Saturday, May 24

Are we ready to dispense with brick and mortar government?

"[T]he ‘distributed network’ format, expressed in the specific manner of peer to peer relations, is a new form of political organising and subjectivity, and an alternative for the current political/economic order', i.e., I believe that peer to peer allows for ‘permission-less’ self-organisation to create common value, in a way that is more productive than both the state and private for-profit alternatives."
-- Michel Bauwens - P2P Foundation

Cyber prophets such as VRML developer Mark Pesce say that clear signs of virtual government are already here: "People connected [on the Internet] in their numbers simply overwhelm, outperform, and thrust aside all obstacles ... that you can put in their way; and this is where we are right now."

To support his observation Pesce pointed to the way that citizens from all around Japan 'self organized' to take the load off their government's attempts to monitor the radiation spill from the flooded Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor. The government didn't have enough workers to monitor with exactitude where the leaking radiation was traveling.  So the volunteers used personal Geiger counters to monitor radiation levels in their neighborhoods. Then they entered the data at a website called, creating a countrywide map of the radiation levels.

This Internet based self-organizing group effort to deal with a specific task or issue, also called crowdsourcing, adhocracy, smart mobs, peer-to-peer networking and swarming, is still in its infancy but more and more citizens are finding ways to supplement government efforts by using the Internet as a kind of virtual government office complex, if you will.

And as my Take a Memo post emphasized in humorous fashion, much of what we call government is just record keeping -- records that no longer need to be physically sited because they can be stored virtually.  Even at this early stage of cloud technology, a lot of government real estate is just taking up space because it's no longer needed for record storage.

Yet when you consider the scope of cybersecurity problems that Edward Snowden's revelations have turned up, we are still a long way from being able to dispense with brick and mortar government and the large bureaucracies that go with it.  Indeed, the optimistic observations from Mark Pesce were made years before the NSA scandal broke.(1)

But with this caution in mind, Pesce was right.  Do It Yourself government is already on humanity's horizon; the following report is an amazing illustration of this trend.  Note that the self-testing kit is just one part of the story. The other part is that by entering data from the kit results on a website, citizens will be taking on an important function of America's national public health agency, the Centers for Disease Control. So far, the CDC seems quite happy about this. We'll see how happy they are when the trend accelerates, but for now it's all smiles and applause.

(See the Common Health website for the links in the article text): 
January 10, 2014
Common Health Organization
Rapid home flu test distributed by GoViral

You’re aching, you’re shivering, you’re coughing. You’re definitely, miserably sick, but is this real, potentially serious flu or just some garden-variety winter crud?

Better find out. You pull your handy-dandy virus test kit from the shelf, insert the nasal swab gently into your nostril and twist it around three times to coat it with your (copious) mucus. You swish the swab in liquid and deposit drops of your germy mix on the four wells of the instant test. Ten minutes later — voila. Sure enough, you test positive for an influenza type A. You call your doctor to ask about anti-viral meds, and — as a good citizen of your disease-tracking community – you go online to report your diagnosis to Flu Near You. On its map, you see that you’re not alone: a dozen of your neighbors have the same bug.

Futuristic? Not if you live in the Boston area and are part of a new flu-tracking experiment funded by the National Science Foundation, called GoViral. Run by researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital, the three-year project is just getting underway now, as this year’s flu season takes on steam.

Flu is more than a nuisance. It’s a serious threat — infecting tens of millions of Americans a year and killing an average of 24,000 — and public health types try hard to track and understand it. The CDC monitors reports from doctors’ offices, including lab test results. Google Flu Trends watches online searches for telltale symptoms. Flu Near You, where GoViral is based, already brings together thousands of volunteer sentinels who report online when they have symptoms.

Now, GoViral will take testing into the home, where many flu patients hole up rather than seeing the doctor.
“It’s never been done before, to give a lot of people in their homes these tests,” said Dr. Rumi Chunara, GoViral’s lead researcher. “This is the first time that we’re actually crowdsourcing diagnostic samples from people.”

The project breaks new ground in flu tracking, said Dr. Lyn Finelli, who leads flu surveillance and response at the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC: “This is the first time that I know of that anybody has used what we call participatory surveillance,” she said, “where people indicate whether they’re well or ill, and participate in home testing and send the tests in. This is a very novel look at a surveillance system and home testing.”

Dr. Chunara plans to distribute several hundred free flu test kits to Boston-area members of the public who sign up (here) this winter, and expand to encompass more areas.

1) Last year I took the quotes from Pesce's Wikipedia page, but the updated version of the page omits them. 


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