Dave Warner was always a bit of a misfit. Kicked out of several schools in Southern California as a teenager, he enrolled in the US military for a while before ending up pursuing an academic career. As a dual medical student and PhD candidate at Loma Linda University in the late 1980s, he would head into Los Angeles to hang out with the “power nerds” at military contractors like Northrop Grumman and Rockwell International and attend raves at night. From the nerds he got access to the computer systems that helped his medical research, and became a pioneer in human-computer interaction, working with disabled children and researching virtual reality.
More recently, his “beer for data” programme in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, where he owned a bar while working as a defence contractor, sought to highlight the benefits of information sharing among NGOs, the UN and the local people. The Red Bulletin spoke to Warner about how data will change us in the future, and why, despite privacy concerns, we need to share more of it.
THE RED BULLETIN: Why is the principle of sharing so important to you?
Ignorance is a curable disease. Stupidity is terminal. If people don’t share information, we, as humanity, can’t actually make progress. I’m a big believer in that. When I was in medical school making a bunch of virtual reality and interface devices, the dot-com thing started and people stopped sharing things because everything became proprietary. People wanted to be the next Bill Gates or the next Steve Jobs. Well, I lost patients because we couldn’t get access to them to help their rehabilitation. I understand patient privacy, but the inability to share things that help people? That hit me as a fundamental evil.
THE RED BULLETIN: Why did it get to this point?
If you think about it, a small group of people with an idea that’s kind of obvious is not going to be able to compete with a large group of people sharing information. Look at websites: there were so many patents on having websites. Now school kids are making websites. They just couldn’t keep that back. I’m not anti-proprietary. I do understand commercial investment, but I am an anti-selfish-ist… If you look at this, it’s kind of inevitable, and it’s inevitable for some cool reasons. Human nervous systems are designed to communicate. We’re wired for this, so people can’t not communicate.
THE RED BULLETIN: So biology will be the reason we’ll be more transparent?
Now you can pick up a smartphone and another human on the other side of the planet can communicate with you. Each time in the history of science a tool is built that allows the human to do something at least 100 times better than before, there’s a fundamental paradigm shift in thinking. Before the microscope, disease was about spirits, ethers and really wacky stuff. And then some poor bastard looked at the first microscope in pond water and all of a sudden he saw a zoo of animals. It must have freaked him out. But now I can see all of these things in a library online. Instead of embracing it, a lot of people are pushing back, especially in medicine. I remember attending conferences where doctors would say, “I don’t want my patients to use the internet.” Well, guess what, get out of the way, because they’re going to do it anyway.
THE RED BULLETIN: So what will things look like in 2030?
Fifteen years from now, the time may have come where there’s an interesting symbiotic relationship between humans and complex machines. There will be an exchange capability: machines do things they do, humans do things they do. You’re going to have to go through an adolescent cycle of making bad decisions. I think we’re in an adolescent phase right now.
After 9/11, a whole bunch of people got stupid crazy about how everybody is a bad guy and we need to monitor everything. They didn’t look at the consequences for social behaviours. Same thing with social media: turns out that the upskirt selfies are probably a bad thing, even if it’s funny at the time. I think there will be a time in the future where that’s a non-issue. We’re going to stop thinking that it’s so controversial and we’ll focus more on things that matter, such as ensuring that every conscious human has enough food, water, electricity and communication enabling them to make good choices. Or making sure that there is enough transparency in governance and dynamic cultural understanding to be able to pre-emptively avert overly zealous policy decisions. Or exploring the experiential boundaries of science and spirituality. Or hacking language to create deeper meaning through more robust knowledge-engineering tools. We’ve got a generation where the shift is occurring. We’re maybe three to five years into that 20-year cycle.