I was sitting in Starbucks a few months ago with my 8-year old daughter playing 20 questions. She chose an oddly specific creature, a black and white warbler, but she had a spotty knowledge of its habits. Turns out she was doing a little research project on the bird. She knew its song and its size, but not its habitat. So with my iPhone and Starbucks' free WiFi, we Googled the bird, and were able to find facts, images and even hear its song. Mobile can be beautiful.
Super Powers and Artificial Senses
Your iPhone, or Android, or whatever, may be in your hand more than your car keys, your silverware and your loved ones combined. It gives you superpowers. You have in your hand a super-human sense of everything from location and speed to radiation, food freshness, proximity, blood pressure and much more. It also gives you constant access to our “continually improving, communal, prosthetic memory” (thank you, Gibson), known as the internet (I have always found the capitalization of internet disturbing. Don’t do it. Just live with the green underlining).
Your phone also gives you, should you choose to accept it, a constant awareness of the world around you -- whether it's telling us about the latest sports hero or dictatorship to go down, Bezos buying the Washington Post, or the earthquake you’re about to be rattled by. We have constant contact with our kith and kin. It gives you protection in uncertain circumstances and aid in emergencies. It gives you freedom. Certainly it gives my kids theirs -- I’d never let them roam untethered.
We have seen phones, connected to social networks, catalyze the fall of tyrannical regimes, and coordinate aid in disasters. We’ve seen them both record and create historic events.The medium is indeed the message. [McLuhan understood so very deeply, so early. Of course he was also witnessing a social revolution.The 1960s and 70s reexamination of social mores hardly compares with the revolution we are seeing today, but today’s social refactoring will play out over a longer time horizon. Maybe.]
A Third Way - Neither Animate nor Inanimate
There is no longer a simple dichotomy between animate and inanimate objects.
There is a new class of objects. I’ll call them signalers. They are objects that send signals.These include your phone of course, along with many other things. Soon to be a nearly infinite number of things.
Your thermostat, for example, always was a sensor. It sensed temperature, and turned your furnace on or off accordingly. Your Nest, however, does more. It monitors and adjusts, but also attempts to record patterns and adjust according to those patterns, which is interesting, but still not the point. The point is that Nest knows when you are likely to be home and your temperature preferences and it is iPhone app controllable, which means that data is stored in someone’s cloud. Not your cloud. This is true also of your GPS.
Your box of cornflakes is not a signaler, but a signal. When you buy your cereal, it is scanned. The price is displayed and added to your grocery bill. It is also logged with the grocery store inventory processes, and their marketing database.
Because the supermarkets now give very large discountsfor joining their clubs, along with gas discounts and others -- few of us are radical enough to resist joining. Not to mention the fact that this same information is also registered with your financial institution because you probably paid with another signaler -- a bank card or credit card. This began decades ago, but back then they were collecting data with little ability to do much with it. Well big data has come a rather long way -- and now Target can detect your unwed teenage daughter’s pregnancy before you can.
Now Objects can See You Back
We are used to being anonymous in an inanimate world.
Your objects are pumping you information at the same time they are pumping it back to some central location. Who’s watching and why? The government is watching some of it, and you can be certain that the company who sells or services your object/service is also watching -- probably to maximize their profits, and sometimes to also maximize your enjoyment. Apple wants to know what you listen to so that they can sell you more. Target and Safeway want your information so that they can sell you more. The government wants your information to track down bad guys, or possibly for other reasons such as public health or protection of civil rights (rather than, we hope, the suppression of them).
In 1995 I was working for a now-defunct startup where I played with complexity theory. FedEx hired us to do a tiny project for them.
They were exploring smart packaging. If packages were imbued with certain kinds of intelligence, would they be able to smartly route themselves along the most efficient route? Routing millions of packages globally throughout the world is a very hard problem. Optimizing the routes is extremely difficult -- especially when you need to deal with things like scheduling changes, weather events, natural disasters and so forth. So FedEx was exploring the notion that the best possible solution to route optimization is to allow the packages themselves to detect and connect to their local environment and make their own routing decisions locally.
My simulation, of course, showed packages routing themselves around the world very efficiently, gracefully rerouting themselves around obstacles and dramatically reducing overall transit time for the system compared with the traditional centralized, predetermined routing system.
Those packages were not exactly inanimate.They were smarter than your box of cornflakes.They were like robots in that they could detect and react, and they can phone home.
For now, FedEx puts barcodes on every package. They are -- like your box of cornflakes -- just signals (for now).
The Pervasive Internet of Things.Privacy, Prism and a Very Big Question
But just like in the grocery store, the benefits have a quid pro quo -- the GPS means I’m rarely lost anymore, but it also means that someone can know where I am -- at all times. So does the phone company, and possibly the NSA.
So we have a new, urgent and mind-blowing privacy debate to have.
Here’s the truth. If you are storing information anywhere but within the confines of your house, you can be certain that someone other than yourself can see it. This means your cable box, your social media accounts, your Nest thermostat, your phone are conduits for others to see the most intimate details of your life.
Have we technologied ourselves out of privacy? Is the only truly private person a cash-wielding, non-cellphone, no-club card, AAA map-folder? An anachronism? Turning on your car or your kitchen lights with your iPhone is very cool, extremely convenient, but also logged in someone’s database.
Is there a right to privacy? If so, are private companies restricted in the same way as governments? The bill of rights, read a certain way,is a list of curbs on governmental powers, but they also dictate the rules of society and commerce. Should there be warnings on your credit card and GPS that explicitly say what data is collected and to what purpose? Should this sort of thing be allowed at all?
If it is unacceptable for our government to monitor our communications and movements and finances for the purposes of national security, is it tolerable for AT&T and Wells Fargo to do the same for purposes of revenue?
The right to privacy is not listed in the U.S. constitution. It was brought into the public debate in the Roe v Wade decision in 1973. We have many rights that come at a very high cost. Free speech for example. Miranda. We have anti-slavery laws (including, most importantly, modern minimum wage and worker safety laws).
I came across this legal brief by two Supreme Court judges:
Recent inventions and business methods call attention to the next step which must be taken for the protection of the person, and for securing to the individual what Judge Cooley calls the right 'to be let alone.'  Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that 'what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.'"
Would you be surprised to learn that this was written in 1890 by Judges Warren and Brandeis?
Public data can aid in public health, democracy, safety and our understanding and access to the world. Jennifer Pahlka gave a talk that showed how public data is, in fact, the basis of American Democracy, and that it is essential that we grow and protect its integrity. It can bring critical resources to those in need. It might build a more just and civil society. It might also shift power -- that is to say information and knowledge -- into another resource like money, that governments and phone companies have in abundance, and citizens have little, and little hope of achieving.
We’re going to have to decide how we want this to go, and start experimenting with the rules and regulations we’ll need to get us there. Where will we compromise?
And so we get back to intention. Is society’s intention to maximize profit or to maximize prosperity -- life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? What unimagined extensions to human capability and prosperity will pervasive computing bring us? In what ways will it refactor our expectations of society and our role within it as individuals?
The best is yet to come.
Title image courtesy of loop_oh (Flickr) through a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license
Editor's Note: To read more by Deb, see her The Human Enterprise: Progress or Perish