Years ago I read an article in The Time magazine about ubiquitous computing. I was so fascinated by the article I still remember it very clearly today. For years I’ve watched the world depicted in that article unfold. Today I can say that the world is truly becoming one big e-stage where we all very visibly play our parts and that technological change has played a crucial role in creating this ‘stage’. Let me explain.
Ubiquitous computing in layman’s terms refers to 'feedback and response from a world that is totally connected'. This is made possible by the seamless integration of hardware and intelligent software embedded into our world. For the purpose of this article I will focus mostly on the software and the philosophy behind ubiquitous computing.
The Web is essentially a digital mirror of individuals, created by the interactions of each person on it. A sensor based digital world has replaced a senses dependent world. Just how much information related to you is available on the Web? We interact on a real time, highly information based world with software that interprets all the data we feed it almost on a daily basis. You might think, but how accurate can these interpretations be? Let’s take a look at just how deep this rabbit-hole goes.
“What is the potential for augmented objects that have an understanding of context and affect, and that can interact with people at a much deeper level than their inanimate status implies?” Things That Think
The team at Things That Think develops intelligent objects that are able to gather data on human behavior and are able to use this data to draw conclusions. The Spinner project aims to gather data about a person from sensors embedded into a wristband and a badge, and uses a monitor to study expression. It uses all the information it gleaned, processes it, and formulates a narrative, essentially reporting on the emotional and physical status of the person wearing it.
You might ask, “But how does that affect me?” The reason this project exists is because our world is developing into a giant Big Brother. The constant stream of information onto the Web (be it via Facebook, YouTube, advertising databases, Google +, Twitter, media reports or intelligent objects embedded into our worlds etc.), has created a need for software to interpret and understand patterns in digital communication.
Let’s look at a few examples that hit a bit closer to home.
For illustrative purposes let’s consider the following: you upload a photo to Facebook. What did you just reveal to the world about your life? What do the people who comment on your photo reveal? What if Facebook can study sentiment, patterns of behavior, preferences - it already links your preferences to advertising.
When logging in to Facebook you will notice a news feed on the right that contains all recent activity from your friends. Not only does it inform you about absolutely everything your friends do, but it also informs Facebook. The point is: there is this massive amount of very private real time information available to interpret and use.
The Web is populated with tools that help to regulate these masses of information that is streamed to us. Video discovery Apps are based on my preferences so that it can regulate that information for me. Every time I ‘like’ or comment on a video feed I feed personal information into the system that instructs it on my preferences. Because of the constant flow of data in and out of the Web, it is becoming a hub for studying human behavior.
The karma App for the iPhone and Android recommends gifts based on the recipient's demographic profile and interests, which it gathers from Facebook. Predictive Apps like the Karma app informs you when to buy who what gift. It reads into Facebook and connects all the dots for you. Just how will Apps change the way its users relate to people? How is it changing the way users spend their time? You no longer have to give thought to what someone would prefer as a gift; you would know, software gathered that information for you.
The Highlight App for iPhone runs in the background, gathering information from people around you through what they’ve shared over the Web. It links their information to yours and then informs you about mutual friends and various things you might have in common. This App is described as “a sixth sense about the world around you, showing you hidden connections.” I can know more about you before I have ever met you in real life. But just how is that changing our social structure? The quality of thought we put into our relationships? Does it make it more meaningful or does it dilute the human experience?
Pandora’s Box or the Holy Grail?
Sara Hunter, Google’s Head of UK Public Policy explaining the Internet.
What does all this imply? It implies artificial intelligence that is able to process and understand patterns in human behavior. Can it make predictions on my behavior? Know my routines? What I do on a daily basis, where I will most probably be at a certain point in time? What products I prefer and which advertising to send my way that I will be tempted to buy? Where I will most likely go on holiday? How healthy I am? Do I cheat on my partner and with what type of person I would most probably cheat with? Can it read my emotional state, am I happy, sad or angry and would it know how to respond to that? What does it know about my financial situation, my religious and political views? We are essentially feeding software information about ourselves and that software is beginning to be able to understand us at a much deeper level than we have anticipated.
It boils down to a world of complete interdependence, of symbiosis between man and machine. A world Sci-fi movies and games have long predicted. We are building a world that makes living easier, more practical, more efficient, more accurate, and more productive. But we are also building a world more dependent on technology and less dependent on humanity.
A world where perhaps in real life human interaction will become the rare commodity? Technology is redefining and restructuring the way we relate to each other and to our environments - both digital and natural. We perhaps share more information more easily with others, but just how deep and meaningful are the connections and bonds we form with others over the Web?
Will it be a world where my behavior, responses and preferences are mostly dictated for me? Where who I associate with has been determined by my input into the Web? Ubiquitous computing takes with the one hand and gives with the other. Some of the important questions for me are; how in control am I about the information I want to push into the Web? Am I even aware of the ripple effect a simple action as the ‘like’ button has? In a sense each person is creating his or her own customized e-world. Technology is no doubt giving us so much, but what is it taking?
Games like the Deus Ex series explored the pros and cons of ubiquitous computing. On the one hand it gives us power, enables us, but on the other hand it reduces us. The ever widening gap between those who can afford technology and those who can’t is superbly illustrated in Deus Ex. The cry of humanity who rages against the control of the few over the many and the repercussion of DRM (Digital Rights Movement) leave the player with a plethora of consequences to think about.
Ubisoft’s latest game, Watch Dogs focuses on the theme of ubiquitous computing. It displays how life would be like when humans are all tapped into a central Grid. The trailer opens with these words “…I see the digital shadow you cast”, which so accurately captures the essence of ubiquitous computing.
Evan Narcisse from Kotaku made this thought provoking observation about the implication of a wired- up world. “Here in an era where we get antsy with always-online games, with constant connectivity, with platforms that want to know who we are, who we're with, where we are, and what we're up to at all times, one game calls out the constant surveillance and integration as both omnipresent and terrifying. And when it takes just enough from the real world that it can convincingly rewrite history, Watch Dogs plays on every conspiracy theory and "but what if..." that lurks in our shadows. Reprogram traffic lights from your phone? Sure! Shadowy figures controlling each other on the street? Why not?”
How has life changed, and how has it not? Ideas that sounded crazy a few years ago are now a reality and our daily lives are filled with technology that we cannot conceive of living without. What is all this technology hiding from our view? Are we lulled into the acceptance of spewing our sometimes innermost thoughts over the Web for intelligent software to dissect and categorise? Who has access to this information? Do we understand what our interaction on the Web reveals about us? It changed and continually changes our concept of community, time, education, privacy and freedom. I cannot help but think about the observation of Plato when the written word invaded the once only spoken world;
“If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.”
Technology brings advancement, and I am thrilled to live in this age of ubiquitous computing. I am excited to explore the possibilities, but I also want to understand the subtext. If through technology “all the world has become an e-stage”, and we are the actors, who makes up the audience?
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