Someone to watch over me
September 24, 2004 6:23 AM   Subscribe

Once the stuff of academic and corporate experimentation, ubiquitous computation (or "ubicomp") is gearing up for its commercial debut in the very near future. Along the lines of ostensibly "nanotechnological" pants, the reality of ubicomp as made manifest in consumer products may fall somewhat short of the prognostications: buying a personal communicator designed to work seamlessly within a ubicomp context is not the same thing as living in and with a truly pervasive network.

But already there are signs that the ubiquitous visions beloved by the corporate players and enshrined in their hype are coming into being. So which do you think it'll be? Guardian angel or inescapable, panoptical prison? Neither? Maybe both? I have a sinking feeling we're going to find out, one way or another.
posted by adamgreenfield (8 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Hi Adam! - Here's a spontaneous first draft tidbit of an answer fer ya !

One possible world plucked from among many - some better, some worse. Some more probable, some less.

Mr. MetaMooMooFilter Gets Ahead

"I'm a Buddhist", he was saying, "and so I don't believe in killing - even insects. I try to be nonviolent and I never used to squash bugs in my house, I tried to respect all life - even the smallest of life, insofar as I could do that and still live my life.

But that changed when they started making synsects and I had to revisit the issue, to reconsider it. I didn't want to just fucking spray down the house with Raid - at the least I'd be poisoning myself. But I really couldn't tolerate those things scuttling around on my ceiling, gathering consumer data on what I eat and do and how I pick my nose or wipe my ass so they can send me computer generated personalized ads on my Blackberrypod that sound like they've been written by Turing 2030 advertising bots on steroids with extra fancy shrink modules.

It's bullshit. Nonviolence, my ass. I've changed. I bet this conversation's going into numerous databases somewhere - there's always a way. I read on MetaMooMooFilter that even the best EMF HomeSec scramblers have back doors to allow the CIASA to test out their newest stuff, and sysnsects have been getting really, really small. Smaller than ants, like you need a magnifying glass to see them. Like dust. Dust with cameras and broadcast antennas.

Where's my friggin' aircar ? This future blows chunks.

You know, when President Schwarzenegger was running and did all those ads where he flexed his muscles and squashed those prototype surveillance synsects in his know I actually believed him. He'd been meditating and all, and I thought he was better than the Jennas. What an idiot I am. I should have voted for the little twit and her silicon sidekick. She was just a sloppy, bitchy drunk with loads of money, but Ahhny........friggin' piece of work, shameless....

'Strength through discipline', my ass. Rehashed Goebbels. Nobody even cares, that the sad part. You know, there are rumors that he's all machine, even the brain. What's left ? He's had so much replaced. I still can't quite believe he signed the USA PATRIOT 9 Act. What an asshole. "

"Honey, you're getting really worked up. We've been over this whole synsect surveillance thing a million times. One of these days, I'm gonna do a brain wipe on you in your sleep, and that'll be the end of that little twisted obsession. Look, the synsects are designed to make the markeplace more efficient. Deal with it. You enjoy the fruits of the marketplace, don't make out as if you don't.

And I'm not moving to that little zoo of Liberalistan with you. No way. No how. They live like animals. No way, no how.

Has the SearsMart techbot come by to clean your USB-15 port ? You'd feel a lot better if you'd plug in from time to time instead of tapping away on that archaic keyboard thing to yakity-yak-yak all day with your MetaMooMooFilter buddies. They're all negative ninny freaks who should get one way tickets to a Positive Thinking Detention Facility. I mean, what's so bad about the World ? Grow up, plug in, dream a little. It's not so bad. Why not stop trying to "commune with nature" all the time. Where's nature ? Show me. We'll find some more "nature" on one of those new planets. Maybe MicroDisney will make that new nature park from that chunk of depopulated they bought, and you could visit that for a vacation.

I don't like "nature". Nature scratches and bites and gives you funky diseases - like that new kind of 5-minute skin-rotting antibacterial resistant flesh eating bacteria that killed all those people at that beach in California last year."

"That bacteria was manufactured by BushSanto. It's a protype population control devices. They've always been into population control and Eugenics, ever since Prescott, probably even before."

"LISTEN, YOU LITTLE FREAK, YOU'D better shut your.........

I'm sorry, I'm really sorry honey, I'm so sorry I said that. I get so mad when you say those things.

I'm really sorry. He're take this pill.

There. You'll feel better in about ten seconds.

I'm sorry. You really get under my skin when you say those things.

But really - when are you going to grow up, be just a little normal ? Plugging in's pretty damn good. So it's not real - so what. It get's me through the day, and I'm telling you - I'm really serious - if you don't chill out on this stuff you'll find yourself plugged in in bed alone, and you'll be having CyberSim sex with somebody else.

Stop obsessing on the fucking surveillance synsects, honey. You'll be happier. You'll be even happier, too, if I sign that piece of synpaper and make you get that head transplant. It just irons out the kinks - that's what the Alice The Shrinkbot told me - and I believe her. Why not ? She helped me out in more ways than you'll know, Mr. Red Pill."

posted by troutfishing at 7:30 AM on September 24, 2004

The roleplaying game Transhuman Space by Steve Jackson Games deals in a (mostly) hard-science background with some excellent uses of what it calls "Augmented Reality" - very much like the ubicomp described in your post Adam. Otherwise, great post and some top reading for me later on. Thanks dude!
posted by longbaugh at 8:02 AM on September 24, 2004

Guardian angel or inescapable, panoptical prison?

Arms race. Bacteria and white blood cells, cancer and NIH, computer virus and McAfee, spy- and theft-robotinsects and search-and-destroy-spy-and-theft-robotinsects.

Of course everything everywhere will be recorded somewhere and people will always forget about it. How many of us really understand on a gut level that everything we ever type into the Web is there forever?

The good news is that for all the hype and government naivete, technologies like optical face recognition and voice recognition don't work and won't work without some completely revolutionary breathrough. The near future of AI looks very poor -- we haven't had any major advances in 50 years, just incremental improvements of the same tiny subsets of the real problems.
posted by callmejay at 8:27 AM on September 24, 2004

posted by callmejay at 8:28 AM on September 24, 2004

callmejay - It sounds as if you're in the rough camp outlined by Jaron Lanier in "One Half of a Manifesto" :

"Jaron Lanier, a pioneer in virtual reality, musician, and currently the lead scientist for the National Tele-Immersion Initiative, worries about the future of human culture more than the gadgets. In his "Half a Manifesto" he takes on those he terms the "cybernetic totalists" who do not seem "to not have been educated in the tradition of scientific skepticism. I understand why they are intoxicated. There IS a compelling simple logic behind their thinking and elegance in thought is infectious."

"There is a real chance that evolutionary psychology, artificial intelligence, Moore's Law fetishizing, and the rest of the package, will catch on in a big way, as big as Freud or Marx did in their times. Or bigger, since these ideas might end up essentially built into the software that runs our society and our lives. If that happens, the ideology of cybernetic totalist intellectuals will be amplified from novelty into a force that could cause suffering for millions of people.

"The greatest crime of Marxism wasn't simply that much of what it claimed was false, but that it claimed to be the sole and utterly complete path to understanding life and reality......"

I'm a bit more concerned about the "incremental improvement" creep....and then there is Software Breeding

"This paper presents an architecture and prototype
implementation of a genetic algorithm for breeding
software test cases, using a fossil record and relative
or evolving notions of fitness."

Software and hardcore seem ever more organic.

Anyway, as I've I've argued before, there are many pathways towards succesful AI. One day, we'll find out.

posted by troutfishing at 9:00 AM on September 24, 2004

technologies like optical face recognition and voice recognition don't work and won't work without some completely revolutionary breathrough.

you haven't been paying attention. technology doesn't have to actually work - take a look around! with face recognition scooping up a handful of terrorists and traitors everyday, nobody will care if they actually ARE traitors and terrorists. it'll be obvious to the populace that we cannot live without that technology, same as its "obvious" to the populace that pocketknives threaten airliners. the same way computerized watch lists linked to reservation systems keep cat stevens from ever getting near airplanes. the same way saddam in a hole makes life safer in podunk. the same way microsoft leads the way into the computer science future. the same way the populace accepts things like having to buy a one-piece plastic molded integrally-fused taillight assembly for $126 instead of a 49 cent replacement bulb. the same way people think they have to have comcast if they want to send video email. nothing actually has to work, or has to work well, or even work in the way generally thought. you just need people to beleive it does. and they already do. no breakthrough is needed. only the announcement of one.
posted by quonsar at 9:06 AM on September 24, 2004

quonsar, I agree with what you say. I was just arguing that we don't have as much to fear from the technology itself as some alarmists would have us believe.

"This paper presents an architecture and prototype
implementation of a genetic algorithm for breeding
software test cases, using a fossil record and relative
or evolving notions of fitness."

Genetic algorithms are a neat idea in theory, but the reality hasn't show much promise. Biological organisms have had the most complex environment imaginable to evolve within. Genetic algorithms live in very shallow environments with narrowly defined survivability ("fittest") criteria. Evolving into something complex and viable is hard enough; evolving toward a specific goal is much harder.
posted by callmejay at 9:37 AM on September 24, 2004

callmejay - Give it time! Think of the ability of modern physics, within such a short trajectory announced - I suppose by the Newtonian enlightenment - to spawn monsters.

quonsar - science becomes magic.
posted by troutfishing at 6:43 PM on September 26, 2004

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