Radical Transparency

by | May 16, 2008 | Business Trends


The Whole Earth Genealogy Project – Where will it lead?

Starting with a concept for creating the genealogy for the entire earth, here is a fascinating journey into the topic of radical transparency.

In 1999 I came up with the idea of creating what I called the Whole Earth Genealogy Project. The way I had visualized it working was to create a website where people would create their own genealogy, as much of it as they knew about. And other people would come and create their genealogy. Over time, the system would start automatically connecting people’s genealogy, and eventually we would have a network with the entire genealogy of the human race mapped out, as far back as possible.

I thought about this idea for several years.

On one hand, the project was massive huge, requiring the buy-in of many people. The information, I was quite certain would prove to be tremendously valuable, providing information about hereditary diseases, demographic and census data, and much more.

Yes, the privacy issue kept coming up, but I always felt the value of the information superceded privacy issues, and I thought all of that could eventually be worked out.

But what exactly was I trying to create?

Essentially what I was trying to create was a grid-map of all of humanity, a new organizing system for people. A new taxonomy.

Every person on earth would have a placeholder showing them exactly where they fit. It was similar to maps for geography. This would be a geography, of sorts, for humanity.

So how is this different than social networking?

Social networking sites create a relational gridmap of personal relationships. This would be a gridmap of biological relationships. The difference being that person to person relationships are transient, but biological ones are permanent.

At the time, the revenue model I came up with was to charge people who wanted to leave memorials for their friends and family. People would be allowed to post photos, videos, and other types of documents, and there would be a small fee associated with each of these memorials.

But as I was thinking about this over-arching grid-map of humanity, and the idea that each person would have a personal cell in which they could
store information. The idea occurred to me that the information could be auto-generated.

Recently a research team, led by Dr Vincent Savolainen of the Imperial College of London, discovered the matK gene – what is being called the “barcode gene”. They can use this gene to identify plant and animal species. As an example, they used the matK gene to identify 1,600 different species of orchid.

So if someone develops a technology for remotely reading a person’s genes, by shooting a laser at someone for a tenth of a second to get a DNA readout, and I predict we will create this kind of technology within the next 10 years, we will be able to place this information on our grid-map of humanity.

Once this technology is created, within just a few years we will be able to record the DNA of everyone on earth, unbeknownst to the people. Simple flyovers with unmanned aircraft will be able capture all of the data.

Not only will it read the DNA, it will be able to decipher the information and map out all of the relationships between people and auto-generate the entire whole earth genealogy project. Almost overnight, we will have a new kind of information database unlike anything the world has ever known.

Have I got your attention? Is this scarring the hell out of you now. It should be. But before you jump to conclusions, there are a few other points to consider.

Being able to map the genealogy of all humanity, will also mean that we would be able to map the genealogy of plant and animal life as well. This ends up being a very rich vein for idea mining.

Right now several of the larger online companies have amasses huge amounts of data on their customers. This data is used to create things like recommendation engines and preference engines to make it convenient for people shopping online.

If the data being collected at the Google, Yahoo, and Amazon data centers is somehow connected to the people in these cells, not only do we have genealogical and DNA information, but also personality data, and eventually biometric data, public records, and financial information.

Wow! My little Whole Earth Genealogy Project has suddenly turned into the ultimate big brother technology.

In a world where knowledge is power, too much information can lead to a breakdown of social structures. Mass chaos.

But here is what I believe to be a more realistic vision.

No technology is either all good or all bad. It always falls somewhere in between.

While we generally think that living a radically transparent life means that we will be vulnerable to all kinds of threats and problems, the fact of the matter is that we haven’t tried it, so we don’t know.

A person lobbing hand grenades at my glass house has to remember that he is also living in a glass house.

Radical transparency, on one hand makes us vulnerable, but on the other hand provides safety.

I’m pretty sure that moving to a radically transparent lifestyle where the whole world knows everything about us doesn’t solve all of our problems. But I’m also convinced that living with all of our current information barriers creates more problems than it solves.

So here is the conclusion that I’ve come to. I’ve concluded that this kind of technology is inevitable. It will happen whether we want it to or not.

This becomes a new technology that we somehow have to manage. We will need to create systems for managing it, and the sooner we come to grips with systems for managing radical transparency, the better.

But for me, I find that every revolutionary new breakthrough is just a stepping stone to the next revolutionary breakthrough.

As an idea junkie, my life is just a tortured quest for that next great idea fix, and so I keep searching.

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