Resilience over strength

Why the connected world should hang loose.

As we accelerate toward the great convergence of hardware and software — where almost everything we do may be monitored and transformed into commoditized data points — a 1989 observation from novelist and essayist Cynthia Ozick seems increasingly, and uncomfortably, germane:

“The passion for inheritance is dead. [Today,] knowledge — saturated in historical memory — is displaced by information, or memory without history: data.”

The triumph of data over knowledge would be deeply depressing not because it represents catastrophe; we would continue working out, going to restaurants and taking our kids to school. Civil society would not collapse. Indeed, our lives would be ever more enriched with layers of raw information that could be bent to our will and interests. But we will have lost context and meaning. Our options could be increased by outsourcing our memory and ratiocinative processes to the cloud and a worldwide web of sensors, but we would be less interesting people: flatter, duller, intellectually truncated.

Then again, Ozick is a writer and social critic, not a prophet. Joi Ito, director of MIT’s Media Lab, has another take. While the collision of hardware and software is irreversible, Ito emphasizes it is not a monolithic force that will turn us into digitally lobotomized drones. Knowledge is not lost, says Ito, nor is Ozick’s “passion for inheritance” dead. Both may be compartmentalized — but they are always accessible.

“No one owns the Internet, and it isn’t under rigid control, like the phone system,” Ito says. “It is working anarchy, and that gives it resilience. Remember, data includes historical data. Knowledge isn’t lost because it goes online. I’d argue that data done well includes context — without context, a piece of information has little value.”

Ito says the Internet of Things still conforms to the precepts expressed in Small Pieces Loosely Joined, a book published in 2002 by David Weinberger.

“Weinberger discussed how the web was predicated on the interoperability of its components,” Ito says. “We’re now seeing lots of people creating all these software-informed products. But smart hardware from myriad sources won’t work well in a closed, tight system. The Internet of Things must be loose and open to function well. And this democratizing force works from top to bottom. The explosion of connectable products wouldn’t be happening if Intel or something like it hadn’t done its work first. Closed systems may be the best at design — think Apple — but they fall down when it comes to disseminating new technologies.”

The merging of hardware and software implies ever-increasing efficiencies in industrial production and the delivery of services — which is good, assuming you’re a CEO or shareholder. But at a certain point, efficiency could translate into fewer jobs (a possibility recently covered in detail on Radar). And not just for production line workers. It is not inconceivable that today’s superstar engineer could be scrounging for aluminum cans tomorrow, displaced by a particularly elegant algorithm. But Ito doesn’t think it’s going to be either/or: either we regulate automation or we all end up on bread lines, that is.

“There are clearly areas where machines are superior — mainly, anything that requires rote computation,” Ito says. “But even given the trajectory of AI and robotics, the human brain is and likely will remain better at pattern recognition, at extrapolating possibilities from subtle cues. You certainly couldn’t have machines running suicide hot lines, for example. They may be helpful at prioritizing calls, but ultimately you’re going to need someone to talk directly to the callers. I think there’s increasing evidence that the best systems are those that have both machines and humans in the loop. It was huge news, for example, when Deep Blue began beating chess Grand Masters. But now you have machines and humans working in concert beating machines alone.”

Anything that is testable, Ito continues, can probably be done best by a machine — and that has profound implications for the educational system. Ito’s views on education run somewhat counter to the current emphasis on hard, technical skills and testable fields of study.

“Many, if not most, of the future jobs will be in untestable areas — areas that involve the arts or aesthetics, for example. So given that, an education that teaches you how to think and respond creatively to a shifting world would be more valuable than one that teaches a body of information that can be measured.”

Still, the transition to a connected world is likely to be bumpy. There will be economic and social disruption. Yes, markets and production will be more efficient. But the larger question, Ito says, is the value of efficiency itself.

“What is the purpose of this technology? I mean, seriously, if we really want to be as efficient as possible, we should all just die. Then the world would be truly efficient, unencumbered by waste or error. So, pure, unalloyed efficiency isn’t and shouldn’t be the goal. I wouldn’t be surprised to see devices and apps designed to slow us down, to enforce greater mindfulness — to literally make us more inefficient. It will be a reminder that the technology is here to serve us, not the other way around.”

Security and privacy are already compelling concerns, and that’s not going to change as things and software merge. Ito observes there is no easy answer, and that serious incidents — perhaps even catastrophes — are inevitable.

“We’re very vulnerable right now,” he says. “Bad things — very bad things — could happen. But until people feel pain, they won’t do anything. It is an essential element of our nature. Air and water pollution weren’t addressed in the U.S. until they became intolerable. You see the same thing happening now in China – they’re finally starting to clean up the environment. Once average people are hurt, deeply hurt, we’ll see a move toward more robust designs.”

But don’t expect miracles. Ito notes the recent collapses and scandals of the past several years have not made global financial markets any more secure, and the same can be said of failures in other sectors.

“The disastrous and unanticipated crashes in the markets led to reforms, but they have not made the system appreciably better,” Ito says. “Generally speaking, we’re just as vulnerable. Also, I’ve been traveling to Japan to consult on the post-Fukushima situation, and I can say that the nuclear industry there is no better prepared for similar large quakes. I think both situations point out that preparedness for catastrophes, that increasing control, can take you only so far. It gets back to efficiency again, and the conundrum it sets up. You have to disaggregate control to increase efficiency. It’s a difficult line to walk. Ultimately, the most functional system will favor resilience over strength. The ability to regenerate rapidly may be preferable to building bulwarks against failure — because at a certain point, there will be failures.”

Which brings Ito to a larger point: given that ultimate control is unattainable, learn when to let go.

“I come from a Buddhist tradition, and Buddhists revere nature,” Ito says. “The most salient quality of nature is that it’s neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad.’ It simply ‘is.’ The same can be said about the Internet and the Internet of Things. They are neither benign nor malign. They provide benefits, and they pose dangers. Both good and bad things will happen. And some of the things could be extremely bad. As a species, we face the possibility of an extinction event from any of several causes. What happens then? The universe rolls on. Personally, I like challenges, even some pain. I like getting pushed outside the comfort zone. It’s preferable to stagnation and boredom. I think the bigger point is to live in the present, to resist distraction from either the past or the future. Am I optimistic? Generally, yes. I guess you could say I’m soberly optimistic.”


If you are interested in the collision of hardware and software, and other aspects of the convergence of physical and digital worlds, subscribe to the free Solid Newsletter — and to learn more about the Solid Conference coming to San Francisco in May, visit the Solid website.

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  • elwood

    Information really is defined by Context. Random facts are relatively useless without a frame of reference. Will the new ‘Internet of Things’ really change the Web? I think not. Increase the number of ways in which we utilize the Net, certainly. But the basic tenet of a free and open exchange of Ideas will always be the driving force.

  • DougHill25

    Thanks for the interview and thoughts. I find it interesting that Ito feels we need to be reminded that technology is supposed to serve us, rather than the other way around. Easy to forget, isn’t it? I also think it’s easy for those of us in relatively privileged positions to say, “I like challenges, even some pain.” As Ito himself pointed out, we haven’t really found out yet how bad things can get, and technological momentum — our commitments to the technologies that sustain our way of life, but also threaten it — is carrying us past a point of return very quickly. At some point all we’ll want to know is how to make the pain stop.