The Wireless Angels of Our Nature
By Justin Hall, Mon Oct 14 00:00:00 GMT 2002

Will future technology empower creativity or increase invasions of privacy? Or both?

It seems silly to imagine a future where machines talk to each other without wireless connections. The recent science-fiction film Minority Report presented pod-cars traveling on auto-pilot along streamlined jetways, televisual advertisements recognizing passers-by, and diskettes used to transfer data. In a parody memo to characters in the film, web-writer Jane Pinckard pokes fun: “Speaking of efficient, I noticed that you guys are still using disks to transfer files from one user station to another. I mean, it's in the same room, you know? You guys could just get a cheap-o wireless card or something, save you the extra step.”

Now that wireless is an integrated part of our vision for the future, what specifically might we see? Video phones are passé in Japan. Location-based news and services should be largely omni-present within a few years. File-sharing networks, distributing music and preferences between affiliated and adjacent bodies will likely soon proliferate.

Machine madeFlesh

We’ll invariably take all of this technology, shrink it, and embed it. According to Paris-based digital and fine artist Mark Meadows, a.k.a Pighed: “Accessories sell and so I don’t see why they aren’t selling little necklaces that double as phone receivers. Why separate a cell phone and an mp3 player anyway, why have a wire from the ear to the pocket anyway, why keep the games on the desktop and what application can’t be put on something that you can hold in your hand or wear on your wrist on wear on your finger?”

Today, we’re still largely attached to using phones, PDAs and personal computers for our wireless information exchange. Our grandchildren won’t care where they do their research or have their conversations – in their hands or in their heads. Some would argue this human-machine integration is in itself ugly, or at least absurd. Mark Meadows points out, “wearable computing is on the up and it’s getting smaller. So then we all walk around all the time constantly looking at our hands and mumbling to some invisible friend.”

This idea of bringing technology close to the human body does strike fear in some increasingly marginalized opponents of technology-enhanced living. Their fears of machines’ transforming humanity and human nature are alarming if well-founded, as we are just beginning to saturate our environments, our selves with these devices.

Always-on Panopticon?

Today, “wireless technology” encompasses an increasingly vast array of devices and applications, growing far larger than phone calls and from-anywhere e-mail. Tiny transmitters embedded in most things could eventually make every thing a communicating node on a worldwide wireless informationnetwork.

Probably the best guide to the wireless future and all it might include is author Howard Rheingold. Starting four or five years ago, Rheingold began researching a seemingly disparate series of technologies: mobile phones, wireless networks, peer-to-peer file-sharing, reputation systems, collaborative computing. Examined collectively, they enable new sorts of social groups and social forces, according to his upcoming book Smart Mobs.

Concluding his broad survey in the final chapter, Rheingold asks of the pervading web of communicating devices and mobile human behaviors: “Always on Panopticon … or Cooperation Amplifier?” Panopticon there refers to 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s hypothetical prison where the constant possibility of surveillance by unknown, unseen watchers is presumed to affect the behavior of its prisoners. Rheingold superimposes that idea on wireless data exchange: “Every telephone call, credit card transaction, mouse-click, e-mail, automatic bridge toll collection, convenience market video camera, and hotel room electronic key collects and broadcasts personal information that is increasingly compiled, compared, sorted and stored by an unknown and possibly unknowable assortment of state security agencies and people who want to sell something.” Spam is already annoying; will it be more annoying when unsolicited commercial messages referenceour name, our address, and the last five films we’ve watched, regardless of where we watched them?

The reality of encroaching surveillance doesn’t scare some people, if personal privacy might be exchanged for convenience. Frequent flyer James McClurg, Chief Scientific Officer for MDS Pharma Services, muses over increased security at airports and says, “You can videotape my life if you want to be that bored, as long as I don’t have to stand in line.”

Wireless Invasion

But besides the personal security breaches possible with deep and thorough tracking of individuals, there’s the possibility that our increasing use of machines communicating wirelessly might interfere with our physical environment.

While we are being wedded to communicating computers, pieces of our environment are being wedded to each other and to the web. Under the Yurakucho train tracks in Tokyo, Sebastian Hassinger won’t eat the cooling salted pork cheek skewers before him, as he’s too busy talking. He’s gesturing with his large hands, spilling out his fears that one company, namely Microsoft, might run both the systems undergirding our human exchanges and the systems running our appliances. He studies and promotes Pervasive Computing with IBM, and he’s glad they largely stand by open standards, encouraging sometransparency of computer code and control.

As he finishes his rant, the nearby Bic Camera is already selling Bluetooth-enabled washing machines and microwave ovens to Japanese consumers. Now that we can communicate between appliances and PC’s; it no longer seems far-fetched to imagine that the tools of our homes might soon be subject to some corporate bureaucratic mess, a malicious individual, or technological hiccup: “Error – you can’t heat that slice of pizza, we have no record of your subscription to e-Oven services.”

Utopia Envisioned

Still there’s room for optimism, hopes that some day mobile technologies will ultimately, unassailably contribute to a better life for most people. Here’s a compelling utopian scenario: we use our mobile phone to make a call, the call goes through and stays connected as it is supposed to, all the time.

Other scenarios for a rich wireless future include not only ordinary reliable use, but the chance to hear from citizens who have walked this way before, provided they were using the right data protocols. Ana Serrano is Program Director at the Canadian Film Centre’s Bell h@bitat laboratories, a training center for digital artists and storytellers. She hopes for spatial information saturation, massively nested stories: as though the world was talking to you, sharing the mobile memories of millions: “One of the most exciting developments will be when mobility, location sensing/GPS, ubiquity and personal devices all come together to enable the creation of multiple layers of virtual information (read stories) that we can hang in space. Imagine a future where I can park my stories or my new spacelog entries in the exact location that my stories take place.”

But enabling content to hang in space, attached to every hill and molehill in Mississippi is a bold economic and political gesture in a world where most information is delivered by a few companies. Stanford Law Professor Lawrence Lessig sees a political shift in the kind of broad distribution of content that the wireless Internet might ultimately make possible: “The great hope for wireless is that it could break the power of the [Hollywood/television] networks, and restore, again, an Internet where the edge, the ends, controlled. To the extent people see the potential in the US, they fight it. But emerging wireless technologies are giving us an extraordinary opportunity shift power away from the core, back to the edge.”

Unsettling Networks

Citizens able to exchange any content anywhere would not only unsettle the networks, they could counteract the effectiveness of deep-targeted marketing messages or political surveillance. Citizens would have a chance to watch the watchmen. With camera-phones and their descendent technologies, we can transmit images of social unrest, balancing professionally marketed broadcasts with hand-crafted peer-to-peer news.

Massive power will reside in these massively distributed networks; we will have to decide ultimately whether to concentrate or disperse that power. Some evil as well as some good will reside in either scenario - the future of wireless technology will be a mix of distopia and utopia. Most people seem to trust widespread access to creative technologies more than centralized control. Still these same devices that disrupt authoritarian schemes give us each the ability to surveil each other and enforce social norms. There is always the potential for abuse, both good and bad evidence of human power amplified by networks.

The shape of our wireless networks and information exchange is being decided now in the courts, the boardrooms and in the code used to architect communications systems. Hopefully, we are making decisions about the shape of human-machine communications that favor the better angels of our nature.

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Justin Hall has been writing about digital culture for over a decade now, mostly on his web site He splits his time between Japan and the United States, west of the Mississippi.