How has 2020 changed us already?

In 2003, science fiction author William Gibson was interviewed in the Economist magazine. He said something—which always rattles around inside my head—that was as simple as it was provocative. “The future,” he said “is already here, it is just unevenly distributed”.

This post was written before the full extent of the COVID-19 pandemic was known. However the messages contained in this article about the bushfire crisis are also relevant in the face of this next “natural disaster”. It continues to show how brittle our infrastructure is, how much we rely on data, and how external forces can shape our collective behaviour. This will not be the last global challenge of this century, and indeed such events are likely to increase in frequency and magnitude given our connected world. To face these challenges it is not enough to react. More than ever, we must connect our thinking and teach and train people to see and work in systems.

I’ve been thinking about that quote a lot recently.

Over the last 6 months my country, Australia, has been on fire. There have been fires, of unprecedented size, scope and power in New South Wales, Victoria, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory, as well as significantly larger than usual blazes in all other states. The fire season came early, and burned harder than any of us recollect. It burned places that have rarely, if ever, burned before. It left smoke clouds in its various wakes that descended on our cities and our towns.

And somehow, in between the fires and the smoke and the stories of death, dying, destruction, habitat loss, human loss and grief, I have been thinking about Gibson and asking myself: – what if this is the future, already here?

It is clear that the climate is changing – summers are likely to be, on average, hotter, drier and longer. Rainfall patterns have changed too – where the rain might fall, and when and how much looks different. But thinking about Australia as Gibson’s future already here, wasn’t just about the consequences of a protracted drought, and a long, hot summer and unprecedented fire.

It was also because this summer mobile phone apps told where the fires were and algorithms told us where the fires might be later, and weather apps to suggest where the rain could fall, and when, and we talked about air purifiers and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) counts and face masks and where to get them and how to wear them. It was about critical infrastructures that failed – electricity, telecommunications, roads, payment systems, traffic lights, air conditioning, smoke detectors, information flowing across state borders and between mobile apps. And about critical infrastructures that kept us alive – civil society, volunteer fire fighting services, the army; and thousands of small acts by brave, good individuals.

In a crisis, we must rely on one another. We must rely on the systems we have created, the processes we have established. And to a certain extent, even though we know these systems save lives, we have taken them for granted.

What we are experiencing now, in Australia, makes me wonder – if this is a possible future, what should we do to ensure it isn’t the only future, or even our continuing one. “Business as usual” is starting to mean something completely different now.

Strangely this summer has also had me thinking about what was once the longest train platform in Australia.

It is 455 meters long and sits mostly on the edge of the city of Albury on the Victoria-New South Wales border. It is an artefact of a particular bureaucratic reality in 19th century Australia – that the colonies of Victoria and New South Wales had two different administrators back in Britain and as a result two different gauges of railway track were laid, ignoring the on-the-ground reality that Victoria and New South Wales share a border. The railway gauges were incompatible and to connect the states by rail required a train platform long enough for the trains to be pulled up alongside one another and the passengers or freight swapped between trains.

Any one of us, here in Australia, who worried about a fire crossing between New South Wales and Victoria knows exactly why this train platform has been haunting me. 140 years ago, it was the future already here and unevenly distributed. It was a story about decisions made in isolation, people designing infrastructure without always thinking about the broader system, or the future, and a seeming failure to adopt a human-centric approach. It is also a story about states and state-based activity and the ways things don’t flow naturally across boundaries.

Replace the train tracks with mobile phone apps and the gauges with information displays and underlying data-structures, and you can see the future already there in 1883.

In this new future, there are ever-present questions about data. Until this summer, those questions felt a little abstract; personal data, government data, corporate data – and how are they made accessible and what are the benefits?

Now, it all feels much more real and urgent. Who holds data about fast moving fires? And how do we track a fire – or smoke – across state lines? How do we avoid giving citizens distinct, disjointed experiences when all they want is to get to safety? Whose responsibility is it to align their data? Who has to change their practices, and which practices get to stay the same? How do we continue to grow our capacity to collaborate on modelling best and worst case predictions when the environment is changing so rapidly? And whom should we trust?

Australians are suddenly having to think much harder about this, and their own role in supporting our civic institutions. What does it mean, when the information we share about ourselves becomes the means by which a charity can provide much needed support, or a government agency can help us secure the services we need? In times of natural disaster, just how complex and contextual our feelings about data provision and use are made apparent. As citizens, we generate data and share data in pursuit of air quality readings, real time fire predictions, evacuation requests and weather patterns. We rely on data sharing to make sense of our world and feel safe in it. At the same time, in trying to leverage the infrastructure that’s supposed to help us feel safe, we realise just how brittle this infrastructure can be. How inconsistent and confusing data that’s supposed to help us navigate it can be. How fragile our 21st century infrastructure can be – electricity, water, telecommunications – in the face of increasingly destructive forces of nature.

This brittleness is starting to expose just how unevenly distributed the future will be and how difficult the 21st century will be to deliver. Yet we will have to contend with it, if we are going to ensure a sustainable, safe future for Australia.

The Office of the National Data Commissioner wants to foster discussion on data issues that are relevant to all Australians, by collaborating with experts in the private, civil society, research and government sectors to publish their posts and linking to their articles on our website. The views expressed in the posts and comments are not necessarily those of the Office of the National Data Commissioner.

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