"May you live in interesting times" has been alternately interpreted as an ancient Chinese curse or proverb. Whether or not the source for the saying actually exists, there's little doubt that in 2014, all of us are living through some of the most dynamic changes in society in humanity's history. How we live, learn, fight, love, work and play has all been altered by rapid shifts in technology. Some of these changes may be subtle, like optimized traffic patterns, while others are dramatic, like revolutions in autocratic countries, cured diseases or lives saved in disasters.
From climate change to systemic corruption and inequality, the planet and humans living within the thin band of soil, water and atmosphere on its surface face mighty challenges. While disruptions to established industries and calcified institutions in the last decade have been dramatic, it's clear that there's much more to come in the young century ahead.
Over the past several years, I've had an unusually good opportunity to chronicle what's been happening at the intersection of technology, government and society as the Washington Correspondent for O'Reilly Media. More recently, I've been researching networked transparency and data-driven journalism at Harvard and Columbia. In this column, I plan to share what I've seen and learned, what i think matters today, and the trends I think are important to watch as we move further into the future.
If you come back and read more columns — and I hope you will — you'll find me digging into what transparency means in the digital age, from mass surveillance to "sousveillance" to open government technology. I'll be writing about testing new services and products, including experiments where I serve as a guinea pig. (For instance, this is the first column I've written while walking on my new treadmill desk.) I read a lot of books, in both print and digital formats, so expect a few reviews and recommendations here as well.
I plan to spend a lot of time on data, from governments and other institutions opening it up to the world to its use (and abuse) by entrepreneurs, agencies, nonprofits, schools, and media. I live and work in Washington, DC, so expect to find windows into this world, from scrappy startups to mammoth agencies to the civil servants and elected officials who are working to adapt to the quicksilver changes in the sectors they govern and regulate.
In the past, I have focused upon the potential for data-driven innovation to serve the public good. While I will continue to highlight worthy efforts, I can't help but be deeply troubled by the negative consequences that data collection and quantification of our waking, working and sleeping lives could have in any number of areas.
Mass surveillance by government and corporate entities poses existential challenges issue for civil liberties and constitutional rights, at least as enumerated in the United States. The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, where I currently serve as a fellow, has raised grave concerns about the effects of mass surveillance upon journalism. As press freedom goes, so to goes open government and democracy.
As more cameras and sensors flood into our streets, homes, devices and vehicles, we're going to face difficult questions and tradeoffs regarding privacy, security, civil liberties, corporate interests and government responsibilities. While I can't promise to have answers, I hope to at least ask good queries.
On that count, I intend for this to be a conversation, so I encourage you to comment, connect on social media, send tips and feedback over email, and otherwise participate. While I promise not to dwell on it, given my immersion in social media and communication technologies, expect to read some musing about the impact and role that these platforms now have on the way we live, govern and communicate.
These are all genuinely thorny issues, so expect me to ask questions of the smartest people I know and to find interviews here. I'll also be asking questions of this community. The past decade of reading, writing and reporting has taught me that everyone is collectively more intelligent than I am. I expect this to be no different. I look forward to getting to know you all better in the weeks to come.
Alex Howard writes about how shifts in technology are changing government and society. A former fellow at Harvard and Columbia, he is the founder of "E Pluribus Unum," a blog focused on open government and technology.