There’s a book by Roger Zelazny called My Name Is Legion that sort of starts like this: a guy who worked on the project to forever tie everyone everywhere into a computer system that will log everything they do for the rest of their lives is given the chance to delete his own details from the database before it goes live. The only drawback is that he will be invisible to the world for the rest of his life. No credit cards, no banking, no services, no nothing.
So I was having dinner the other night with an acquaintance who works in a difficult-to-define area of, I suppose, “design research”. His job requires him to do things like, for example, discover how people are bootstrapping networked drones on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Edge cases of human behaviour around emergent technologies. On paper, he’s a scientist, economist and researcher, but he does get shot at from time to time. Anyway, picture this: I’m getting quite deep into my own research on the varieties of Polish vodka at the bar when he says, “Take a minute and look around at the people in this room. And then tell me what you want to know about them.”
“I want,” I say, “to know why that man is wearing a plastic hairband.”
“He’s Danish. Leave him alone. What else?”
I reel off six or seven things, along the lines of noting the nervous couple with the age difference and wanting to know which company they clearly both worked for and how long she’d been married and whether the ring was as cheap as it looked. That sort of thing.
“Imagine being able to find out,” my friend said. “While you’re sitting here.”
This is part of what some people are calling contextual computing. There are an awful lot of things that are on the verge of being all connected together and becoming interrogable. It’s happened in the spook sector already, in bits and pieces. Trapwire, a “threat mitigation system”, uses camera surveillance and data-mining to look for “pre-attack indicators”. Reportedly, it’s not hooked into a facial-recognition system. Of course, if it were, it would probably also be wired to one of the biggest public repositories of tagged faces in the world – Facebook.
I don’t particularly want to go to the “argh Facebook so big and scary and creepy” place. But Facebook is designed to have you tell it lots of things, and to reward you by giving you context. It’s a handy hypothetical unit for now. Tell it what you like and it’ll offer you shiny things, or discounts, or whatever. Tell it your dating history. Tell it where you work. Daisy-chain all your services together, so that I can take your photo with a clever camera, and a minute later know that your husband of two years bought that ring off QVC during its Diamonique TSV Hour. Also, that he just checked into a restaurant in Copenhagen.
This is not a reach. These are all things people would tell aggregated or contextually-linked services right now. And my first experience with a consumer-level facial-recognition camera was three years ago, where Matt Jones from BERG showed me that not only could the camera learn my face and name, but it could actually follow me around the shot, in the viewfinder screen, and keep me in the centre of the photo.
I am, in fact, just scratching the surface of what contextual computing could be.
See, these days, Big Brother doesn’t come as a huge domineering figure to impose the panopticon of authority upon you. Big Brother shows up as Mickey fucking Mouse, waving his mutant paws and grinning “C’mon! It’ll be fun!” We give up our privacy, as they say, for candy bars.
The guy in My Name Is Legion, of course, destroyed all his information. Because the whole thing is creepy and unsettling, naturally. But also because the thing we give our information to today is not necessarily the thing that will have it tomorrow.
Follow Warren on Twitter: @warrenellis
Image by Marta Parszeniew