Is it time for technology to 'reboot' society?

Technology doesn't exist in a vacuum. The quickening pace of innovation can make big changes to human activities that extend to socializing, learning, earning a living, and catching law-breakers, said industry leaders at a Tuesday conference.

NEW YORK CITY (BetaNews) - In the United Kingdom, law enforcement officials are now looking at installing "cameras that can detect blood" to ferret out drivers who are trying to cheat on car pooling laws, according to Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard's Berkman Center for Society.

Zittrain was among the speakers at Tuesday's "Rebooting the System" conference, part of Personal Democracy Forum 2008, which took place Monday and Tuesday.


Why detect blood from a distance? British car pooling scofflaws are driving around with inanimate "dummies" in the passenger seat, a scam that's also been pulled in some places in the US.

Still, laws usually need some sort of grassroots support in order to really work, acknowledged Zittrain, quipping that he can hardly wait until someone tries to fool the system by placing some sort of farm animal in the passenger's seat.

Meanwhile, the stellar success of text messaging as a social tool casts doubt on the marketing savvy of some phone companies, suggested another speaker at the conference, which was sponsored by the Personal Democracy Forum.

By and large, telcos once "dismissed text messaging as a side show," contended Mark Pesce, the inventor of VRML (Virtual Reality Mark-Up Language). Due to the Internet, people are learning -- and sharing information and behaviors -- more rapidly than ever before.

"We can send out a call to find 'the others,' and we can watch as 3.5 billion people raise their hands," Pesce told the audience at the conference in Manhattan. "We're learning fast, [and our knowledge] is being 'hyperdistributed' globally. We don't know much about privacy."

Still, the "openness" of Internet communications is rather easy to subvert, indicated Pesce, who maintained, for example, that some key Wikipedia contributors conduct essentially "closed" discussions about articles over "back channels."

Without Web access these days, though, people would find it tough to look for a job, or even to vote, according to Van Jones, founder and president of environmental and economic advocacy group Green for All.

Right now, too much technology is in the hands of the "problem makers," as opposed to the "problem solvers," Jones argued. He proposed that the economic slump might be addressed through government-funded initiatives that create new jobs and use new technologies to fight problems like global warming, the energy crisis, and skyrocketing gas prices.

"If we could combine 'green' with 'technology,' we could have the country we want," according to Jones. "We could beat poverty and pollution at the same time."

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