People’s Panopticon: Mass Mediocracy

There is a pair of articles in the current Economist issue well worth reading: The People’s Panopticon and Every Step You Take.  These are excellent primers on where personal surveillance technology may be taking us. Panoption starts with the concept of life logging, then introduces more dystopian directions. Sure, small form factor surveillance has clear advantages in terms of limitation of liability and such like for the likes of rental car agencies, police departments and many, many others. But, as always, there is a price that becomes increasingly hard to assess when you marry ubiquity with intelligent real-time analysis and permanent record-keeping. A camera on an elderly person can prompt conversations with loved ones: soon the conversations that result are not exactly the result of two parties, but three: a son or daughter; an older father or mother who has serious senility, and an AI system that is prompting the father/mother in just the right ways to create a reasonable-sounding conversation between the two humans in the loop. Identity starts to enter uncharted territory on this ride.  

As I have argued, ubiquity also melts the off-line world into the ether of the on-line world. As the Economist writes: “Head-mounted screens would let people spend time on-line that would previously have been off-line.” One particularly unnerving patent application they discuss in the article is straight from New Mediocracy: a camera that looks outward at billboards the user sees, then looks at the emotional response on the user’s face.  The magazine notes that today’s head-mounted cameras only look outward, so this is not really possible. Well…that’s not really entirely true. Research projects are already looking both out and in simultaneously, for instance to view what a driver sees by studying, in wide angle, what is visible in front of the driver, and by looking back at the pupil to see just what the driver is focusing on. First-person Vision is a good example of such a project developing real hardware at my own institution. 

Both this article and its sister article, Every Step You Take, talk about face recognition technology as an interesting line in the sand. It is interesting that we are stuck on face recognition specifically, even though there are so very many aspects to privacy, from behavior, license plates, gestures– the list is never-ending– that we need a broader thoughtfulness about if and how we wish for our physical world and on-line databases to stay somehow separable. In the end of the day, we as societies need to decide if everything will be searchable eventually or not.  Of course, along the way we will begin to notice just who profits from such searchability- and I suspect strongly that there will be little justice in that aspect of this equation.


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