I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why it is that implanted tracking devices have never really taken off in humans. Just a few years ago, there were all kinds of people laying out rather teleological versions of technological trajectories that led inevitably to mass human implanantation – and not just the US Christian right, who saw RFID as the fulfilment of biblical prophecy.
I think there are many reasons, including negative public reaction (implants really are a step too far, even for the ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ crowd) and the fact that a lot of the promotion of human RFID implants was actually the PR work of one very loud company (Verichip) and did not actually have a lot of basis in either social reality or market research. But the other major reason is to do with other technological developments, particularly in wearable computing and sensor networks. In most cases, implants solve a problem that doesn’t exist (the idea that people want to remove a tracking device that might be there for very good – although I am not saying, indisputably good – reasons, usually medical ones). And where there are no good reasons, there’s probably no case for tracking at all.
So devices like this – temporary, printed or stick-on and removable – are far more what is likely to become the solution to any actual problem of tracking or monitoring for medical reasons. And the relative ease with which it can be removed by the wearer does at least mean that there is some room for negotiation and consent at more than just one point in the process. Of course, such removable, wearable tracking are still not somehow free of ethical and political considerations – and some may argue that the very appearance of consent actually hints at the generation of a greater conformity and self-surveillance, but the issues are of a slightly different nature to those raised by implanted devices.
There is a fascinating little piece on Bldg Blog about ‘security geotextiles’ and other actual and speculative surveillance systems that are built in to, underlie or encompass whole landscapes. The argument seems to support what I have been writing and speaking about recently on ‘vanishing surveillance’ (I’ll be speaking about it again in Copenhagen a the first Negotiating (In)visibilities conference in February): the way in which, as surveillance spreads and becomes more intense, moving towards ubiquitous, pervasive or ambient surveillance, that its material manifestations have a tendency to disappear.
There is a standards kind of alarmism that the piece starts with and the assumption that such things are malevolent does strike one as an initial impression, perhaps not surprising given that the piece is inspired by yet another security tech developement – this time a concealed perimeter surveillance system from Israeli firm, GMax. Perhaps if it had begun with urban ubiquitous sensory systems in a universal design context, it might have taken a very different direction. However, what’s particularly interesting about the piece is that it doesn’t stop there, but highlights the possibilities for resistance and subversion using the very same ubiquitous technologies.
But whether hegemonic or subversive, the overall trajectory that post outlines of a move towards a machine-readable world, indeed a world reconfigured for machines, is pretty much indisputable…
There’s an amusing article with a serious point to it by the ever-acerbic Charlie Brooker on The Guardian website, on the potential social transformations of so-called ‘augmented reality’ technologies. The idea that ‘augmented reality’ inevitably will diminish or dehumanise as much as it adds or extends is one that has been made many times before, but usually in regard to the ‘subject’, i.e: the person experiencing the augmented reality. What Brooker’s satirical article is saying is that the humanity that is potenitally diminished in these systems is that of ‘others’ who may be effectively hidden by the information that the person using AR desires, and perhaps even deliberately so. I can see this. I think it’s actually a real possibility and the humour of Brooker’s approach shoudn’t disguise the fact that he’s an incredibly perceptive commentator.
Brandscaping is a term used in marketing to describe the metaphorical landscape of brands (either for a particular brand, company or sector), however it is also being used by some researchers, including me, to describe the way in which brands are being infiltrated into urban landscapes, with the ultimate aim of being ‘inhabitable’ perhaps even 24/7 (see for example Disney’s move into urban development with Celebration in Florida).
Contemporary brandscaping makes use of new ambient intelligence, pervasive or ubiquitous computing technologies (‘ubicomp’) and ubiquitous wireless communications to create a landscape in which the consumer is targeted with specific messages directing them to certain consumption patterns. Such communication cans of course be two-way and provide corporations with valuable and very personal data on consumption patterns. As I’ve argued in many presentations over the last few years, ubicomp is necessarily also ubiquitous surveillance (what I call ‘ubisurv’ – hence the name of this blog!) because to work it requires locatability and addressability. Japan, and Tokyo in particular, has been the site for a number of cutting edge experiments in this regard, including the ‘Tokyo Ubiquitous Technology Project’ which embedded 1000 RFID tags which can communicate with RFID-enabled keitai (mobile phones) in upscale Ginza as well as several other pilot schemes around Ueno Park and Shinjuku.
TUTP is not all about marketing surveillance however, part of the scheme has involved ‘Universal Design’ (UD) principles, with one experiment to embed chips in the yellow tactile tiles designed to help guide sight- and mobility-impaired people around the city so that useful access information could be passed through specially-enabled walking sticks. I’m very interested in such experiments as they indicate an alternative direction for ubicomp environments which are about genuinely enabling people who are currently disabled by social and architectural norms, and creating a richer sensory landscape. They show that both surveillance and ‘scary’ technology like RFID chips can be humanised.
Unfortunately in our consumer-capitalist world (and Tokyo is the exemplary city of hyper-consumption), marketing and building brandscapes tends to take priority over enabling the excluded and the disadvantaged. But there are different ways of doing this too, which can be more or less intrusive and consensual. The other day I was talking about the growth in functionality of the Suica smart travel card system. Suica-enabled keitai can now, be used buying all sorts of things and since 2006 there have been a growing number of ‘SuiPo’ (short for ‘Suica Poster’) sites, Suica-enabled advertising hoardings that will, on demand send information to your mobile e-mail address with on particular advertising in which you are interested if you pass your Suica card or phone over a scanner placed next to the poster (see photos below)
The difference between SuiPo and the Ginza RFID scheme however is that it with SuiPo is that it is the consumer who makes the choice whether to activate any particular poster’s additional information system. In this sense it is a development of the i-Mode system in which many keitai can read information from special barcodes embdedded in magazine advertisements. It doesn’t automatically call your phone every time you pass an enabled poster, once you have signed up. Not as high-tech but slightly more consensual. However this will, of course, lead to the accumulation of a lot of data on consumption interests. This potentially generates a massive consumer surveillance tool, because it can be linked up travel patterns (your registered Suica card sends information back on where you go – I was wrong about the absolute differences between London’s Oyster and Tokyo’s Suica systems the other day) and information about consumption.
So will this potential become reality? The page on privacy and data protection on the SuiPo website (as usual the link is hidden away at the bottom of the front page!), is pretty standard stuff except for the legitimate purposes for which the data can be used once you sign up. They are, for those who don’t read Japanese, for:
Sending the specific requested information to you;
Data processing and analysis;
JR East’s promotional marketing; and
JR East customer questionnaires.
Purposes 2 and 3 pretty much allow JR to do anything it likes with the data once you have signed up, and there is no statement as to what can or cannot be done with data once it has been ‘mined’ – analysed and transformed into more useful to the company or other organisations (corporate or state) which might want to buy or access such knowledge. ‘Ubisurv’ indeed…