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The Intelligent Convention

Copyright by Theresa L. Ford
Permission required for copying or distribution.

It was a simple idea actually. Smart ID cards at conventions. You encode your ID card with your business card, a brief profile, a list of topics you wanted to know about and people you wanted to meet, and maybe a flyer or two to pass out to interested persons.

While simply walking around the convention, your card would communicate with other cards and inform you when you should stop and talk with someone and about what topic. Of course you could still stop and talk with people even if your card didn't tell you to, but it would help ensure that you got the most out of your convention experience. It would silently collect information for you to review later. You could collect thousands of business cards merely by attending a speech in an auditorium and standing near the door as everyone left.

You could even have virtual ID cards programmed into your PDA or laptop or watch or digital camera or whatever gadget you were carrying around. In fact, a great amount of society status points would be attributed to the person with the most expensive and creative ID card.

I was never particularly interested in social status points so I merely accepted the standard Smart ID card at the convention registration and provided information for a plain and simple business card. The overly bright woman signing me in gazed at my plain white, ad-free tee-shirt, wrinkled khakis, and rough haircut with disdain. She seemed surprised that I wanted the full three-day pass, but diligently typed the request in her computer and ran a biometrics audit to make sure I was who I said I was. After checking the information carefully, I signed a disclosure agreement for the meager information on my Smart ID card.

By the time I had finished paying the registration fee, my Smart ID card had already collected four business cards, seven fliers, and two articles from the three people working check-in at the convention and the one person who had just finished registering in the next line over. Of course, I didn't know that. I didn't have a card reader. You could pay to use one of the convention's card readers if you wanted. I thought that maybe I might take a look later.

I shoved my Smart ID card into my pocket that held my wad of paper cash and car key. Scanners at convention events would find it there so I could be admitted. It was the only thing I carried that was remotely digital or electronic. I wasn't even wearing a watch.

I gazed around at other attendees with interest. Groups of people were already congregating according to their clothing. There were two predominant groups, business suits and flashy-ad shirts with jeans. Both groups carried and consulted a variety of expensive gadgets. As the convention progressed, these groups would mix more based on what their Smart ID cards told them. For the time being, though, they were still intent on visual cues.

The topic of conversation, of course, revolved around protecting company revenues while ensuring the population's privacy and right to fair use of purchases. Were big corporations evil or just trying to stay in business? Should consumers demand more of products? Is it reasonable to arrest individuals who own or maintain hardware and software that is used to break some law? Did you hear about how our government arrested a foreign citizen for breaking one of our laws in his country? How about the kid being sued for listening to music? How many labor hours have you spent in the last year trying to protect your company's proprietary information from either theft or malicious corruption or deletion?

A group of college-age kids were gathered by the water fountain as I approached for a drink. They shifted unconsciously out of my way. I was a few years older than them and not wearing a flashy-ad shirt and jeans.

"Students can be arrested and serve jail time for learning!"

"He was presenting what he learned, not actually learning."

"How many of us keep quiet when we know about security flaws in our school's servers because it frightens the teachers and may get us in trouble? How would they know we haven't abused the hole before reporting it? Our school server has three major holes. The network admin doesn't know anything about securing networks!"

"I tried to tell one of my instructors about a problem with their network. He didn't believe me until one of the other department heads told him that his server was infected and spamming their server."

As I walked from the water fountain back past the registration booths, I overheard someone speaking in a loud, complaining tone. I stopped to listen.

"Is my biometrics audit on this card? I don't want to share that."

I couldn't hear the answer and didn't want to step closer and be noticed eavesdropping. He nodded to the answer and seemed more relieved so I deduced that my biometrics audit wasn't stored on my card.

"How are the other Smart ID cards authenticated? How do I know what I'm receiving is from who it says it is?"

Another moment passed while the brightly smiling person at the booth answered.

"Has anyone secured these Smart ID cards? When I try to download it, is it going to erase my disk? It would be incredibly easy to put a virus on one of these things."

I walked on toward the first convention event room. A poster propped up outside the room proclaimed a speech about data encryption and network traffic verification. I'm sure the presentation time and speaker were defined somewhere on my Smart ID card for environment friendly, easy reference.

The event guard at the entrance was looking at his scanner as I passed. He didn't look up but apparently he didn't need to. My Smart ID card told his scanner I had paid for the privilege of hearing the presentation and probably automatically added me to the tally of attendees.

How was it possible to detect malicious network traffic if all network traffic was encrypted? Wouldn't putting verification software after the decryption step slow down the end user's machine? What monitoring scheme would work in an enterprise-size environment? If human review of data is too slow for a real time environment, isn't a self-teaching algorithm determining what constitutes bad traffic prone to errors and potential removal of desired data?

During the presentation, I counted no less than 35 people who discreetly consulted their laptop, PDA, or cell phone. Some may have been receiving automatic notifications from their networks. Social status points were awarded for how important and necessary you were at your place of employment. Automatic notifications to devices provided some measure of proof. The convention center maintained a wireless network accessible from anywhere within the building so people could retrieve their self-defining proof all day long.

By dinner time, I had attended two more presentations, one on preventing buffer overflows in modern programming languages and a much lighter one on the effect of computer related satire and comics on the foundational beliefs of the community. Doubtless, the complete notes and information for all three presentations were saved to my Smart ID Card so I could review them later.

While the cafeteria worker was scrounging around for change - no one uses cash these days... didn't you know you could get meals prepaid and encoded into your Smart ID card - I looked around for a good place to sit. Tables were arranged deliberately to facilitate group interaction and no table had less than fourteen places to sit. I took my tray containing a very fine hot roast beef sandwich with gravy and wandered through the mostly-occupied tables.

Most people were staring intently at their gadgets and didn't notice me pass. I briefly wondered how many people would refuse to talk to me because their Smart ID card thought I was uninteresting? In any case, it was probably more comfortable if people looked at their electronic devices instead of me, where they might see my doubt, insecurities, and intent. Or worse, where I might see theirs.

My Smart ID card failed to tell me where to sit because I didn't have a reader and preprogrammed preferences and no one else's card caused them to hail me. My roast beef was in danger of becoming cold so I sat down with a group of people around my age that had already begun to cross the flashy-ad shirt, business suit boundary.

I smiled and nodded to them. The man to my left studied my wardrobe briefly and greeted me. I suspect he was secretly looking for my electronic gadget because his very shiny, obviously elite laptop was prominently displayed next to his dinner tray.

"Because I looked up the symptoms on the web, I could tell the doctor what was wrong," the man across the table continued. His shirt declared he was a free software advocate. Free meant free to read, modify, and share, not necessarily free of monetary cost. "I also knew what to ask about the different medications he could prescribe."

The conversation continued about how useful the Internet truly was. How did people find out about anything before this? What would be the best way to ensure that a website was actually valid and telling the truth about things? If you paid for a third-party certificate guaranteeing you were who you said you were, would anyone bother to check it? How many people verified public keys?

At the table behind me, a group of business suit wearers were discussing database search algorithms and how web search engines prioritized and censored results. I thought the people at the two tables should get together, but kept the opinion to myself. Their Smart ID cards could tell them. The roast beef was excellent and the gravy worked well on that and the mashed potatoes.

The conversation at my table turned toward electronic devices and various features. There was no doubt that the man next to me had the best laptop with the fastest speed, lightest weight, and most features. He demonstrated how well it handled running multiple networked operating systems at the same time through virtual machines. Its built-in digital camera could also take the highest resolution pictures available without actually using a separate digital camera.

I quietly excused myself as the surreptitious frowns in my direction at my obvious lack of laptop envy were becoming more frequent since I had finished eating.

I wandered the convention halls for the rest of the evening, watching the interactions of people and pondering the future of technology. I was not invited to join any conversations. I did see a number of people check their Smart ID cards as I approached.

The next morning, I went through the Dealer's room. With a purpose bordering on obsession, I stopped at every table and inspected their wares. Most displays were fantastic. Large screens showed dynamic video and speakers played music or commentaries to draw people closer.

Several had built rooms that could be entered to drown out the deafening volume of the main room. The best was the air flight simulator with a 180 degree screen, surround sound, and a mock cockpit that actually lifted and tilted. Due to my lack of piloting skills, my flight ended shortly with a rather loud crashing noise accompanied by a greatly reduced cockpit shaking.

As I approached one table, the large screen displayed a huge welcome message with my name on it. It reminded me of the data on my Smart ID card and I thought briefly about paying one of the convention terminals to show me what was on it. That table displayed a variety of surveillance equipment for home and personal use. The sales representative was describing potential income opportunities when surveillance systems were used with the Internet. My name on the screen changed to someone else's as another person approached and I moved on.

I attended a presentation on language interpreters and how they could be made more accurate by using logic linguists have employed for centuries to describe common structures found in all languages.

After that, I sat through an analysis of the latest processor design and a description of some of the key changes in its instruction set. By losing some backward compatibility, a computer could be made a lot faster. Here's the math calculations proving this. No, there is not a working model yet. It's all theoretical, but would you like to fund a working model?

I found and attended three different open panel discussions on new RFPs that defined protocols for more secure and accurately authenticated network packets. People were very vocal about the bits and bytes flying around their networks and how they should behave.

That evening I went to the political forums that debated current and pending laws and free software versus closed-source software. And I had thought the RFP discussions were lively! These speakers were very good and obviously emotionally attached to their views. One even said that a complimentary version of some very expensive, proprietary application had been copied to one lucky person's Smart ID card merely for attending his lecture and winning a random lottery entered automatically by their Smart ID card as they walked in the room.

By the third and last day of the convention, my brain was spinning from all the things I had seen and learned. I think I had reached my information-overload point. How many different things could a person be expected to absorb in one weekend? I felt like my thoughts had been fractured into tiny glimpses of the world.

The last presentation I attended was on how to sort through, find, and extract appropriate information from Smart ID cards. After all, you would want to know who to contact about things of interest and would want to make sure you did it in a timely manner. You could even purchase the convention's specialized search engine and navigator if you wanted.

I didn't. I really wanted to go home, drink a beer and sit outside in today's fall sunshine a while and clear my head. I had one more thing to do yet.

My employer was waiting at my car. I didn't even know his name. I handed him my Smart ID card and he handed me a roll of cash for my time.