Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Is Revolutionary Technology Disruptive in a Positive Sense?

The photo depicts Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as being frightened by a (computer) mouse - a metaphor for the computer and internet technology currently being used to protest the sham election.

We usually speak of "revolutionary" technology in a purely technological sense - a new hardware or software device that radically changes how we work or entertain ourselves. We call unexpected innovations that improve a product or service and disturb markets "disruptive technology".

Technological advances have changed history, mostly in a positive direction, at least since the invention of moveable type printing in 1439 by Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith. That invention, some 600 years ago, led to an unprecedented era of political change that has greatly increased standards of living, freedom, and liberty we residents of the Earth enjoy. Each of us owes his or her freedom to Gutenberg and others who have invented and used revolutionary technology to enhance the power of the people.

Martin Luther used the printing press to further the Protestant Reformation. People with revolutionary ideas have managed to get the word out despite attempts by the Pope and others to license the printing press.

Censorship in the Soviet bloc was evaded by "Samizdat", a Russian pun for "self, by oneself publishing", where free thinking individuals used typewriten carbon copies, xerox copies, and audio tapes to pass along forbidden materials. Fax technology allowed written materials to be transmitted by ordinary telephones and that has been used to organize revolutionary activities.

Personal computers and printers made it easier for individuals to create revolutionary writings and distribute them via floppy discs or telephone modems.

Of course, the invention of the internet and the World Wide Web has eclipsed all the previous revolutionary technology! Despite attempts by oppressive governments to stiffle dissent and filter internet content, ingenious individuals have found ways to get around these limitations of freedom.

Today, in Iran, the free-thinking dissidents are using the latest communications media, blogs, Flickr, Twitter and cell phone photos and videos to bypass official limitations on communications. Good luck to them!

Ira Glickstein

PS: See Guardians at the Gates are Gone - Freedom of the Press !!! and the links in the right-hand column under the "Freedom" image. Today in the US and most of the rich world, anyone can publish a blog or a "print on demand" book that anyone in the world can access - with no need for official approval or even an agent.


joel said...

It would be nice to believe that there's a monotonic rise in freedom or some other positive parameter with increasing technology. Unfortunately, I suspect that's not true. When information and disinformation are both amplified indiscriminately there can be no progress. The internet for example, now contains so many shouting voices that power has shifted to the search engines not the voices. Martin Luther would not have been effective if his were not the only theses nailed to the church door. Imagine if the door was plastered with so many messages that his were buried among the graffiti and ads for slightly used indulgences. -Joel

Ira Glickstein said...

I agree, Joel, that technology does not create a "monotonic rise in freedom". Technology rubs both ways and has been used by those in power to restrict freedoms.

My main point was that "Technological advances have changed history, mostly in a positive direction...". My first claim is certainly true, technology has changed history. My second claim is open to debate, but I think, on balance, technology has acted "mostly in a positive direction" with rspect to empowering individuals as opposed to governments.

In my novel, "positive ID" technology is used to track the daily activities of everyone, restricting freedom, while at the same time suppressing terrorism and common crime, increasing security. The same communications technology is used to make all financial transactions public knowledge, raising the power of ordinary people to detect corruption. Genetic engineering is used to both extend and improve life, but it is also responsible for disasters that kill millions of innocent people. I depict technology as a double-edged sword, but, in the end, it works mostly in a positive direction.

The Iranian government has had limited success in shutting down internet access within that country. Their problem is that the most knowledgeable internet experts happen to be young people, many of whom favor the opposition! As the many photos and videos we see daily prove, the suppression of the internet has mostly not worked, perhaps because some of those charged with implementing the internet restrictions are sabotaging the effort.

As for Martin Luther, he posted his theses against the sale of "indulgences" at the Church of All Saints in 1517, around 80 years after Gutenberg invented movable type printing, and 60 years after the Gutenberg Bible was printed and available, in the vulgate (common language). The role of the printing press in the Protestant Reformation was not just to print copies of his theses - although that certainly helped spread his ideas. His ideas took hold because of the wide availability of printed copies of the vulgate Bible.

Yes, supporters of the Catholic Church also had access to printing presses and used them against Luther. Information and disinformation was amplified somewhat indiscriminately, but, in the end, the Protestant Reformation went forward to the general benefit of civilization.

Yes, anyone can publish indiscriminately on the internet, but, because of the speed, the truth has a better chance of catching up with the lies. When you and I were kids, only the powerful controlled a small number of major newspapers and radio/TV networks. If a lie was printed or broadcast the weak had no real power to correct it - and, even if they did, it took days or weeks.

Now the transaction takes minutes or hours. True, many more people view the more popular websites than do our Blog, but, you and I are free to post the "truth" (as we see it), and, seconds after we post it, anyone in the world can see it if they wish. Remember, the Drudge Report was started in an ordinary guy's kitchen ten years ago, and he made the major media cover the Clinton scandals.

Ira Glickstein

joel said...

Ira said: My main point was that "Technological advances have changed history, mostly in a positive direction...". My first claim is certainly true, technology has changed history. My second claim is open to debate, but I think, on balance, technology has acted "mostly in a positive direction" with rspect to empowering individuals as opposed to governments.

Joel responds: It's an interesting premise and one can find a lot of historical evidence for or against. I recall a TV series about culture many years ago in which the host demonstrated how bits of technology drive history. One example was the development of the stirrup. It allowed Attilla the Hun to go from purely local conquests to widespread conquest, because his riders could spend long hours in the saddle.

However, there is something in this approach to history that bothers me. Is it meaningful to say that technology drives history or is technology simply part of one particular history? Is this more about parallel universes? How do you prove that a certain invention ultimately has a positive result within an unspecified time frame. Take for example the development of hygienic waste disposal. Dr. Schweitzer brought hygiene to Africa. The infant mortality rate sharply decreased. We'd call that positive. The population of Africa surged. The modern result is an Africa with a population too large to sustain itself. That's obviously negative. Introducing a piece of technology has positive or negative consequences depending on the time frame. Examining alternative futures is a tricky business. -Joel

Ira Glickstein said...

Here's a great link to real-time information about Iran on the Brink. The linked site has material you may not see on major networks.

Whether the opposition ultimately succeeds or not, this is a great example of how REVOLUTIONARY TECHNOLOGY is DISRUPTING a totalitarian regime. With their reporters confined to hotels, US news media are dependent upon Iranian "citizen photographers and journalists" for the continual stream of eye-witness reports.

I am surprised and pleased the opposition still has access to the Internet. The only reasonable explanation is that the very technologists who have been ordered to shut down access are "dragging their feet" and sabotaging official policies.

There are also indications some sectors of the Iranian police and Revolutionary Guard are sympathetic to the opposition and "turning a blind eye".

More power to them! But, the opposition may ultimately be put down by force. There are reports that non-Iranian Arabic-speaking soldiers have been flown in and that they will be more reliable and brutal in putting down the revolt.

Ira Glickstein

Ira Glickstein said...

I guess, for those of us who cannot believe in a Perfect Creator God, it is a matter of faith (whatever that may be for non-believers) that technological change ultimately has a positive effect on history.

Joel could argue that technological advances change history in a random or unspecified direction in any given time period. Others could argue it goes in a negative way. I guess, from the short time we each have on Earth relative to the time period of homo sapiens, and the short period of homo sapiens with respect to life on Earth, it is impossible to tell for sure.

Therefore, I prefer to take a positive attitude! Technological advances have changed history, mostly in a positive direction! Who could prove me wrong?

Ira Glickstein

joel said...

Yes, we might expect a positive or negative effect of the growth of technology according to our pessimistic or optimistic dispositions or faith. However, there is another possibility. Each technology might have an optimum for freedom in its evolution depending upon availability.

For example, weapon technology favored abuse when only a few people had hand held weapons. At the other extreme, weapons that are so technologically advanced that they can only be afforded by government to be used upon the populace also favor abuse. Therefore, there must be an optimum in between in which weapons are generally available and affordable. The same is true for information technology. At a primitive level, the Eiffle Tower's great height afforded Eiffle an almost exclusive method of conveying information long distances by flag signals, giving him a big economic advantage and domination over others. At the other extreme, information is now more generally available, but so are sophisticated codes which give insiders an unfair advantage over outsiders. Governments will surely take a lesson from the Iranian despots to find means of disrupting rebellious communication. Somewhere in between there must be (or have been) an optimum level of technology. -Joel

joel said...

Ira said: Martin Luther used the printing press to further the Protestant Reformation. People with revolutionary ideas have managed to get the word out despite attempts by the Pope and others to license the printing press.

Joel responds: This is a very interesting contention. It seems to fit the facts, but maybe it isn't quite right. The Protestant reformation and the printing press could be looked at another way. The first book printed was a bible not a piece of propaganda or a thesis. It caused a revolution, because it removed the priest as the reader and interpreter when people learned to read. So much was this the case that the Pope persecuted the Vaudois sect out of existence simply because they covertly taught their children to read. It wasn't the material they read (which was the Bible) that was offensive but rather the commoners empowering themselves. Can we say that technology is dangerous to the establishment when it empowers the people and is dangerous to the people when it empowers the government? -Joel

Ira Glickstein said...

Joel asks a perspicacious question:

"Can we say that technology is dangerous to the establishment when it empowers the people and is dangerous to the people when it empowers the government?"

Yes! Absolutely!

Technology is a double-edged sword that cuts both ways. However, given a choice between continued technological change and stasis, I would pick continued change. Given a choice between moderately-rapid change and hyper-rapid change, I would pick moderate.

But, I don't think we humans have any real choice. The "Gaia" has a "mind" of its own and, right now, it is thinking deep thoughts about science and technology. We engineers and scientists are mere "neurons" in "Gais's mind".

Ira Glickstein

Ira Glickstein said...

Benford's Law has been invoked as evidence the Iranian vote was fraudulent here and other statistical evidence here.

You may remember we discussed Benford's Law on this Blog here. Joel brought it up and Howard and I commented (see Comments dated April 7-8, 2008).

Benford's Law claims the most significant (first) digit in honest data should be "1" about 30% of the time. Also, the least significant (last) digits in honest data should have "1", "2", ... "0" each about 10% of the time. The linked stories show that the Iranian election data fails both of these tests for honest data.

Of course, given the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran and recent news stories, we already know the results were fraudulent. However, these statistics are further independent evidence of that fact.

Sadly, it appears the Iranian regime guards have cracked down hard on the opposition. For now, most large demonstrations have been disrupted. Too bad!

Ira Glickstein