Honesty and Surveillance

Posted by on Nov 18, 2011 in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

A digital strategist I work with, Dan Robinson, shared this article earlier today.

In theory, any site that makes use of the Facebook open graph API can appear as something tracked by the facebook system. So if you see a “like” button, assume that your presence there is logged. That said, look at the kind of value you get from trading your information and behaviour: your actions become the currency to buy faster search interactions, more personalized results, and (in theory) higher quality information.


Beyond alarmism, I think the real issue is around intent and expectation: when you go to a site, are you entering into that space understanding this transaction you’re taking part in? For example, our expectations around privacy and conversation differ in our work spaces vs. in a meeting room vs. in the kitchen, and the web site is no different: we go to different sites with different expectations around the intent of those sites as pseudo-physical spaces. We might interact with a corporate site understanding that our behaviours are being logged and analyzed, but visit a friend’s home page not anticipating such invasions. It only becomes an invasion if it takes place surreptitiously: eyes hidden in a painting vs. merely a panoptic dome.

For me, this raises very major questions around the inherent honesty of surveillance. Cameras, security domes, sensors, and ATM machines are a constant tap into my life. Whether it’s a networked security camera or a measuring stick beside a door to help in identifying perpetrators of theft, these are different environmental manifestations of my information being taken from me. However, their physical presence allows me to make the conscious decision: do I interact with this environment, or do I seek an alternative? Is trading my information worth the convenience this environment provides? The visibility of physical surveillance objects affords me the capacity to make these decisions.

The same can apply to Facebook and other sides of web surveillance. A “Like” button is the digital equivalent of a domed security camera attached to an ATM machine: it observes your behaviour and your actions as you walk by, but it’s only when you interact with it that you perceive a transaction as taking place. But imagine if you could wave that transaction fee if you looked directly at the camera, giving it a moment to visually scan you. Would that be worth $1.50?

Look at Google analytics code, hidden in the structure of a page and providing rich data about the environment and user. Did you know I’m using google analytics on this page? Do you know what I’m optimizing and tweaking based on how you interact with my site? Do you know that Google’s doing the same? You can’t know this unless you look at the structure and bones of my site, observing the painting closely, or assume from cultural norms.

Now consider the modern or near-modern retail store: RFIDs, time and purchase correlated visas, and behavioural patterns. Vegetables placed at the front, meats placed at the back, wayfinding designed to take you around an environment primed with desire-inducing cues. Is this a transaction between consenting parties, or the informational pilfering of our capacity to decide?

We need environments that communicate what they are and how we are to interact with them, and in so doing, appreciate that the steady gaze and skittering pen of behavioural analytics is party to these interactions. We need indications that sites are tracking our behaviour. We need an opt-out button on ATM machines, or indicators for RFID-enabled products. As a somewhat weak example, I’ve added the following to the footer of my site:

I make use of Google Analytics. Please feel free to opt out.

Maybe not the best solution, but does this information help? Let’s see… using google analytics.

Locative Media Day at TIFF Nexus

Posted by on Nov 10, 2011 in Uncategorized | No Comments

The Friday before last I attended a half-day conference as part of Digifest called Locative Media Innovation Day. Locative Media is, generally speaking, any kind of digital or physical media object that can be contextually related to an location or space. A well known implementation is foursquare, in which we’re seeing talk of delivering advertisements and coupons when you enter a set physical space territory around a store, or when your inside a store, or whathaveyou.

Going into Locative Media Innovation Day, I was deeply worried that the discussion would be around these commercial examples. However, the conference programmer, Nick Pagee (who I had the pleasure of meeting at a three day workshop titled “Network as material” taught by Julian Oliver), did a brilliant job navigating both the commercial and intellectual terrain, curating a fantastic speaker line up, who I’ll discuss below in order of their speaking.

Bill Buxton’s Whereable Media
The conference as a whole was fantastic, with Microsoft Research head Bill Buxton delivering the keynote on his concept of Where-able computing. He lead a discussion on the life and death of media and mediums for communication, emphasizing the flexibility one needs in both adopting and discarding technologies where appropriate. One of the quotes that stood out was that “If you view things from a technological perspective, you will get it wrong.”
Buxton’s arguments set up the conference as one of higher thinking about locative media, expanding beyond the basic idea of the check-in and direct space, and setting up the discussion as one of proximal and nuanced relationships between person, place, and thing. In other words, the value of these technologies lies not in the technology itself, but the enabling connections we can make between the role of a place and the participation of the individual within that context. I was reminded very strongly of arguments forwarded by Yifu Tuan and Malcom McCullough, which I’m certain Buxton was inspired by.
Furthering this, he discussed the role that intelligence and cognition play in designing these systems, emphasizing that knowledge and custom inherent in a space afford those present (and participating) in it different social and physical cues. One such example he provided was the bridge of a ship, wherein the tools that define input and output communicate their role and derive value through their association with the space in question.

Fundamentally, we are seeing a shift in the way we interact with space, and an adjustment of our expectations related to space. An example provided was that of the self-opening door: simple, but also wildly sophisicated. A small handful of inputs (a passive infrared sensor, some switches to understand door state, and safety mechanisms to protect objects and people passing through) and actuators combine to form a near invisible system that has become associated with environments that require doors that open. In this case, a box store or space where you might be pushing a cart. Buxton describes these things as overlaying intelligence on top of the environment, where this intelligence is both the logic of the system, and the context within which it is designed and situated.

He ends with a quote from Jean Piaget: “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to our environment,” and a cautionary statement “Technologies do not evolve because their members advance technologically, but rather because their mutual relationships are transformed.”
Our understanding of space, privacy, relationship, and affordance are set to fundamentally change, and it is the human understanding of society, relationship, and psychology that provide for the context around which these systems should be designed.

Annotating the Environment by Richard Lachman
Following Buxton must have been tough. Lachman presented a much more practical, less philisophically sophisticated vision of locative media and computing, but in so doing presented the context around which most startups and media companies are working.
His core argument was around the presentation and timeliness of information presentation, stating that while modern devices are creating massive amounts of information, its the filtration and timely presentation of these outputs that reveals the value of this technology. He then provided a “state of the tech” overview, describing the trio of core technologies which make modern locative media possible in smart phones: Cell Phone triangulation, wifi triangulation (services like Skyhook), and GPS. Further, the space around push-able data services, basically information that is pushed to you from a server (services like Urban Airship), versus information that you need to actively query becomes an enabling tool in the mobile locative context.
Personally, I found his discussions around locative context to be the most interesting: calling up further “resolution” enabling technologies, such as QR code, natural feature tracking, and similar to give our technologies a very close understanding of the world. It’s a fascinating discussion, and one that is heavily fueled by the augmented reality and virtual world research.

Place is the Space by Shawn Micallef
Micallef did an incredible job of describing the social and “fleshy” (as he put it) side of locative media. He described his found of the Toronto Psychogeography Society, which lead to the writing of “Stroll: The Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto,” within which he tries to understand some of the more human and emotional qualities of space, place, and context. Much of this was inspired by what he described as the “dark spots” of his mental map of Toronto, areas which he knew OF, but did not entirely understand as HIS Toronto. This kind of thinking also led to his founding of Spacing magazine, which explores the city AS a place of emotional and informational resonance. Some of the outputs of Spacing are the Toronto subway pins, serving as almost locative totems for Torontonians moving about the myriad neighborhoods of the city.

Rocket Radar by Adam Schwabe
Starting with a mention of Jane Fulton Suri, Creative Director at IDEO, as a major influence, Adam went into describing his wonderfully designed application. His design philosophy around simplicity is one which I’ve rarely seen so effectively embraced, explicitly stating that the interaction model for this application was for it to be turned on, and for it to spit out the answer. This application is a perfect example of how the right inputs can provide the context for the right answer, with no required input from the user.

Sauga 2030 by Department of Unusual Certainties (??, ??, ??)
A great project by the Department of Unusual Certainties, Sauga 2030 is a locative walking tour of Mississauga as imagined 19 years from now. Speculative interviews, speeches, and histories are outlined to critique and analyze Mississauga as it is now, but in an immediate, contextual fashion. It’s a great experiment into how information can resonate deeper when in a more immediate spacial context.

Sousveiller by Normative Design (Matthew Milan)
Matthew started the discussion around Gaze and the role that being observed has in mediating our relationships with each other and our surroundings. Steve Mann has done considerable work in this space and clearly served as a major influence for the Normative team. The project as a whole was around creating an ambient awareness of people, and asking that question of “Why do people document the physical world?”

It’s a fascinating direction of inquiry, and one which the Normative team has taken pains to explore, research, and prototype in their Sousveiller application. The long term vision is to create situated data layers that show the real environment, not just the physically visible environment; and to create a tool for extending human memory in data space. Matt described visions of converting the cameras’ current 2D context into 3D representations to understand where they’re really looking, and how we can circumvent or make use of that space appropriately. Looking forward to seeing more of this application.

The Business of Locative Media by Michelle Pares
I didn’t take notes for this one, but there were slides related to it.

Locus by Normative Design (Taylan Pince and Matthew Milan, moderated by Jaime Woo)
API and framework for
getlocus.com

Peripherals Project
Some neat stuff, but the thing that stood out was eyePilot
Eye pilot