Our evolution will be televised

Following my recent article, which explored the relationship between privacy and social media, I wanted to explore this issue from a slightly different angle. Apple will be introducing a kill-switch into the operating systems of its mobile devices this August. I find it interesting that the last time a smart phone kill-switch was mentioned, it elicited a significantly different response.

Namely, U.S. Patent No. 8,254,902 by Apple last year described an option to grant governments the ability intervene into wireless devices. Effectively, this patent could create an area-based kill-switch, which would impede the recording, collection, and transmission of media recorded through mobile devices. Why is the media much more forgiving this time around, and how much of this has to do with the purported use of the technology?

The abovementioned patent was ostensibly designed for socially permissible blackouts, such as for concerts, cinemas, and similar, but the explicit patent statement outlining potential use for covert police or government operations demonstrates this ability; one that could manage and control the dissemination of information from the emerging practice of ‘point-of-view’ media from the general population.

The fact that we have two such contrasting attitudes over similar technologies speaks more to our notions of security, than privacy. Accordingly, the article concerns itself with differences in public perception, particularly in relation to subtle issues around asymmetric privacy controls. To do so I will make a point of comparison with this technology and the impending distribution of Google Glass. Both devices entail an intrusion of privacy: Apple’s  intrusion is consigned to government control, while Google’s is consigned to the people.

I predict that in about five years, some of our fundamental notions of privacy will be continually contested, if not substantially rewritten.

The Price of Information

To understand the importance of this comparison, I will detail a few issues on the business models of Google and Apple. However, rather than rehashing this particular debate, I will extract a few salient points and synthesise them here. For a more detailed background information, I recommend this article by Forbes.

Roughly speaking, Google’s business model profits from advertisement revenue, and most of its products are designed to be as open as possible to maximise usage. Contrast this with Apple’s model, which profits directly from product purchases through a proprietary store of devices and applications, and therefore seeks to create brand loyalty within a closed iWorld.

These deeply contrasting models produce divergent behaviours. It is a principle reason behind Apple wanting to tether its software platforms to Apple devices, and why Google wants to make its platform as available as possible on whatever device necessary. Both of these models suggest something about how their organisations wish to exploit the commercial value of (personal) information. Apple’s imperative is the containment of particular information, including data and applications, within a closed ecosystem. So their practice is one of protectionism, but in a manner that ostensibly autopoietic. Conversely, Google’s imperative is the deregulation of information usage and custody, which is why its practice is one of ubiquity, for the broadest possible penetration of its market reach.

The Augmentation of the Gaze

It is very easy to make Orwellian comparisons of Apple’s new patent, because giving government the capacity to control the flow of personally acquiredinformation  holds the overtones of a Big Brother in the vein of Orwell’s seminal Nineteen Eighty-Four (a point of high irony considering Macintosh’s equally seminal launch video during the 1984 Superbowl). In fact, it is the seemingly self-evident nature of this technology’s oppressive potential that is pertinent. That is, while the Apple technology was signified as an imposition on our public experience and our civil liberties, the same could be said of Google Glass, and yet the Glass technology does not seem to evoke the same public outcry.

Now granted, there are some adverse reactions to the launch of Google Glass, including privately owned establishments banning them from their premises, similar to the prohibition of other recording devices. However, the immense popularity of the device has managed to produce a demand long before there was a supply, suggests that these concerns are a dissenting minority. Furthermore, some of the running commentary has already observed that the potential for Google Glass to intrude upon our privacy is far more pervasive. It is this ubiquity that is exemplar of the Google model, because it has the possibility of creating a true panopticon: making every observer simultaneously the subject of observation. This dissemination of technology is ultimately in Google’s interests; this reflects Google’s business model as it means much more personal information is made available to be mined.

One of the most blatant ways to demonstrate the distinctiveness of this intrusion is to compare the device to Apple’s competition device, the iWatch. Both are intended to be wearable smart computers, but the difference is that Glass are affixed directly onto our subjective point of view. My conjecture is that the very fact that the observational device is mounted upon our gaze is what renders it invisible.

That is to say that there is already a native social context for person-to-person observation, and we actually have an implicit expectation to be the subject of another person’s attention. To piggy-back a sensory device upon a socially acceptable form of scrutiny obscures the intrusive nature of that technology. The iWatch, in comparison, requires a mode of interaction that does not naturally integrate into unspoken forms of social communion; its intrusion would be much more apparent.

My conjecture is that the very fact that the observational device is mounted upon our gaze is what renders it invisible.

The Asymmetry of Information

I contend that the reason the Apple technology appears more intrusive is because it reveals a mechanism of control, rather than because it is an actual intrusion: indeed, one could reasonably argue that the shutting down of information gathering in a public sphere is the amelioration of intrusion. What provokes concern is the way the Apple technology enables a governmental body to control the media we collect through our private devices. It signals a type of complacency with the brokering of power and control over our experience of liberty, even when they relate to the impact of our personal actions in public.

Rather, I suspect we frame the visceral experience of insecurity this technology evokes as a sense of intrusion, which we then articulate as an invasion of privacy because it readily maps onto that concept. I also suspect that the objection relates to the asymmetry of information control, more than the intrusion of privacy. However, the issue of custody of personal information and the issue of asymmetry is a much more abstract notion to describe subjectively without some awareness of how our identity is situated and expressed through the medium of the internet.

Given these prepositions, the reaction to a centralised control of information by some third party generates suspicion, but the new mode of social scrutiny is simply integrated into our socialisation; partly because we have adapted to virtual interlocution, and partly because the (potential) ubiquity of the device is incredibly democratic. That is, Google Glass is much more likely to transfigure social norms, by virtue of its integration, and yet because its intrusion is much more invisible. I also believe that we, as a society, will adapt to this intrusion more quickly.

It is very easy to think that Google Glass marks the inception of a convergence of the human lived experience and the imprecation of technology upon our lives, but in reality it is merely the continuation of a process that has been happening since the proliferation of mobile technologies. Considering it took less than a year or so to adapt to smart phones and how they their use meant the intrusion of the internet into our intimate spaces, I doubt that we will have much difficulty adapting to this new intrusion.

Google Glass is much more likely to transfigure social norms, by virtue of its integration, and yet because its intrusion is much more invisible.

I predict that in about five years, some of our fundamental notions of privacy will be continually contested, if not substantially rewritten. That in perhaps ten to fifteen years our notions of what constitutes a public space and a private space will seem almost unrecognisable to today. Part of this contest will emerge over issues of copyright, particularly in the context of social participation at events and public gatherings where ownership is recognised, such as galleries and theatres.

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2 thoughts on “Our evolution will be televised

  1. Some great arguments here, and quite important. What is interesting to note is that the technology is already well ahead of legislation, or even the debate to have a debate on legislation on these issues.

  2. Pingback: Technology: the Modern Prometheus | Rhyme and Reason

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