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Mobile World . . . Revolution

by Mark W. Hibben

Eric Schmidt Shares his Vision of the Future at Mobile World Congress

Soon to be ex-CEO of Google Eric Schmidt seems to be settling comfortably into his role as technology futurist, judging by his keynote at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on February 15.  His presentation was long on philosophy, trend observations and even prognostication for the next ten years, but commendably short on Google specific pitches.  However, his comments and the event in general seemed oddly disconnected from the events unfolding in the Middle East.  This is ironic, because mobile computing via smart phones and the use of these phones for various forms of social networking appear to be key enablers of the revolutions now taking place in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and other places.  Repressive governments have attempted to limit the free flow of information by seizing centralized forms of communication such as traditional mass media as well as internet backbone services within their countries.  However, the distributed, decentralized nature of cellular data communication has often allowed information to flow around the blocks thrown up by the governments, and the prevalence of the camera equipped smart phone has created armies of political reporter/organizers.  Schmidt, Stephen Elop and others are talking about the bringing smart phones to the “next billion” (or two), but they seem unprepared for the consequences.


But First, a Word from His Sponsor

Schmidt’s presentation wasn’t completely devoid of Google promotion, and for observers of the War for Mobile Internet Supremacy (WMIS) such as myself, there were a few tasty tidbits.  Schmidt repeated yet again that activations are “over 300 thousand per day” which has already been inflated to 350 K in some Android focused blogs.  I found the number interesting since it seems to indicate that growth in the activation rate has stalled at something over 300 K/day, where it’s been since October.  This is a greater slowdown than I assumed in my article Will Android be Profitable? and may indicate some saturation of demand.  Activation rate growth may increase once Android 3.0 is released and Android tablets become generally available.  Despite this, Schmidt claimed that Android is the fastest growing mobile platform in the world, which I have no reason to doubt.  As I have pointed out previously, Android doesn’t quite have the market share dominance that Gartner Research claimed as of the end of 2010, but if Google can hold the activation rate at the current level throughout 2011, Android will have the largest share of the Mobile OS market by the end of the year. 

Schmidt also couldn’t resist showing off the new Motorola Xoom tablet, although the demo itself was ho-hum: movie editing on the Xoom is so me-too after Apple demonstrated iMovie on iPhone 4 at the World Wide Developers Conference in June 2010.  And no mention of when Xoom will actually ship in quantity. Still, Xoom is incredibly important to the future growth and success of the Android “ecosystem” as Schmidt has taken to calling it, after Elop, and I’m looking forward to the coming dual-core processor tablets both from Apple and from Motorola. As much as I love my iPad, I’ve always been a little disappointed by the lack of processing power.

Present Trends

Schmidt paved the way for his prediction of the next ten years in mobile computing by making some observations of current trends, logically enough.  “Smart phones are taking over,” he said, with quarterly sales of smart phones exceeding that of PCs for the first time ever.  System operators are pouring billions of dollars into infrastructure and rolling out even higher speed capability, in the 8-10 Mbit/sec range.  The merging of cloud computing and smart phone capabilities is providing unique capabilities such as real-time voice language translation. 

Schmidt calls the smart phone a “serendipity platform” for the way unexpected opportunities arise in app development, and claims it is replacing the “economics of scarcity” with the “economics of ubiquity”.  Schmidt is probably engaging in hyperbole, but we get the point: smartphones are bringing the Internet and computing to more people, especially in the developing world, than any other technology.  This sudden unleashing of information flow is clearly having an impact on the politics of the Middle East, but for some reason, Schmidt stops short of making this obvious link. 

The Good Future

As an avowed optimist, Schmidt rejects the notion that mobile computing and social networking have provided a “cold substitute” for genuine human contact, claiming that computers have enabled people to be with their friends and family more readily and live happier lives. 

Likewise, Schmidt sees the future impacts of computing as inevitably good.  In his vision of the future in the next ten years people will be able to 

        1.    Retain information that would otherwise be lost. “Never forget things.”
        2.    Keep from getting lost.
        3.    Improve communication and understanding of others.
        4.    Always be entertained.
        5.    Have cars that drive themselves.

He also asserted that people around the world are basically good and that conflicts arise due to misunderstandings, thus growth in computer use should serve to reduce conflicts.  The fact that this flies in the face of current events doesn't seem to bother him.  I guess it's easy to be an optimist when you're a billionaire CEO living the good life in the comfort and relative security of California.


Can Technology be Good?

My problem with Schmidt’s rosy future is that he simply underestimates the human capacity for evil, and the resourcefulness with which humans can harm each other.  If people are basically good, why is it that 66 years after a World War was fought to eliminate brutal dictatorships, such forms of government still persist throughout the world?  Do such governments express a dark aspect of human nature?  If so, can that dark side of human nature find ways to pervert the technology that Schmidt sees as inherently “good”?

A counterpoint to Schmidt’s vision of “good” technology can be found in a science fiction book called The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks.  In the book the author describes how the technologies embraced by Schmidt can be used to create an oppressive system of government without the general populace even being aware of it. 

In the book, huge computer systems monitor all credit card transactions, cell phone calls and public monitoring cameras to continually track the location and activities of all citizens.  The objective of the system is to annihilate privacy while maintaining the comforting illusion of normal civil rights.  When such measures do become noticeable, the government justifies the measures in the name of fighting terrorism or other threats.  John Twelve Hawks draws an analogy with the “panopticon”, a theoretical prison in which the prisoners all behave themselves because they are constantly under surveillance.  He sees society becoming a virtual panopticon, in which people are controlled by virtue of the abolition of privacy.  Although The Traveler is a work of fiction, John Twelve Hawks does correctly identify some worrisome trends.  For instance, virtually nothing about our use of the Internet or of cellular networks in the United States is legally private, and the capacity of the U.S. government to monitor Internet and cellular communications is well known.  But could the technologies that Schmidt sees as “good”, location-based services, cloud computing, and cellular networks, really be perverted to create the panopticon?

Several times in his talk, Schmidt had to qualify a particular service with the words “with the user’s permission” such has when he described location-based social networking or personalized searches.  At one point, he acknowledged that “the more we know about you, the better we can be at finding what you want”, but only with permission of course. 

Although Google may honestly feel bound to ask permission, clearly a national government might not be so constrained.  But actually creating a virtual panopticon is probably beyond the limits of technical capability, for now.  The sheer volume of information and the growth in traffic on the networks works against such centralized monitoring, which is why national governments tend to focus on “threats” and “threat identification”, an imperfect process at best.  In the developing world, national governments are even less sophisticated, thus, the new mobile computing technology has been able to serve the purposes of demonstrators and activists with little effective governmental intervention.

Does this mean that I think the impact of mobile computing is “good” because it has facilitated popular uprisings in some countries with dictatorial regimes?  Not really.  Revolutions have a way of being hijacked by people with dictatorial ambitions, so I regard the outcome of the current wave of uprisings as very much in doubt. 

As for the notion that mobile devices will improve communication and thereby diminish conflict, this seems to presuppose that individuals or groups cannot have genuinely conflicting interests, so that all conflicts must arise from a misperception of self-interest by one or both parties.  Does Schmidt really believe that the Nazis committed genocide in Europe because of a misunderstanding?  Did Saddam Hussein drop nerve gas on some of his own citizens because he didn't understand them?

Evil is as Evil Does

So where does it come from, this capacity for evil?  I feel obligated to offer at least a theory, now that I’ve asked the question.  In the case of dictators like Hitler or Saddam Hussein, what it comes down to is addiction to power.  Psychologists recognize that people can become addicted to certain kinds of behaviors in much the same way that they can become addicted to drugs, especially if the behaviors stimulate “internal drugs” like adrenaline or give rise to sexual pleasure.  Thus, someone might become addicted to skydiving, or sex, or serial murder.  For some people, power over others is addictive, and once they are “hooked”, they display other aspects of addictive behavior.  The addiction becomes the center and focus of their lives.  In the pursuit of their addiction, moral scruples and societal norms may become insignificant to them. 

They become preoccupied with maintaining power, with maintaining the flow of their “drug”, and are often fearful to the point of paranoia about losing power.  Having achieved power, they attract other like-minded power addicts.  They become a community of addicts where their addictive behavior becomes the new “norm” and are thus oblivious to their own abnormality.  I often wonder whether it’s even possible for a politician to become successful without being a power-addict.  It may be that the only difference between “good” politicians and “evil” politicians is the ability to manage their addiction.

We have the benefit in the United States of a government that was established by a group of people who were deeply wary of power and power addiction, despite being the most powerful individuals at the time in the newly-independent States.  But even they could not foresee all ends, and they certainly could not have anticipated the capacity of modern governments for technical surveillance.  This is a deficiency that needs to be addressed constitutionally in this country and perhaps elsewhere in the developed world before it's too late.  I believe that eventually the deficiency will be addressed.  In this I'm an optimist, but not in the same way as Schmidt.  I don't regard the impact of mobile computing technology to be inevitably good, just as I don't regard the triumph of good to be inevitable.  I believe that good will triumph as long as good people don't take it for granted.  That's what makes me an optimist.

  • 1.
    Schmidt at MWC
  • 2.
    Word from Sponsor
  • 3.
    The Good Future
  • 4.
    Good Tech?
  • 5.
    Evil is...
  • 6. Evil Does
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