Some days I think a world networked by computers will be a better place to live. Some days I get very, very worried. I had a dark day some months back when I came across a quote attributed to a computer researcher at one of the most important and innovative research centers in the U.S., Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).
Anyone who studies the birth and development of innovations in information technology knows something about the Xerox PARC. Not only the source of many technological advances, PARC has also been involved in enterprises that shed light on the social impacts of new information technologies. For example, many net enthusiasts know of PARC primarily through the work of Pavel Curtis and LambdaMOO, the pioneering, networked virtual reality that enables individuals to interact in real time with others in simulated, text-based environments. LambdaMOO and a number of other MOOs using the LambdaMOO software have spawned many intriguing grassroots experiments in online social relations and collaborative work.
Of course, LambdaMOO and its like represent merely incremental steps in the process of networking computer users. For example, at last year's Directions and Implications of Advanced Computing Conference (DIAC '94) at MIT, Pavel Curtis presented a status report on the next generation of MOOs being developed at PARC. These systems involve real-time sound and video. I remember listening to him speak and thinking "Hmmmm. Little video cameras watching me watch everyone else. Don't know if I'd like that." But to be fair, I also remember that Mr. Curtis made it clear that personal privacy was important element that had to be designed into such systems. But still I worry--especially when I read articles like Howard Rheingold's "PARC is Back!" in Wired 2.02.
Ubicomp, at first, intrigued me. In particular, I was quite heartened to read one quote attributed to Mr. Weiser as he explained the difference between VR and Ubicomp:
"Second, and most importantly, it (VR) has the goal of fooling the user--of leaving the everyday physical world behind. This is at odds with the goal of better integrating the computer into human activities, since humans are of and in the everyday world." (p. 93)(I might add here that I applaud any intelligent counter argument to VR--but that's another issue for another time.)
Yes, I like a principle that seems to privilege human activity over computer use. At least I liked it until I began to read about some specific technological developments in Ubicomp. Rheingold describes something called an "active badge":
"With an active badge system, every computer you sit down at is your computer, with your custom interface and access to your files, because your active badge sends it information via infrared signals. It is possible to track the locations of other researchers at all times by central monitoring of active badges--a handy tool with Orwellian implications." (p. 94)Orwellian is right. Active badges should scare the daylights out of anyone. Of course, as I read on I expected to be assured that any Orwellian nightmares would be unjustified because of the way the technology is being designed. The following passage, I think, was supposed to placate me. It didn't.
"PARC is an intellectual playground, full of free spirits. How do they feels about the possibility that Ubicomp might lead directly to a future of safe, efficient, soulless, and merciless universal surveillance?Hooo boy. OK, first the good things: I agree with the principle about individual control and I agree that the answer indeed lies in social controls over technological capabilities. But I am absolutely chilled by one particular word: dissent. His use of that word makes me feel quite uneasy about the effectiveness of social controls on Ubicomp surveillance outside of organizations like PARC--organizations that encourage freedom, privacy, and ingenuity among their employees. On the other hand, I can easily imagine many organizations not so enlightened, not run by people who believe that privacy and freedom are essential to the organizations' well-being, organizations that would tolerate little, if any, dissent. If we begin by thinking that refusing to wear the badge is dissent, we are asking for, as Rheingold put it, "merciless universal surveillance."
'Some people refuse to wear badges,' Weiser says. 'I support their right to dissent. And one principle we go by here is to maintain individual control over who else sees anything about us... The answer will have to be social as well as technical.'" (p. 94)
No, I think Mr. Weiser has it backwards. We need to begin any consideration of Ubicomp by accepting a simple equation: default = unconnected, offline. Accordingly, we need to agree upon some principles that can inform Ubicomp policies throughout society.