Keno, hacking and the emergence of a self-organizing system


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More than once I have written about technology – like everyone I am comfortable with technology I grew up with,  but I am increasingly uncomfortable with new technology – I am uncomfortable with technology for two reasons.  First: I started to mistrust technology in the 1970s; my first job in a casino was as a keno writer.  It was an exciting job, each writer would write nearly a thousand tickets in an 8-hour shift on a busy day.  At the end of each game, the tickets were collected and put on “the desk” and then each ticket was checked for winning combinations and the amount of the win was noted on the side of the ticket.  All of the pays were totaled and the final amount entered on game tally sheet before the next game could begin.  On a busy night, three checkers would be checking tickets and totaling the pays;  it was very fast paced and hectic – it was also a badge of honor – but no additional pay – to be chosen to check.  A checker had to know keno well, be able to calculated complicated pays quickly and accurately.  The totaling of the pays was also a challenge, in a matter of seconds one had to thumb through all of the tickets and mentally total the pays.  After a few weeks of checking I had become very good at checking tickets, calculating winners and adding all of the pays – everything in my head.  It was the best math class I ever had in my life; I loved it.  But sometime toward the end of the decade we switched to using electronic calculators to add the pays and sometimes even in calculating the winning amounts.  Within months I lost my ability to add and do other calculations in my head, but I had become very fast on a ten-key.  Every new technology does something like that to all of us – we replace our own ability to accomplish a skill with a technological aid – we can do our tasks faster and with less effort, but we also lose a basic skill or ability.

The examples are without end – could you feed, cloth and house yourself without the aid of modern devices?  You know move out into the woods with nothing but your two hands and survive.  Few of us are capable of getting from one side of the country to the other by foot – but, as recently as the middle of the 19th century people did – and they fed and protected themselves on the way.  Once before printed books, people routinely memorized entire books – like the bible and every culture had its legends and tales that were passed from one generation to the next orally; the only place that tradition has survived is in the Muslim world – there are still people who have memorized the entire Koran and recite it publicly at special occasions.  No I am not suggesting we would all be better off living in the woods and growing our own food, I am just saying every technology we adopted comes at a cost we rarely acknowledge.

The second reason is more complicated – it to with the critical mass of technology that has produced an emergent and self- organizing and managing system.  The history of human civilization can and frequently is described in terms of advances in technology and the changes in civilization the resulted.  We are not particularly good at hunting our food and living in small isolated groups because we developed agriculture – the food we grew became more important than the food we killed – it also demanded larger and more cooperative groups, which eventually lead to cities and then to nations.  Tools for killing advanced – and continue to advance – the methods of fighting wars and killing enemies; the cities and nations constantly needed better ways of concurring (they needed more land for cultivating and more room for their expanding populations) and killing.  The development of the technologies of civilization was reasonably slow and gradual until the 20th century.  But since the beginning of the last century it has increased dramatically.  We live in a period where it changes very rapidly, think of how many different technologies you have used to “call” a friend in your lifetime.  Each new one leaves the old ones dying by the roadside; when was the last time you sent a telegram?  The first telephones look like something from the middle ages when compared to the latest cell phones, just as today’s television and music playing devices make the ones of my youth look ancient.  New concepts and products come from science, industry, marketing and consumer demand.   The increased pace of development is driven by the increased pace of development in physics, in other sciences, in industry, business and government, a development in one flield drives developments in the other fields.  – it is a merry-go-round that gets faster and faster.

And from the dust of the whirling merry-go-round is emerging an entirely new phenomenon in the history of human civilization – technology is an independent phenomenon and is driving the process, people are the agents, but not the managers of the changes.  Developments anywhere in the cycle – a new commercial product,  a new theory of basic particles, a process for making smaller integrated circuits – everything moves the process forward.  But now one is overseeing and managing it – it manages itself.

Ask Rupert Murdoch, Murdoch is caught in a cycle of uses of technology; the whole Murdoch hacking scandal was impossible just 20 years ago, the technology in 1990 did not support it.  That hacking requires that all of the people hacked have ………… you guessed it a cell phone (or email) – today’s version of cell phone.  But let me give you two more stories from today’s news that show how the process works.  16 people in the United States and England have been arrested in the wikileaks affair, they too were hacking, hacking into government files and stealing secret documents; and in Pakistan the Taliban is blaming the Americans for hacking into their cell phones and issuing bogus message via those same phones that might undermine their credibility and direct the faithful into unfaithful acts.

The technology exists –  now it will be used  – and its use will drive further use.  How many people do you think have been watching the current hacking furor and imaging other ways one might use hacking to accomplish a personal or commercial agenda?  It won’t stop, new technology will limit some hacking, but it will also enable other ways to accomplish the same thing.  Somewhere an unscrupulous journalist is waiting to use it to get a story, a holy-than-thou campaigner is waiting to use it to get the “goods” on government and business corruption; and governments will use it to get at their enemies.   There is no closing the door on the hacking and there is no way to protect ourselves from the fallout, nor is there any way to stop the advance of the technology – it is an emergent phenomenon and now manages us; we will be kept busy reacting to it.

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