The Weird Web And Other Safety Concerns

Cell phones, PDAs, e-mail, instant messaging — the list goes on. But if you think we’ve about reached the apex of connectivity, you haven’t seen anything yet.

Tech visionary Bill Joy said much more work awaits on the grand vision of connectivity he and others at Sun Microsystems envisioned in the early 1990’s when Java and several spin-off technologies were being developed.

Joy, a cofounder and chief scientist at Sun for many years, is currently a partner at the venture capital firm of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Speaking at the recent AlwaysOn Innovation conference, Joy said he and others at Sun, including Java pioneers James Gosling and Wayne Rosing, talked in the early days about the “near” and “far” experience of connectivity.

Sitting at a desktop or notebook computer is a near experience; the far experience includes activities with a bit more distance and interactivity, like playing a video game.

“When Mike Cleary and I did the business plan for Java ten years go, we also thought of the concept of a ‘Here Web’ that’s always with you via mobile devices.”

Joy said the Here Web concept is evolving much slower than he anticipated, but is expressed in such devices as the Palm Treo, which combines Web browsing, a personal information manager and mobile phone, and also in Japan where interactive gaming is popular with the iMode cell phones there. Showing his techie bias, Joy said he’s baffled that the Treo and the Blackberry PDA, considered successes by their makers, aren’t more popular than they are.

But what has yet to really unfold is what Joy and colleagues called the Weird Web, where sensors connect humans to any number of objects. He drew chuckles and head-scratching from the audience when he discussed our future ability to communicate with a shirt, or shoes.

Then there’s D to D — the Device to Device Web paradigm. “I see the convergence of networking, so you could have your pacemaker talking to your cell phone to call your doctor,” said Joy. “Your shoes talk to your PC to record how much walking you’re doing. All devices that have electricity will get connected in a worldwide embedded sensor net.

Is Technology Making Us Safer or More Insecure?

Joy gained wide notoriety for an essay published in Wired magazine several years ago entitled “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” which cautioned against the rush to certain new technologies.

Jaron Lanier, a pioneer in virtual reality research and currently a visiting scientist at Silicon Graphics , said new technology is the only way forward for society and “anti-tech is death for us. But the real problem, is the way we talk about technology is scaring the hell out of the rest of the world.”

Lanier decried what he sees as an anti-science trend in the U.S. with the Government making a “tremendous retreat” from long term science funding. Lanier accused the Christian right and New Age left of fomenting an anti-science, anti-technology movement while countries such as China and India are benefiting from a more unbridled public and governmental support of technology.

Joy said one of his biggest concerns is the ability of an individual to wreak havoc on the wider populace by, for example, releasing pathogens that would lead to an epidemic.

“We have to manage technology,” said Joy. But while Joy discussed global warming, libertarian author and technology analyst George Gilder had heard enough.

“What worries me is someone with the intelligence of Bill Joy is preoccupied with global warming. Temperatures are lower now than they were in Middle Ages,” claimed Gilder. “We have ridiculous phobias.”

A blogger watching the conference chimed in with a sarcastic post to Gilder on the big screen on stage that said the conservative Fox News channel was looking for a new weather man.

Gilder said he believes the U.S. is headed in the right direction by becoming more of a society that maximizes creativity. “The top-down (monolithic) television broadcast networks are being overcome by the blogosphere.”

Ironically, it was Lanier, his long dreadlocks suggesting a more non-conformist view of the world, who gave a qualified endorsement of more control. “Platform standards like Linux come from central Europe, the land of central planning, so sometimes that’s good.”

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