I don't hear any TYPING!
August 4, 2003 7:51 AM   Subscribe

Riddle me this: why are so many people in such a hurry to monitor, record and analyze every aspect of modern life? A UCLA professor wants to outfit an entire first grade classroom with minuscule sensors. The National Science Foundation awarded $1.8 million to fund the study, which will see students wearing special caps tracking their location and what they're looking at while cameras and microphones will record their activities. All the data gathered will be processed by a data-mining software package. [more inside]
posted by Irontom (24 comments total)
Regardless of whether they can actually mine any useful data out of a system like this (yet), it completely creeps me out that anyone is even interested in this. I think it stems from an unhealthy societal obsession with effiency and process improvement.

"...would allow teachers to pay attention to the problems of individual students through the assessment of their performance in small group interaction scenarios.

'The problem for teachers is that they cannot usually pay attention to each student across all groups,' he said. 'The feedback will allow teachers to better instruct their students.'

My question is: why not hire more teachers so that class sizes are smaller and kids get more attention from their teachers? Why go through all the effort to make this a feasible approach? If it ever does, is there anyone that imagines that most companies won't implement this in the workplace as soon as possible? *shakes head, trying to remove images of Mandark's voice coming from cochlear implant saying "I don't hear any TYPING!"*
posted by Irontom at 7:52 AM on August 4, 2003

But if the sensors are that small, they'll need some extra sensing-sensors to sense if the sensors are sensing, and some sensors to sense if the sensor-sensing sensors are sensing...
posted by humuhumu at 8:04 AM on August 4, 2003

Unfortunately only one student volunteered for the tracking device.
posted by Space Coyote at 8:07 AM on August 4, 2003

Sounds like another unfunded Homeland Security mandate.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 8:13 AM on August 4, 2003

Damn. Someone beat me to the applicable Simpsons reference [caution, link to painfully comprehensive episode analysis].
posted by aladfar at 8:27 AM on August 4, 2003

Clearly, this is a manifestation of the Great Rotary Club Conspiracy, the same one whose satellites beam invisible rays on the back of my head and steal away my thoughts, and fill the airwaves with television programs that secretly satirize members of my family.


Can we tone down the paranoia a little? They're trying to find out how kids learn. This is research in early childhood education, that's all. It's kind of neat. I'd be interested in learning what they find out.

Irontom, uncreep yourself. It's really okay.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 8:30 AM on August 4, 2003

Irontom: you might find Steve Talbott's netfuture interesting. After reading him for four years he's still the one of the best thinkers about technology I've come across. He's one of the few people who really seem to be trying to take a Hegelian synthetic approach, which can make his arguments subtle and somewhat difficult, but powerful. I was just going through issue 142 last night. I think he's gotten a bit grumpy over the years, but still a very sharp writer.
posted by slipperywhenwet at 8:31 AM on August 4, 2003

All the better to learn how to enslave us all!!!!!
posted by Blue Stone at 9:11 AM on August 4, 2003


I wasnt trying to imply there was some vast conspiracy, just stating that I don't understand how some people don't consider the ramifications of their actions. You know, unintended consequences.

I understand that this is just early childhood education research. For now. I can also see how it could be adopted for a whole host of uses that I find extrememly unpleasant. Hell, Steve Wozniak of Apple fame has come out with a tracking system that allows you to tag and track your stuff and/or kids.

Try as I do otherwise, every single day I run across new things that creep me out (RFID tags, cameras in planes, etc). I don't want to be a Kaczynski, but there are lots of people out there that make me feel like one.
posted by Irontom at 9:12 AM on August 4, 2003

I think it stems from an unhealthy societal obsession with effiency and process improvement.

B-b-but, Ralph Nader told me that we're a society of wasteful, indulgent polluters. Though maybe we're so efficient that we produce too much extra stuff that it would be crazy to not consume it all.

What's so unhealthy about efficiency, unless you're so obsessive/compulsive that you're wasting time and energy looking for new ways of improving efficiency by tiny useless margins. Its not like this study has been tried a thousand times before. It might reveal something totally unexpected and useful.
posted by techgnollogic at 9:14 AM on August 4, 2003

Well, hrm. Just speaking as a researcher in education. I worked on a project where we videotaped good teachers in the classroom (the basic belief behind the project was that good teachers really like to learn from other good teachers how to be better teachers, but it turns out that they don't have the time to watch quicktime video either). The amazing thing was that even though all of them (many of them award winners) were well aware of basic facts like boys get more personal attention in classroom settings, and the difficulty in giving enough wait time for the students to come up with an answer, many were suprised to find that on film, that they were calling on boys more than girls, or what they were spending too much time on their favorite side of the classroom. All of them really appreciated having an opportunity to see what they were doing from an external point of view.

The problem is that teacher's perceptions of what they actually do in classrooms is skewed. Good teachers are very evaluation oriented (bad teachers don't give a darn) and really want to know if they are fairly interacting with students. Even putting an observer or a camera in the classroom can miss a lot of what goes on. As a reseach project, this doesn't sound like a bad idea. I didn't get the impression that anybody was advocating this as a standard practice.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:34 AM on August 4, 2003

It could come in handy. Once they know how much paste the weird kid in the back is eating, they can adjust their purchasing accordingly.
posted by jonmc at 9:37 AM on August 4, 2003

What's so unhealthy about efficiency

The 2001 Massey Lecture was on teh topic of the Cult of Efficiency, in which Janice Stein talks about how the language of efficiency is shaping the very values people share.
posted by Space Coyote at 9:37 AM on August 4, 2003

What Kirk said. I was going to bring up the same experiment about gender bias but on preview found he beat me to it.

This method can find out a lot of stuff standard observation techniques can't.

And as this item about the same project notes, the technology can also be used in other situations for anthropological or sociological research.
posted by beagle at 9:46 AM on August 4, 2003

the only problem I have with this is how do you account for the kids knowing the cameras are watching them and them looking at things just to throw people off? Or are they thinking first-graders aren't going to really be able to do that, or at least keep it up all day?
posted by evening at 9:49 AM on August 4, 2003

the only problem I have with this is how do you account for the kids knowing the cameras are watching them and them looking at things just to throw people off? Or are they thinking first-graders aren't going to really be able to do that, or at least keep it up all day?

Just guessing, but I would think the study needs to address that by comparing observational results (before) with recorded results (after). My guess is after a day or two the kids would forget the thing and act normal.
posted by beagle at 10:00 AM on August 4, 2003

But if the sensors are that small, how much paste the weird kid in the back is eating

Students will wear caps with sensors called "iBadges" pinned to them, Objects, such as puzzle pieces or board games, will be wired with sensors and used on task tables with magnetic systems under them to track location and usage.
Riddle me this:
This experiment will fail not stay together, why?
What has little fingers and likes taking things apart?
posted by thomcatspike at 10:23 AM on August 4, 2003

No matter what is done in the study, the scientists absolutely need to have parental consent before they begin. EVMS didn't get permission prior to starting a study exposing preschoolers to cauliflower mosiac virus DNA. Parents need to have an opportunity to refuse participation and make other arrangements for their children or have the schools provide other arrangements.
posted by onhazier at 10:27 AM on August 4, 2003

Hey, guess what? It's likely my kid was part of that study. Without my informed consent.

Now, I don't think they were trying to do anything wrong, or do anything that would hurt the kids. However, the risk was not zero. It was probably infinitesimally small, but it was not zero. As a result, the following quote makes it clearly apparent that the researchers didn't understand the concept of public trust, nor of informed consent:

" Wasilenko said ... `if one parent wished not to have their child participate, all the rest of the children would no longer have been able to be part of the study and that day-care center couldn't have participated.' "

And this is a bad thing, how? For a study that was originally funded by a financially interested outside party (the company that makes Lysol). The arrogance involved is stupefying, and does nothing but hurt their standing in the community. And the Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters has a lot of standing to loose. They're a nationally recognized children's hospital that has done a lot of good. IMO, this is a real black eye for them.
posted by Irontom at 10:49 AM on August 4, 2003

Wow, onhazier & Irontom, I didn't think things like that were still possible in this day and age. Before I left academia to teach young people, I did research like the one described in this FPP - except without the high tech angle. It was just simple observation of classrooms, interviewing kids & teachers, that sort of thing. The amount of hoops we had to jump through of getting informed consent not just at the beginning but each and every separate time we observed - well, it was a logistic and paperwork nightmare, but I wouldn't dream of doing research on children without it.

I think the discomfort some people are feeling with this technology has to do with when the line is crossed between observation (the point of this study) and potential control ("I don't hear any TYPING"). That's an issue more about the social uses of technology than the existence of the technology itself, I think.

And as someone who does work with children, I think the real sticking point for the study isn't that the kids'll take the electronics apart. It's the literal sticking point. These things are going to have juice, glue, glitter, paint, sand, and water liberally applied. I hope they've either got really robust equipment, or they've budgeted a lot of replacement parts.
posted by Chanther at 11:09 AM on August 4, 2003

Is that really a problem? After all, they are talking about putting these things in clothing in order to reduce shoplifting.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:49 AM on August 4, 2003

Irontom spelled "minuscule" correctly. His teachers should be studied to find out what they did right.

I know it's dweeby to notice whenever people spell "minuscule" correctly. Can't help it.
posted by Holden at 1:49 PM on August 4, 2003

The use of sensors in this manner will allow people to talk and interact with the physical world
However have we managed up until now?
posted by dg at 4:55 PM on August 4, 2003

Dear Dr. Heisenberg,

We have decided that our son, Augustus, will not be allowed to participate in your study group.

The study's goals seem worthwhile, but we are not comfortable with its methods.

Certainly the mere fact that the children know they are being observed will contaminate your data - but it is not that contamination which concerns us.

You see, little Augie's brain is coalescing into its first (and possibly its most important) configuration; patterns and shapes are emerging, nodes are forming - his physical consciousness is crystallizing. Imprinting that process, at this stage, with an officially (and parentally) sanctioned notion that wide-screen passive surveillance is a cool tool is not our idea of responsible parenting. If Augie decides, when he is more fully developed, that broadband espionage is perfectly slammin', we would like to be able to assure ourselves that his decision does not derive from subtle, childhood indoctrination.

Thanks so much - and congratulations on the grant money!

Bob and Shirley Shuttlecock
posted by Opus Dark at 1:42 AM on August 5, 2003

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