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Forbes.com

 

Warning--Tsunami

June 30, 2008

By Peter W. Huber

You know that the Web isn't quite done with reinventing humanity when, in the space of a week, a cyclone kills 100,000 people in Myanmar and an earthquake kills 70,000 in China. The Web of the Future (WOF) would have saved them all. Unlike the tired old Web of the Past (WOP) that we're stuck with for now, the WOF will carry tomorrow's news today.

The Weather Channel already tries to do just that, of course. Most of those who died in Myanmar were killed by political leaders so terrified of freedom that they dared not allow any loose talk about inbound wind and rain. China is now a little more open than that, but the earthquake channel isn't yet on the air. The WOF will carry it, along with the thousands of other future-news channels like it. Sometimes the stories will run weeks or months ahead of the ticker, sometimes days, sometimes just minutes. For thousands of children in Sichuan Province, minutes would have been enough.

Many aboriginal tribes on islands off Indonesia apparently survived the December 2004 tsunami that killed 200,000 more-recent settlers--their collective ancestral memories sent them fleeing toward the hills as soon as they felt the ground shake. The story of every coming tornado, earthquake or volcanic eruption resides in decades of history and recent minutes of anticipatory gusts, tremblings, rumblings and other leading-edge indicators. Reporting the story requires analysis that's smart and fast enough to get out ahead of reality just far enough to let people change or escape it.

To get out ahead of nature, the WOF will, to begin with, offer instant access to almost every environmental variable that science can measure, from points scattered all across the face of the planet. Most sensors are now tiny semiconductor devices, packaged for direct connection to digital networks. Year by year they get better, cheaper and easier to network. They're already widely deployed to monitor and control the insides of homes, offices, automated factories, cars, ships and planes. Fascinated as we humans are by the world that surrounds us, sensing and networking the rest of the planet will inevitably follow.

And bit by bit that will democratize our discourse about all things environmental. Most obviously, networking the earth will make every open society much better at evading nature's fury. As Ian Ayres (my colleague in forbes columny) writes in his insightful and delightful Super Crunchers (Bantam 2007), the technologies for assembling and mining huge data sets have converged over the last couple of decades, and they give us remarkable new power to pluck the future out of the past. As many others have observed, aggregate expertise--the wisdom of crowds--generally beats the solitary kind hands down. With more people scrutinizing more data we will get ahead of earthquakes too, sooner or later--perhaps not by much, but by enough to evacuate schools before they collapse on our children.

Big Green--the regulatory ecological complex that tells the rest of us exactly what woe will befall us if we don't do just as we're told--isn't going to like this one bit. Its predictions aren't well anchored in data; they come mainly from huge mathematical models whirling inside huge closed computers. The models are as opaque as the planet they claim to emulate; they keep changing; they're too closely guarded to be confronted head-on by torrents of inconvenient facts. Instrumenting and wiring the planet itself will, over time, destroy its hegemony.

The larger story here is about soothsaying and authority. For the most part the WOP archives the past--mostly the deep past. It does supply lots of real-time economic data, but only when those numbers are compiled and dispatched directly by computers--the computers that process stock trades, for example. Financial markets aside, few of the WOP's bits are really fresh; all the rest were dripped into the network by human hands, and most then served serious time in hard drives before hitting our screens. High-quality real-time video scarcely moves through the WOP at all, and when it does, we don't yet have the software to turn it into usable data.

Yet much of the value of information hinges on its power to tell us what lies ahead. The most valuable predicting often requires a synthesis of past and present--remembrance of tsunamis past plus an instant read of the sand quivering right now between your toes. Layer instant data and instant analysis on top of the WOP and you get the WOF, a network immeasurably more valuable and powerful than the one we're so enamored of today.

Original Source: http://www.forbes.com/free_forbes/2008/0630/153.html

 

 
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