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Objects, Networks, and Making Things Work
How They View Us
by Jim Waldo
June 18, 2004
One of the most surpising things I've recently become aware of is how we as technologists are viewed by the non-technology public. We are assumed to be able to do the most remarkable things, which often lead to panic on the part of the general public and, worse yet, policy makers. We should do something about this, but I'm not quite sure what.


I just got back from a fairly interesting workshop, held by the National Academies, on RFID technology. The workshop brought together people who were actively working on the technology, people who work on related technology (since most of the RFID readers will be connected to a network, they decided to ask me), and a lot of people who are excited about the technology, either positively or negatively.

One of the more spirited of the discussions at the workshop had to do with privacy and RFID tags. This was a hot topic, and it was all the workshop organizers could do to hold it to the one sessions for which it was scheduled (they did a pretty good job, but it kept leaking out). This is an important topic (along with privacy in a world of interconnected computers, databases, and sensors) which will be treated in this report and others from the National Academies, but not here.

Instead, I'm going to talk about the realization I had in the midst of the discussion, which was that there is a huge gap between what technology can do and what people who aren't technologists think it can do. This can lead to a real disconnect when technologists try to talk to non-technologists, and often means that there is far more heat than light in discussions about the directions of technology. And I think that it is a gap that we, as technologists, need to actively begin to start narrowing.

My favorite example of this is the "RFID Sniper Rifle." An ad for this appeared recently; supposedly this can shoot an RFID tag with great accuracy for the distance of a thousand yards, injecting the tag under the skin of the target with no more pain than that caused by a mosquito bite. After insertion, the target person can be tracked from hundreds of yards away so that you will always know where they are. The ad comes complete with a very slick looking picture of the rifle.

What is depressing is the number of people who take this seriously. The amount of basic science that this violates is pretty high (insertion without pain at that distance would take a lot of force, which at shorter distances would cause a considerable hole to be formed; RFID tags either have a short range or a battery, etc., etc.). But even when I've pointed these things out to people, they either answer

They, it turns out, varies from the federal government to the local police to MicroSoft/General Motors/favorite-evil-corporation, depending on the paranoid tendencies of the speaker.

At one level, it is amusing to see what we as technologist are thought of as being able to do by those who are not familiar with the limits of technology. Often this is because we are asked the wrong questions when such discussions come up-- rather than asking us what is now possible, we are often asked whether or not something might be possible in 10 or 20 years. I can't look into the future that far, but given the kinds of changes that have occurred over the past 20 years, I'd be hard pressed to say that something couldn't happen other than, perhaps, faster than light-speed travel. But that is a very different question to what I think can be done now, or in the next five years.

All of this would be harmlessly amusing if it weren't for the fact that there are laws that are being passed based on misunderstandings of the capabilities of technology. Some of these have to do with digital rights, others with privacy, and others with spam, viruses, and worms. Many of these are based on at best incorrect and at worst bizarre notions of what technology can do. And they will determine what we as technologists can and can't do in the future.

I'm not sure I know what the solution to this problem is. The usual thing to call for at this point is more education, but in a country where it is still controversial to teach the theory of evolution, I'm not at all sure that education is going to do much good. Perhaps it is time for those of us who do understand the technology to be more active in the formation of policy, although with few exceptions technologists make really bad politicians. At the least, we should try to correct those who believe that technology is capable of every and anything, and make sure that we don't confuse the sorts of things we believe might be possible some day with the kinds of things that can be done now.

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About the Blogger

Jim Waldo is a Distinguished Engineer with Sun Microsystems, where he is the lead architect for Jini, a distributed programming system based on Java. Prior to Jini, Jim worked in JavaSoft and Sun Microsystems Laboratories, where he did research in the areas of object-oriented programming and systems, distributed computing, and user environments. Before joining Sun, Jim spent eight years at Apollo Computer and Hewlett Packard working in the areas of distributed object systems, user interfaces, class libraries, text and internationalization. While at HP, he led the design and development of the first Object Request Broker, and was instrumental in getting that technology incorporated into the first OMG CORBA specification.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2004 Jim Waldo. All rights reserved.

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