MonkeyCams and Change

Technopolis 1.2, by Michael Jensen
originally published in Breeze, January 1996.

CHANGE IS GROWTH. For five or six years I weighed, as a young man, tattooing that phrase on my upper arm, beneath a combination question- and exclamation-mark, as a message to my future self to always be surprised, and to always anticipate (and accept) change. I never got that tattoo: I don't have to, since it's tattooed in my psyche from thinking about it so long.

I'm not sure now, though, that the phrase is fully right. Yes, change is growth, but both change and growth have qualitative variance. Change in general is inescapable, inexorable, and impersonal; change in particular can have qualitative meaning, especially in the arena I'm supposed to be writing about: technology. The column itself is to investigate the intrinsic values of technology and technological change: how it affects us as humans, what it implies about us, how we can use it for development. Growth in itself is not necessarily benign, the pundits notwithstanding.

What I use to judge the merit of technologies is a loose collection of values which are alway shades of grey. On the plus side, I count some of the following:

The converse is not mutually exclusive--that is, it can have all the above, and have many of the negatives, below.

Now, do I really add up the positives and negatives to acquire a numerical value to judge every new technology? Of course not. But I do use the questions to help distance myself from my natural inclination of "hey, that's cool!" toward any new innovation.

I also try to apply them to any anticipated technologies. The ShoulderMonkey I described in the last column (a personal voice-reactive digital assistant that is always communicating with the outside world and with your home PC) is to my mind a big positive, but it all depends on how it's used, as I also tried to explain in that article.

I want to expand on that premise by explaining that the ShoulderMonkey, while able to record your voice, retrieve information from your encrypted personal-life database, and connect up to your friends either by e-mail or by voice, is almost certain to be more.

Again, I assume that anything that is do-able with contemporary technology will be do-able very cheaply in two to three years. Currently, I can have a digital camera dependably transmit images across the Internet at the rate of one every few seconds. Digital cameras are small and a little expensive now; in two years they'll be smaller and cheaper, in three years there'll be K-Mart $49 digital cameras. Digital still images can be compressed and sent reasonably cheaply, which will become much cheaper as compression is turned into a chip cheaply (which is happening--small-dish TV uses compression chips, which is the first largescale manufacturing demand for them). Cable modems will become cheap and plentiful, and hooked up to the Net. It is unavoidable that ShoulderCams will be part of our ShoulderMonkeys.

It's likely they'll be bright orange, sitting on our shoulders, or will be a small bulge on our eyeglasses, depending on our needs. They'll transmit images via cell or microwave or ultrasonic to the phone lines or cable feed, back to our 100-gigabyte-drive home PCs (you watch: that'll be the norm in three years), saving the images of the last X minutes routinely, saving them permanently only upon your remote request.

What will this do to us? Right now, most upscale laptops come equipped with large hard drives and sound features built in, so that you can, essentially at whim, decide to record whatever's going on--the meeting, the conversation, the trainride, the laughter of your child. My laptop can be an answering machine or be a telephone, and it's not even that upscale. It's a short step to having digital video available on call--merely a matter of bandwidth, the speed and volume of data throughput.

I just moved to Baltimore after ten years in Nebraska--an area where paranoia seems odd. I have a thirteen-year-old daughter. I'm suddenly wishing that I had ShoulderMonkeys and ShoulderCams available now, so I'd know that she had her 'MonkeyCam riding on her shoulder, its little red light winking letting anyone thinking about hassling her know that she's recording, and that all she has to do it hit the "save" button to record time/date/face, or hit her "save and panic" button, which does that while calling for help.

What a boon for a nervous father wanting to give his daughter freedom while wanting to keep her away from those men that he drank beer with years ago (or worse, the ones he wouldn't drink beer with). What a boon for single women and men walking anywhere they feel nervous. What a boon for enforcing a civil society by constant watchfulness.

But yes, what a change in our culture, and what an invasion of privacy. I mentioned the "winking red light" because I expect such social-cue graces. It's simply polite to let anyone who might be recorded know that they are being recorded. In civil society, we will ask before doing it in meetings, and will laughingly ask people to edit out faux pas from their record. I expect there'll be adolescents who intentionally eschew the things, and those who cover the red light ostentatiously with electrical tape, just so you don't know what they're doing.

Designer 'MonkeyCams are likely to be advertised in the New Yorker and the Sunday "Best Buy" circular. And when it hits that point--about five years from now?--the upscale digicrats will be having 360 degree recording (imagine a photosensitive belt that is all lens), or three-dimensional "virtual reality" recordings. I expect some people will narrowcast or broadcast their daily recordings--I can imagine a subset of audience interested in following the lives of interesting people--and investigative reporters will have a new tool for capturing information to be sued over.

I want a 'MonkeyCam, not for all times, but for sometimes. I know I'll eventually get something like it, and by that time my youngest daughter--now eight--will be an adolescent with a worried Papa, and she'll be able to have the tool.

There is no way to stop this, nor is there much point in trying. I realized something recently: there's now too much money gambled on the success of a digital society for it to fail. Last week an announcement of an order for 200,000 cable modems made that clear, as did last month's announcement of an April delivery date for $500 Internet-connection boxes, as do the continuous "synergy" mergers of garguantuan behemoths maneuvering for the best digital foundation, as do the appearance of Internet URL addresses on billboards and radio and television.

Instead of fighting this inevitable change, we must be trying to adapt these technologies to facilitate the best in us. We will need to determine a policy--both cultural and political--of acceptable use of video verite, and of personal recording, and of digitally recorded proof of a crime. We will need to vote with our feet and wallets for technologies and applications which enlarge, empower, and enable us, rather than those which force us to adapt, will alienate others, or will disempower us. And, as I said last time, we need to be thinking ahead, preparing for the inevitable, and centering ourselves as we participate in the digital revolution.

Change is growth, but growth can be, at its worst, cancerous. At its best, it flowers, and then replicates those flowers. Change--especially technological change--simply is. Where the change goes, how it grows, and how it changes us, is up to us. We cannot turn away from this change; we have to nurture the flowers, and be sure by pulling the weeds that we prevent the kudzu of commerce-driven technology choke out what's best in us.

Over to Technopolis 1.2, Watching the Watchdogs

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