No plans for a GoogleImplant, says Eric Schmidt

Paul Raven @ 04-10-2010

Eric Schmidt is becoming one of those guaranteed link-bait interviewees for big media venues; unlike a lot of corporate bigwigs, Google’s CEO isn’t afraid to speak his mind. This interview at The Atlantic [via SlashDot, FuturePundit and others] is packed full of pluckable gems, though nothing quite so controversial as his recent musings on unGooglable childhoods.

First up, your “no shit, Sherlock” quote of the day:

“The average American doesn’t realize how much of the laws are written by lobbyists” to protect incumbent interests, Google CEO Eric Schmidt told Atlantic editor James Bennet at the Washington Ideas Forum. “It’s shocking how the system actually works.”

Naturally, Schmidt and company see that flaw as a business opportunity:

“Washington is an incumbent protection machine,” Schmidt said. “Technology is fundamentally disruptive.” Mobile phones and personal technology, for example, could be used to record the bills that members of Congress actually read and then determine what stimulus funds were successfully spent.

Later in the same interview,  there’s something of a minor disappointment for bleeding-edge early-adopter Google enthusiasts: there are no plans on the table for a hardwired Google brain implant.

When Bennet asked about the possibility of a Google “implant,” Schmidt invoked what the company calls the “creepy line.”

“Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it,” he said. Google implants, he added, probably crosses that line.

The Atlantic‘s Derek Thompson, doubtless with a keen eye for irony, follows that revelation with this panopticon-esque nugget:

… Schmidt envisions a future where we embrace a larger role for machines and technology. “With your permission you give us more information about you, about your friends, and we can improve the quality of our searches,” he said. “We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”

I’m not sure you see the “creepy line” as being in quite the same place as many of the general public, Mister Schmidt. 🙂

(PS – I’d totally beta test that implant idea for you.)


Watch this movie: We Live In Public

Paul Raven @ 24-06-2010

promo poster fo We Live In PublicA couple of nights ago, I sat down and watched We Live In Public, Ondi Timoner’s award-winning documentary about Josh Harris, Pseudo.com, the Quiet experiment, and the eponymous project that involved Harris streaming every mundane moment of his life onto the web for anyone to watch. I was particularly amazed that Quiet – a darkly and deliberately Orwellian behavioural experiment involving real people that not only prefigures but utterly eclipses much of the more recent reality television – isn’t better known and more widely discussed (though I believe it was a big influence on Douglas Rushkoff, who appears as an interviewee in the film and who was certainly part of the New York dot-com boom scene that floated Harris to prominence, and which I presume influenced and informed Rushkoff’s flawed but fascinating novel The Ecstasy Club).

The same applies to Harris, who comes across as a fascinating and damaged genius and visionary who foresaw – and concretised – many of the privacy and publicy issues that are hot button topics on today’s intertubes. I’m not sure I believe that Harris’ vision of a totally mediated world is inevitable, or even possible, but the extremity of the example he created is a valuable lesson and cautionary tale… as is his life as a whole.

The caveat here is that Timoner’s previous big success (and Sundance Festival winner) is the controversial rockumentary Dig!, which has been accused by Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre of portraying him and his band in a selectively negative light as compared to the film’s other main subjects, The Dandy Warhols. Much as I’m a fan of Newcombe and his work, however, it’s pretty clear that he’s a damaged genius (like Harris, though in a very different manner), and whether or not Timoner’s editing really was deliberately skewed to cast Newcombe as the bad penny will remain a mystery to anyone who wasn’t involved in the project. Sensation sells, after all… and the footage of Quiet in We Live In Public makes much of its more shocking aspects; I guess what I’m saying is that the same pinch of salt you’d apply to any other modern media is surely worth using here.

But that pinch of salt does nothing to negate a powerful story, and one that I think any internet habitue should watch. Residents of the United Kingdom have another 22 days (as of publication of this post) to watch it for free on Channel 4’s 4od service, and I urge you to take advantage of it while you can. Everyone else – keep your eyes peeled for an opportunity of your own. This is a hugely important document in the history of mediated network culture.


Cleaning up for Street View

Paul Raven @ 15-03-2010

Google Street View camera arrayThe city of Windsor in Ontario, Canada has apparently requested Google reshoot some of its Street View footage in order to remove a murder scene (complete with Do Not Cross police tape barriers and bloody bandages) from the public record, prompting Mike Masnick of TechDirt to wonder

[… whether] towns and cities are going to start to “prepare” for Google Street View cars coming through and make sure that everyone is on their best behavior

Seems pretty likely, doesn’t it? [image by sfmine79]

The threat of being seen without one’s “make-up” on has always been around. For instance, I can still remember the way every school I ever attended spent a week gussying the place up and drilling the students in advance of the government inspectors, which was probably one of my earliest cognitive dissonance awakenings – what was the point of inspections if they only occurred after a metaphorical wash’n’brush-up? Why not just, y’know, improve things generally rather than making a last-minute effort once a year*?

This feeds into the idealistic notion that ubiquitous transparency is a good thing, I suppose: if every city (or school, or whatever) knew it could be inspected (or Street View’d) at any time without warning, then perhaps they’d be more likely to fix problems at the root cause instead of sweeping the problems under the rug before the visitors arrive.

Of course, that’s a massive oversimplification of a very complex issue, but the Windsor story is a harbinger of institutional panics yet to come; much as technology could enable nation-states to turn themselves into panopticons, the spotlight can also be pointed in the other direction. The next few decades will be all about the struggle between individuals and corporate or geo-political entities to filter and control their realities as presented to the rest of the world… which is why I’m fairly convinced that augmented reality will be the multi-planar battlefield of manifold and fractal ideological struggles between citizens, states and corporations.

[ * The answer is very obvious now, of course, with the benefit of experience (and the cynicism toward institutions and bureaucracy that it engenders), but for a naive and nerdy seven year old, it was a baffling condundrum. Pity my poor parents attempting to explain these moral grey areas and fundamental societal flaws to a child with no better an instinctive or empathetic grasp of human nature than the Borg… ]


Sousveillance Barbie

Paul Raven @ 09-03-2010

Via Lauren Beukes, and offered pretty much without comment: new Barbie doll with chest-embedded YouTube-grade video camera spotted at International Toy Fair.


Foursquare, Chatroulette and the social panopticon

Paul Raven @ 24-02-2010

I think what surprised me most about the Please Rob Me flap was how little flapping there was, and that most of what there was came from the sort of people I usually expect to see beyond the obvious tabloid angles to the truth of a technology story. Perhaps technopanics just aren’t getting the click-through they used to… or maybe everyone’s too busy covering the adventures of neoprene-clad sportsmen in cold places to care.

Stowe Boyd managed to make the point about Please Rob Me in a much more coherent and conciliatory fashion than I did:

I am suggesting that a single level of ‘friending’ is probably too general to satisfy assumed needs for safety, although there is little evidence that social tools increase the likelihood of burglaries or rape. We don’t have an epidemic of ‘social crime’ to resolve here.

The slippage of geolocational information from a closed, stable network into an open, dynamic one opens up a wider assemblage of contacts, but without the assumed friendship that comes from symmetric following. […]

So, I think the slippage of geolocational information from a closed, stable system like Foursquare into an open, dynamic system like Twitter is less problematic than generally considered. I don’t think it, per se, is scary.

While it is possible that a cadre of burglars or a sex slave ring might try to eavesdrop on our geolocational information in these services, history would suggest that our so-called friends and acquaintances are actually the source of most of these dangers.

People are scary, not social tools.

Quite – and that’s not to underemphasise the potential scariness of people, either. The perspective we need to regain here is that technologies aren’t intrinsically creepy, invasive and risky, but that some people are. If anything, gaining a true understanding of the implications of a technology is probably a better way to minimise its risks than a witch-hunt. Kids can cut themselves with sharp knives – so do we ban all knives, or do we just teach kids not to play with them?

I’m not saying that encroachment into privacy isn’t a problem – just ask the kids of Harriton High School. But we need to move away from this culture of blaming technology for the misuses it is (or could be) put to by people; it’s the same fallacy that the hair-shirt greens are so fond of, and it’s counterproductive on every level. Sure, we’re all able to watch each other more thoroughly than ever before, and yes, the social panopticon comes with similar social risks to a more monolithic (e.g. governmental) surveillance apparatus [via @AmandaChapel]- but it’s not going to go away. Wringing your hands is a waste of time; if you really want to prevent tech misuses, educate your audience instead of trying to terrify them into momentary Luddism.

Talking of technophobia, I name ChatRoulette as front-running candidate for the next tabloid technoterror. The more moderate mainstream media has a hold of the story already, painting it in very “wow, the crazy things these internet people build!” colours with some positivist highlights:

… Chatroulette is a social Web site that allows you to navigate somewhat incognito. “There’s no log in, there’s no registration, and that’s fundamentally different from Facebook and Twitter, where your real persona is tied back to you,” said Sarita Yardi, a doctoral candidate at the Georgia Institute of Technology who studies the role of technology in teenagers’ lives.

The Web has long allowed anonymous conversations among strangers. Text-based chat rooms are rife with deceit — people pretending they are someone else. Video makes this harder — even if you’re wearing a mask. Then, too, the anonymity can be fleeting. Screenshots of people using Chatroulette have popped up everywhere. Is one of them you?

In truth, ChatRoulette looks to be a pretty benign (and ultimately banal) thing – not to mention strangely reminiscent of a Jeff Noon story I vaguely remember, in which every one in the world had a mirror that showed the face of another person somewhere else in the world. The usual social media/privacy commentators are being quietly sensible, too, albeit keeping their guard up against the inevitable accusations of showing support for technodepravity:

I like the fact that there are still a small percentage of folks out there looking for some amusement because they’re bored and they want to connect with randomness, folks who recognize the joy of meeting strangers in a safer space than most physical spaces where that’s possible. I realize that this creates the potential for seeing some pretty gross and/or problematic things and I certainly don’t want to dismiss that, but I’m pretty certain that teens are responding the same way that I’m responding – by clicking Next. Is that ideal? Probably not. And I’d certainly love a filter – not just for teens but for my own eyes.

[…]

I’m not sure that immature folks of any age (or the easily grossed out) should be on this site. But I do hope that we can create a space where teens and young adults and the rest of us can actually interact with randomness again. There’s a cost to our social isolation and I fear that we’re going to be paying it for generations to come.

Indeed; the more we seek to protect ourselves and our children (especially the children, poor innocent things that they are!) from everything and anything, the less able to deal with adversity we become – and adversity is inevitable, unless you live in a box lined with cotton wool and a Faraday cage. Common sense aside, however, the potent and flammable combination of children, strangers and video pretty much ensures that ChatRoulette will be moral-panic-boogie-man of the week for the usual suspects within the next month or so… provided the fad lasts that long, of course.


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