At some point in the not-too-distant future, for the first time in the history of the world, almost everyone on the planet will become part of a single, man-made system. Via cell phones and the Internet, people in every corner of the Earth will be linked together, able to impact each other's lives in ways that produce consequences we can only begin to understand.
Already, there are roughly as many cell phones on the planet than there are people. Development organizations have reordered the hierarchy of need among the world's poorest from food-shelter-clothing to food-shelter-clothing-cell phone. No change of our time, not the fall of the Soviet Union nor the rise of the big emerging powers, is of comparable consequence. (To put matters into perspective, the United Nations has estimated that 4.5 billion people have access to a toilet today, but 6 billion have access to cell phones.)
If anything, terms like "Information Age" only underestimate the profundity of the changes taking place in our society, changes that will challenge the most basic rules of modern civilization. Yet, whereas the laws that govern modern society developed over hundreds of years and were established based on centuries of philosophical reflection, we are today writing new laws and making new decisions about the shape of life without the benefit of a new era of adequate philosophical debate.
These issues appear interwoven with daily headlines, often in fairly subtle ways. Take the Boston Marathon bombing. In a world full of smartphone cameras and CCTV, we have entered new territory. No longer is the unobserved life not worth living -- now it is an impossibility. If Big Brother is not watching, countless video and web empowered bystanders are. The crowdsourced surveillance state is a boon to solving crimes quickly, a likely deterrent to bad behavior, and a real encroachment on traditional ideas of privacy all at once. And we are just in early days of the technologies that make this possible. With cameras getting smaller and cheaper, bandwidth getting more abundant and cheaper, storage essentially unlimited, and processing power growing rapidly, you come to understand what the concept of "Big Data" means. Everyone -- and lots of things, machines, appliances, and equipment of every type -- will have the ability to sense, record, assess and communicate what is going on around them all the time.
We saw this also illustrated as the two Boston bombers were tracked down after a carjacking because their victim left his phone in the car they took and the police were able to use the signal to track it down. We know that cars themselves increasingly are sending out telemetry that lets people know where they are, how fast they are going, and where they are stopping. After the Fukushima disaster, the Japanese government used car manufacturers' data to know which roads were damaged, in use, or in need of repair. That's a great application, as is crime-fighting. But in the emerging era of connected cars, cars bursting with sensors and cameras, sending and receiving signals, real questions arise about who owns the data, who has a right to it, and what obligation companies that see the data might have to report law breakers or suspicious behavior.