Sunday, December 30, 2012

Zetabytes, Open Systems and Worrying about Equity

Zetabytes, Open Systems and Worrying about Equity

This is the first in a series on big data and its impact on society from CSPO co-
zetabyte-image-largedirector Daniel Sarewitz, published in Slate on 27 Dec. 2012. It also appears on As We Now Think, a site edited by the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes at Arizona State University. ASU is a partner in Future Tense with Slate and the New America Foundation.

We share this with our readers with one eye to our on-going Zetabytes/Open Systems series that will be getting close attention in the year ahead -- with the other eye to our Equity-Based Transport series, also to continue full speed ahead in 2013.


- Excerpts from article by Daniel Sarewitz, full text available here.

Advances in real-time data acquisition, processing, and display technologies means that it is possible to design a toll road that can continually change prices to control how many cars are on the road and how fast they are going. These “hot lanes“ have just been opened along a part of the Washington, D.C., Beltway, the 10-lane, traffic-infested artery that to normal humans is a metaphorical boundary between the real, outside-the-Beltway world and the weird, political one on the inside. . . .

At a cost of $2 billion, a private sector partnership (which gets to keep the tolls) has built a 14-mile-long, four-laned section of highway, parallel to the main lanes of the toll-free Beltway, and has guaranteed to the state of Virginia that it will always keep traffic moving at no less that 45 mph along its length. They do this by continuously monitoring the number of cars (which must be equipped with EZ-Pass transponders) and their speed, and by raising toll prices as necessary to keep the number of cars on the road at a level that will allow the speed to stay at or above the guaranteed minimum. . . .

Of course economic rationality benefits some more than others. As long ago as 1973, philosopher Ivan Illich recognized that speed was an issue at the intersection of technology and justice. In his extended essay “Energy and Equity,” Illich observed presciently, if somewhat obscurely, that the quest for speed in transportation was an unrecognized domain in which technological advance itself led to increasing inequity of distribution of social and economic opportunity:
Unchecked speed is expensive, and progressively fewer can afford it. Each increment in the velocity of a vehicle results in an increase in the cost of propulsion and track construction and—most dramatically—in the space the vehicle devours while it is on the move. Past a certain threshold of energy consumption for the fastest passenger, a world-wide class structure of speed capitalists is created.

. . .

The technology for the Beltway smart lanes is an impressive early example of how rapidly growing data collection and management capabilities can be applied in real-time to manage complex, if narrow, social problems—and, if we’re not attentive (which we seem not to be)—to reinforce, in another small way, the embedded inequities that are growing more serious and apparently intractable in American society.

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About the author: 
Daniel Sarewitz is Co-Director, Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes, Associate Director, Center for Nanotechnology in Society, Professor of Science and Society and Professor, School of Life Sciences and School of Sustainability
He can be reached at

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About the editor: 

about-the editor - 11dec12

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