James’s Musings

thoughts, photography, and geeky stuff
from an unrelentingly curious Silicon Valley entrepreneur

The World Just Changed—On SOPA, Susan G. Komen, and a 1979 Prediction

by James G. Beldock on February 3, 2012

When I was five or six, my par­ents, who have made a life of res­cu­ing lone­some books from book­stores and giv­ing them good homes, brought home one such foundling for their son, a book about the fu­ture, ap­pro­pri­ate­ly ti­tled Future Cities: Homes and Living in­to the 21st Century (World of the Future). Just this past week, their adopt­ed tome proved it­self preter­nat­u­ral­ly ac­cu­rate. Here’s the sto­ry:

You can­not have missed that this week the en­tire Internet de­cried, cy­ber-lob­bied, and even­tu­al­ly pre­vailed in cow­ing Susan G Komen for the Cure1 for its ap­par­ent­ly po­lit­i­cal­ly mo­ti­vat­ed move to cut fund­ing for Planned Parenthood. If you did miss it, no doubt you did so be­cause you were too busy read­ing about the un­prece­dent­ed about-face per­formed by leg­is­la­tors af­ter the Internet de­cried, cy­ber-lob­bied, and even­tu­al­ly pre­vailed in cow­ing Congress in­to (tem­porar­i­ly, at least) shelv­ing SOPA and its equal­ly evil dop­pel­ganger, PIPA Two weeks of cy­ber­ac­tivism have brought two re­mark­able re­ver­sals, at least one of which comes from a 535-strong body not ex­act­ly ac­claimed for its re­spon­sive­ness to pub­lic opin­ion (ahem, House of Representatives). All of which makes the so­cial me­dia-fu­eled Arab Spring look like last year’s news (which, of course, it is).

Call it Cyberactivism. Or Internet Lobbying. Or Social Media-fu­eled Activism. Or, sim­ply, what it is: a tech-en­abled mech­a­nism for peo­ple to ex­press their opin­ions and, more im­por­tant­ly, or­ga­nize. The politi­cian, the pub­lic of­fi­cial, the house­hold brand, and—yea verily—anyone whose pro­file is suf­fi­cient­ly lofty to mer­it pub­lic scruti­ny ap­pears now to be con­fronting the stark re­al­i­ty that this medi­um has teeth. It’s bidi­rec­tion­al. It is not, with apolo­gies to Mr. Sullivan, a pot­ted plant.

Which brings me back to my late ’70s for­ay in­to the 21st cen­tu­ry body politic. Future Cities’ British and un­abashed­ly fu­tur­ist au­thors, Kenneth William Gatland and David Jefferis, pre­dict­ed a wrist­watch-like de­vice called a ris­to (read: iPhone) from which in­stant, bidi­rec­tion­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion was pos­si­ble any­where, any time. Foreshadowing Job’s iPhone keynote by a mere three decades, ris­to wear­ers could “talk to any­one, wherever [they] hap­pened to be.” A ris­to would “sell for about the same price as a pock­et cal­cu­la­tor [2-year AT&T con­tract notwith­stand­ing nor an­tic­i­pat­ed] and weigh no more than a few grammes.” But here’s the kick­er, for which I feel com­pelled to provide a the ac­tu­al fig­ure from page 12:

"Instant voting could be a feature of a risto-using city.  Important questions could be asked either over the risto or using TV as shown here.  Using computers to count the votes, 100 million votes could be counted in an hour."

im­age cour­tesy of Matt Novak, Paleofuture

Without think­ing so ex­plic­it­ly, for more than 30 years, I’ve wait­ed to see a world in which the pub­lic dis­course grew to be in­formed by in­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion and dis­trib­ut­ed opin­ion. This January, I be­lieve I’ve caught my first glimpse. Brave New World of in­stan­ta­neous, un­fil­tered opin­ion. Surely, this New World is rife with po­ten­tial for im­pru­dence: tyran­ny of the ma­jor­i­ty, wide-scale mis­per­cep­tions, fick­le­ness of pop­u­lar­i­ty, mad­ness of crowds. But the world is messy, and al­ways has been.

For the mo­ment, I find my­self mar­veling in the pre­science of Mssrs. Gatland and Jefferis. They pre­dict­ed that a 21st cen­tu­ry world would bring with it im­me­di­a­cy (if not trans­paren­cy) of opin­ion. Representative Smith and Senator Leahy, be­ware. Your per­il was pre­dict­ed in 1979.

A note on the re­search: I was tempt­ed to ex­pand this post to wax rhap­sod­ic about how one can find any­thing us­ing Google the­se days, but I didn’t want to di­lute the mes­sage. Nonetheless, I feel com­pelled to pass along one oth­er part of the sto­ry: Just two hours ago, I got the idea for this post but, as you might imag­ine, had nei­ther the book from my five-year-old bed­room nor a rec­ol­lec­tion of ei­ther the ti­tle or au­thor. But a lit­tle Googling for “1970s chil­dren books about the fu­ture” and then ” \”in­stant vot­ing\” ” took me to Matt Novak‘s awe­some Paleofuture blog, a cou­ple of posts about Gatland and Jefferis’s book, and, to my ut­ter amaze­ment, a scan of the pre­scient page 12—which, it thus ap­pears, I am not the on­ly one to think was re­mark­ably fore­sight­ed. Two hours lat­er, you have this post. For bet­ter or worse.

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  1. a well-la­beled, mes­sage-in-the-name, 501(c)(3) which, save for this week’s mis­step, gen­er­al­ly has my sup­port []
Lydia Barrett February 4, 2012 at 7:13 am

Awesome post and great musings. Loved it.

James G. Beldock February 4, 2012 at 10:55 am

Thanks, Lyd! Taking a break from a week of user interface work–figured some “literary” output was required (I’d settle for just verbal ;-).

Laura Lauder February 5, 2012 at 6:51 am

YOU, Sir James, are the prescient one! Thank you for your intrepid searching for meaning… XOXOX Laura

James G. Beldock February 8, 2012 at 7:42 pm

🙂 Thanks, Laura! Actually, for this one, we should compliment the ‘rents, who bought the book in the first place!

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