Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

The Fly On The Wall And Its Social Effects - A Short Story From The Near Future...

Posted by Tom Foremski - August 8, 2010

We live in a world of ubiquitous computing -- there are ever more computing devices everywhere.

We will soon live in a world of ubiquitous video cameras. You probably have one staring at you right now just inches away from your face -- the camera in your laptop or desktop.

There are video cameras on street corners, business premises, highways. The Brits have the most video cameras per head of population but other countries are catching up. The CCTV technology is cheap to install and operate.

Consumer video cameras are cheap and getting cheaper and better quality. A Flip HD camera from Cisco is under $200 and there are consumer HD video cameras for under $100. HD video is found in smart phones, such as the iPhone 4. Soon, every phone will have a high quality video camera, and not just phones.

The circuitry and the mechanism for a HD video camera is tiny. It can be fitted into ever smaller formats, such as pens: Brookstone sells a video spy pen for $99.95, and there are cheaper versions available elsewhere.

As computers become more ubiquitous so will video cameras. It won't be long before there are video cameras all around and in places where we aren't used to having them.

It won't be long before we have always-on video cameras operating in all our social spaces.

Imagine living in a world where nearly every conversation, every meeting, every step you take in the physical world is recorded and archived in the cloud.

If you knew that every conversation with your kids, with your parents, with your friends -- was possibly being recorded and stored -- would you think twice, maybe thrice about what you had to say?

The Facebook effect...

We have become used to the possibility that all our online conversations and interactions are recorded and stored somewhere. We are much more guarded about what we say or do online.

But we think of our offline conversations and interactions as mostly personal and private. We don't exhibit the same cautious behavior offline as we do online.

If I meet a friend walking down the street and stop to chat for a few minutes -- I'm pretty sure that that conversation and meeting isn't recorded.

That won't be true in the near future. And it won't be because of government "Big Brother" surveillance. It will be because of personal surveillance devices that people will carry out of choice for personal protection.

It will be as if there is always a "fly on the wall" watching and recording everything.

People will carry what I call a "personal fly" -- a personal security device containing a tiny video camera fitted into a pendant or broach, embedded in clothing, earrings, or in eye glasses.

If you are attacked it will have video and audio records of that event.

Why will people carry a personal fly? Because they can, and because the technology will be cheap enough and good enough to be used as a very effective personal security device.

A personal fly...

A personal fly will be able to wirelessly record many hours of video and audio onto a flash memory chip; some "flies" will use the cell phone in your pocket to send continuous video and audio data to a cloud-based storage service.

If you were mugged, your personal fly would record the event and police could use its images and audio to track down the mugger.

- A criminal could try to destroy the flash card storing that video -- but since some personal fly devices send their data into the cloud, a criminal could never be sure that destroying the chip covered their tracks.

Thus, all people wearing a personal fly would be protected as if they were all storing their data off-corpus.

- A personal fly might even be equipped with a panic button alerting the police, and local public surveillance cameras to retain their video footage to track escaping assailants.

- Children will be a prime market. Parents will use these inexpensive personal security devices to protect their kids. It might even be considered neglectful if parents didn't protect their children with such devices.

- Adults will wear a personal fly throughout the day for protection. At the end of the day, or week, the video collected could be erased, or not, depending on what settings you keep

-Telcos will market them as part of the many wireless applications and services they provide.

- Manufacturers will produce different types of personal fly, in different disguises, and with an array of capabilities.

I have no doubt that these types of personal security devices will prevent many attacks and other types of criminal acts.

(BTW, I'm working with potential partners on manufacturing this concept -- let me know if you'd like to chat.)

The social fly...

What interests me is how such personal security devices (PSDs) will affect our behavior in our social spaces. What will be the new manners?

- Will it be rude to wear a personal security device at a dinner party?

- WIll it be rude to ask someone to turn off their PSD?

- How can you know if someone's PSD is on or off? (You can't know for sure...)

- Will it be rude to archive all your recordings?

- Will it be illegal to use a PSD in situations without informing all persons in the vicinity, similar to getting consent to record telephone conversations?

- Will we need new laws?

- Will people getting together, have to sync up their personal archive settings and come to some kind of agreement over recording their conversation -- before any conversation takes place?

- How will we behave in our social spaces knowing that everything we say is being recorded and possibly archived for many years?

- How will kids grow up with such personal surveillance systems? Parents will likely want to peek into how they do in the classroom, their conversations with friends, etc.

Stunted conversations...

The number of personal attacks is rare but people's fear of them is much larger, and that will drive the sales of these devices.

Surely, it will have a chilling effect on our society and our behavior...

The threat here is not from "Big Brother" but from each other; we will constantly be aware of a shadow haunting all our interactions, recording everything we see, hear and say. We will always be on guard, second guessing ourselves in all our social interactions

Surveillance by Big Brother is less scary than surveillance by each other, by people you know and know you.

- Say goodbye to casual drinking or anything at casual at parties.

- The opportunities for mischief by disgruntled friends and lovers are immense.

- The question of trust between friends and family members will be tested to the extreme.

- Living in an ambient surveillance world policed by the people around you is going to be challenging.

These things can't be good. But they will happen because they can.

Welcome to your future.

- - -

[If you like this post you might like some of my other posts, collected in my new book - In My Humble Opinion: Notes from a Silicon Valley Watcher - available in paper or electron.]


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