“Smart” is kind of creepy

Today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has a story headlined “Madison software firm Solomo develops customer-tracking technology.”  Yes, I’m creeped out, although seeing this story just pulls together a lot of things that have been creeping me out for a while now.

Basically today’s article talks about how retailers will soon be able to analyze their customers’ behavior and demo/psychographics.

“We see the indoor location market exploding,” Solomo founder and CEO Liz Eversoll said.  ” . . . You wouldn’t build a website today without analytics, and tomorrow you won’t have a location without intelligence.”

“We think every location in the world will be a smart location over the next few years,” Eversoll said.

“Smart” in this case means a building is equipped with sensors that can pick up the presence of a smartphone, triangulate its location and potentially ping the phone back.

Stores already have the ability to track Internet-enabled devices (iPods, smartphones, etc.) when a user enters a Wi-Fi zone.  If the device’s Wi-Fi is turned on, that is.  I rarely think to switch my Wi-Fi off, which means that the minute I enter a department store, my device is spotted.

Here’s the part that creeps me out.  In conjunction with the store’s security cameras, any store personnel who wanted to “analyze” my shopping behavior could figure out who I was.  My movements could be tracked until the moment I made a purchase.  If I used a credit card, the store would then also have my name and lots of other convenient “analytics” information.

A while ago I read an article that described how Microsoft wanted to sell software to police departments that would link all in-store “private” security cameras with outdoor “public” security cameras.  Great for solving crimes.  But maybe also a great source of “analytics” revenue?

My new GM vehicle is equipped with OnStar.  Great safety feature.  But now GM knows where my vehicle is at all times.  If I’m in an accident an operator will apparently start talking to me on my vehicle’s phone.  But if the phone can be activated from afar, does that also mean that someone could be listening in on any “private” conversations I might have in my vehicle?

Do I sound paranoid?  I’m not.  But I’m starting to connect the dots and realize that there is no such thing as privacy anymore.  For a long time the more future-embracing folks among us have been telling us to get over the whole privacy hang-up.  Well, there’s really nothing to get over anymore.  Privacy is gone.

Drones the size of insects (no kidding) can be outfitted with cameras.  Think there’s anyplace you can go for privacy that an insect can’t get to?

What other interesting, creepy things have I read about lately?  Well, Digital Trends had an article on April 10th about a new product that’s a tiny glass capsule designed to be inserted into your body, most likely your hand, containing a chip that allows you to interact with compatible devices just by waving your hand.  Kind of like The Clapper, the sound-activated on-off switch that allows you to switch off a lamp by clapping your hands together.  Except now you can do way more than that with just a swish of your finger.

At its heart, this chip alters the relationship between human and machine.  No longer does a person merely operate a machine; that person is the machine.

Last summer videos of car “hackings” were making the rounds, and some have speculated that the death of journalist Michael Hastings last June in a fiery, high-speed car crash was actually an assassination.  I have no opinion.  There’s a fine line between legitimate suspicion and wacko conspiracy theories, and I just don’t know enough about this case to even comment.  But it sure was enlightening to see the videos and to realize that computers have made automobiles vulnerable to takeover by outside forces.  If you missed those videos, you might want to take a look at this one.

Makes me want to keep an older vehicle on hand, just in case.  NOT that I’m PARANOID 🙂

Remember the Y2K hysteria?  Computers make our lives better, no question.  But what are we giving up in exchange?

A software bug took out power across a huge swath of Canada and the U.S. in 2003 (see the map below, from Wikipedia).

During the massive blackout, people couldn’t even refuel their vehicles to escape to somewhere that still had power because all the pumps at the gas stations were powered by computers.  I wonder if it’s even possible to find an old-fashioned mechanical pump anymore.  Remember those?  They made that “ka-ching, ka-ching” sound as the numbers rolled? 🙂

Ray Kurzweil’s ideas on the coming “Singularity” predict that things will start changing for humans big time in the next ten years.  Fifteen years ago I wouldn’t have believed it.  But I believe it now.  Bill Joy published an incredibly provocative article in Wired way back in April 2000, titled “Why the future doesn’t need us” and subtitled “Our most powerful 21st-century technologies – robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech – are threatening to make humans an endangered species.”

The gist of these articles is that humans will merge with computers, and the changes will happen so gradually that we’ll barely notice . . . or object.  By the end of the 21st century, they say, human beings will no longer exist in their current form.  Nor will humans any longer be the dominant “life” form on earth.  We will exist to service the machines we have created.

In one article I read, which I couldn’t easily find to link to just now (but I’ll keep trying to find it and post if and when I do), it was postulated that humans will have a symbiotic relationship with the dominant artificial intelligence (AI).  At that point we’ll serve a function similar to the one currently served by gut microbes in our own human bodies.  That is, we’ll live in a culture that is complex and meaningful in its own right, but our ultimate purpose will be to maintain the machinery of the larger system.

A very chilling thought.  And frankly one that creeps me out.  Humans reduced to intestinal bacteria?

Maybe this future is inevitable.  But for now I’ll do whatever I can to avoid “selling out” my freedoms and privacy in exchange for the ease and practicality of “smart.”  I’ll keep a dumb phone for as long as possible.  I’ll keep one of our ancient non-computerized vehicles in decent operating condition.  I’ll read print instead of electronic texts whenever feasible.

That this will be hugely inconvenient, there is no question.  But as Thomas Jefferson is credited with saying, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

 

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. My blog is a space for playing with ideas about creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and the nature of "insight."
This entry was posted in History, Life, News, Popular culture, Science, Technology, WPLongform (posts of 1000 words or longer) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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