? If you answered that question correctly, you have a sense of what will drive future progress. It was only once government relinquished its monopoly that the commercial marketplace was able to swing into action, make the dream real, and improve the lives of millions of human souls just like me.
Excuse me while I check in using my FourSquare app, which knows where I am and where I want to be. I need all the help I can get.
(A version of this piece originally appeared in The Freeman, a publication of the Foundation for Economic Education.)