Is anyone watching grandma?

kino eyeOn Friday I had a chance to meet with a group of Artificial Intelligence researchers at Carnegie-Melon university. They demonstrated a working technology, Informedia, which I would have guessed was at least 3-5 years off.

What was most incredible about this demonstration was the vivid observation of the trenches in which the information war is being waged. Like any power, technology can bend towards good or evil, and as this post points out, Social Software can be understood as the purposeful use of technology for the public good.

The surveillance possibilities that machine based processing of video and film affords is mind-boggling and horrifying (for more on this angle, see my bioport papers or the Permanent Records presentation). At the same time, the kinds of research, machine based assistance, and even the ways in which this kind of technology would change journalism, could all be harnessed for the public good.

Is transparency, openness, and free culture our best bet for steering and harnessing these powers productively?

8 Responses to “Is anyone watching grandma?”

  1. September 25th, 2005 | 10:21 pm

    You bring up an alarming and important issue. As your bioport essays point out, we must assume that (almost) all of our physical and virtual activities are being recorded. Soon ‘others’ will have more information about us than we have about ourselves.

    Consider your possible solution, total transparency. For it to substantively combat the danger of total surveillance, the activities of the State, government, or ‘power elite’ must be transparent, as well. It seems unlikely that the parties who currently enjoy power would subject themselves to the same surveillance transparency they impose on the majority of citizens.

    I fear that we will have to settle for a weaker solution that strives to combat total surveillance with a combination of counter-technologies (encryption, signal jamming, pre-paid/anonymous transactions, bioport, etc.) and legislation (which, at best, will mitigate abuses of the surveillance).

    A long-term solution must envision a more radical democracy where the government is a true and reliable champion of the average person. Admittedly, achieving that goal, or even envisioning such a government is no easy task.

  2. September 25th, 2005 | 10:47 pm

    Hi Matt,

    Thanks for following through to the other links. I think if you read the second part more closely you will see that I do not propose total transparency as a solution.

    The information flux model outlines 3 directions these emerging technologies may ultimately take us – others knowing more about ourselves than we do, total transparency, or us continuing (if we do now) to know more about ourselves than anyone else.

    The bioport technology is one proposal to redirect the flow of information back around the individual. Think of it as a carbon copy or receipt of every information transaction that you engage in. This is different than total transparency, since my bioport presumably has more information about me in it than anyone else possibly can have. Of course, my identity is now concentrated in a single location, so it would be a bad thing if unwanted eyes gained access to it…

    It is interesting to consider just how far a constitutional amendment guaranteeing an individual’s right to anonymity would go in terms of protecting people’s privacy and identities.

  3. September 26th, 2005 | 2:03 pm

    Interesting stuff, Jonah. I also took a look at your bioport papers, and found them very provocative. I am of the opinion that identity requires alignment of what we do with how we represent ourselves, so I agree that anonymity ultimately obstructs prosocial identity formation (except in cases where it protects the individual, such as when you have people anonymously presenting evidence against a government or corporation, etc.). Like danah recently said, we need to get beyond our schizophrenic fetish with multiple online identities.

    However, the more interesting question here (to me, at least) is to what degree we can say that observable transactions constitute a record of who we are. Certainly, they are an important part. But there is a lot about what we do and think that cannot be converted into a digital record. Thus, I am not ready to concede that the collection of our day-to-day acts (whether accessible to ourselves only, or to other parties) gives an accurate representation of our intentions. Furthermore, I am skeptical of any Artificial Intelligence attempts to interpret this data. I’m with Jaron Lanier here: AI doesn’t make computers smarter, it makes people more stupid 😉

  4. September 27th, 2005 | 12:03 am

    By no means did I intend to conflate record with memory, or actions with intension. However, records can surely be used to evoke and trigger memories, so the argument relating to the end of forgetting still stands.

    Beyond that, I wonder if controlling powers have a vested interest in reducing intension to action, and flattening internal states into Skinner-esque descriptions (think the DSM).

    As for multiple and faceted identities, I think this is a complex issue. On the one hand, true integrity demands complete transparency, such that one’s insides are indistinguishable from one’s outsides. At the same time, we are more like irrational numbers than integers, and are constantly morphing and changing. It seems quite natural to me to want to maintain multiple online personae, with the understanding that these covers are blown the moment anyone tries. They do server to inhibit the casual googler from stumbling across information that I rather push than have pulled.

  5. September 29th, 2005 | 12:09 pm

    You’ve got me thinking, Jonah.

    To put it in Deleuzian terms, in a world where everything is archived for posterity, different online identities can function as privacy buffers for the process of becoming. Most people are probably embarrassed at the ideas and beliefs they held 10 years ago. It’s part of the process of maturing. Online anonymity can save us from some of that embarrassment. Alternatively, I hope that we develop more social leniency for not holding people accountable for something they posted 10 years ago. In a world where competition plays such an important role, we unfortunately see a tendency to use people’s pasts against them…

    Lots to ponder…

  6. October 1st, 2005 | 7:53 pm

    I thought this was a great riff on identity.

    But I think the question of embarrassment and shame are really much more pertinent and personal than the Orwellian or Minority Report scenarios.

    Think about the co-op boards or the elementary school boards stumbling across your college fraternity rush pictures. Or, who would have dreamed 10 years ago that any and all usenet posts would be available for posterity to all potential employers and mates at the click of a mouse?

    The idea that deception and shame help stitch together the fabric of society is something we will all need to grapple with in the upcoming years, regardless of the direction of the information flux.

  7. October 4th, 2005 | 11:09 pm

    The ungoogleables:,1848,68998,00.html

    “These unGoogleables don’t post online, blog, publish or build web pages using their own names. They’re careful about revealing information to businesses, belong to few organizations that can leak personal data, and never submit online résumés –“

  8. July 23rd, 2006 | 12:13 am

    […] For the time being, these robots are unarmed, but are all equipped with survaillance cameras. This explosion in optical feeds helps explain the urgency behind programs like Carnegie Mellon’s Informedia project (Is Anyone Watching Grandma?). […]

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