Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Desperate Housewives of the future?

I've been reading too many technology articles lately. The death of Steve Jobs has "inspired" a lot of people to write about the bright future of personalized computing, of smart phones, tablet computers, and dreams about what we'll get when we combine mobile computing with GPS localization and social networks. We can even throw in some medical devices, like a heart rate monitor.

Recently I was in a meeting in Paris with a gentleman from India. We chatted politely, he told me he had brought his wife and daughter with him on his trip. I asked what they were doing while he was stuck in that meeting, and he pulled out his iPhone. He had an app that showed his wife and daughter as colored dots on a map of Paris, located by their own iPhones. I didn't say anything, but I couldn't help but thinking how much I would have hated if my parents had had me on electronic surveillance like that.

Add in those heart rate monitors and social networks with "timelines", and I smell trouble. How long until a housewife happens to check her social network and find that both her husband and her best friend have been in the same location, a motel, at the same time, and both had strongly accelerated heart rates?

Come to think of it, many people's lives have two distinctive parts: One large and extremely boring one nobody wants to know about, and sometimes a more interesting part which they desperately want to keep secret. Neither of which makes good social media material. Just imagine an episode of Desperate Housewives where all the actions of all the characters are logged onto a social network: All what makes the series interesting is the secrets the characters keep from each other, and the layers of deception. While that TV series certainly isn't an accurate description of real people, it might well be an accurate description of the small, interesting bits in real people's lives.

So after reading all those articles about the ubiquitous computing and social networking of the future, I'm not convinced. Basically my observation is that mobile computing still has extreme problems at the moment: I can't even get a 3G connection everywhere in Belgium, and am often stuck at a data transfer rate of the EDGE protocol of 236.8 kbit/s. That's not quite as fast as an old 256 k modem. And in Europe you can be hit with data roaming charges up to $3.22 per megabyte. And due to frequent business travel I know all about the frequently horrible internet connections in hotels.

But once all these technical problems are overcome, we'll just run into the far more serious problems of privacy and who controls what rights over data on the internet. Today the story might be how Twitter helped the Arab spring, but tomorrow the story might well be how some revolution failed and the regime struck back at the would-be revolutionaries by tracking them down via their social networks. It already happened after the London riots. Sooner or later people will realize that it is not a good idea to put anything REAL on the social networks, and will limit themselves to exchange photos of cute kittens and similar fluff.

There are services that help a cheater mask their real actions by fake phone calls, so it's plausible that these services will grow to encompass social media. If they haven't already, that is.

Thanks for an interesting perspective. For a counterpoint to the techno-optimism you refer too, you could read through this. His headline, "Innovation starvation" is fairly descriptive.

As to the question of tracking, we have that activated in our family. My kids are too young (in my view, definitely not theirs!) to have a phone so this is mainly a matter of me and my wife tracking each other. And to be frank, she doesn't do it much, I'm the main user of it. I never really thought twice about it, but I have found in conversations that it is a deeply controversial issue for many. There is a distinct fear among people for the things you describe. Even if it's inter-family, the "surveillance culture" is certainly something many want to avoid.

Like with so many other things, I regard this as a matter of voluntary participation. As long as my wife and I agree that the tracking is a good idea we'll keep using it. If she or I were uncomfortable with it I'd turn it off in a heartbeat. As it is now, it's convenient to have a look and see if she's in a position to pick up some food on the way home from work or whatnot. The only times I've seen any useful purpose with the feature is when the phone has been lost and it's possible to see whether it's still at home or back at work etc. Good feature, but not something that's hugely important.

With the kids, though, I think the "voluntary" part will not be as big. I always felt that my parents were being ridiculous when they got worried when I didn't come home when I promised I would and all that. But now that I'm in their position, I definitely feel that it would be a huge comfort to know where they are. Not to mention that they would surely use it to get more freedom to roam and stay out longer, not less. :)
Btw regarding: if you have a german contract there is a new service which you can activate. All it takes is a SMS in the new country and you can buy daily and weekly data flats for a better price than any roaming.

I used it in Belgium and Mallorca so far and had good results.
Indeed. It was all flowers and sunshine for me until the company I used to work for datamined their way onto my LiveJournal account. I went from model employee to Final Warning with 3 months probation because I let off some steam, despite not using any names. They even demanded I delete the five-year old account entirely.

Hearing about how drunken pictures on Facebook gets people in trouble IRL is a pretty ubiquitous story. The scary thing is that you don't even have to be the one posting the pictures - all it takes is someone to be at a party with a camera, and suddenly you get tagged on their album.

This kind of thing is the future, and I am constantly amazed how little push-back there has been thus far. People apparently have to get burned themselves before they start realizing how real names = bad news.
The new iPhone OS has a similar IM service to that of BBM. What I'd be interested to know is does the encryption compare to BBM or is it far superior?

The Met Police had to ask Blackberry to close BBM during the height of the London riots to curb rioters activity.
Like any pyramid scheme, social networking will leave a bad taste in the mouths of millions who have shared their personal details with a "media" company.

Late comers are never as savvy as the early adopters and will get to be exploited mercilessly for years on end until the government steps in at some point and limit the abuse (responding to public pressure).
I assume you are aware that Facebook tracks your Internet usage even if you are logged out? Read some articles on Facebook data tracking, it is scarier than people think.

You may think your Facebook games account was anonymous, but I would bet even money that some Facebook database has your real name, real address, real phone number, etc.
mobile internet is the last bastion of internet provision profit. Especially in roaming costs. I doubt that's going to change quickly. The funny thing about mobile technology is that advances are happening quickly but the playing field is getting steadily wider. GPRS connections are still widespread. My work blackberry I got earlier this year is still only on gprs internet.
In pc internet terms this would be the equivalent of ISPs still selling 56k modem connections.
Azuriel is right that this is the future. I'm pretty sure, however, that it's a future that will be welcomed, or just accepted as "how it is", by the vast majority of people who grow up and are growing up after it has begun.

Most of the resistance, such as it is, will come from people who remember how life was before the technology and they (we) won't be here for that much longer.
I recommend reading Public Parts.
I used to sell covert surveillance cameras, and I think what we are going through right now is a generational problem.

When you have inconspicuous cameras, you are going to see people picking their nose, picking out wedgies, scratching themselves and doing other undignified things that they do not want you to see. Nearly everyone who buys a "nanny cam" is displeased with their nanny despite the fact that their nanny pays about as much attention to their child as they would have if they were home - it is extremely rare for someone to find a real problem (abuse, neglect, theft, etc.).

Right now people finding a drunk picture of you on facebook is going to be about as much trouble for you as people finding out you were a pot smoker would have been a few decades ago. These days you can become president of the US after openly admitting to smoking dope. Thirty years from now there will be politicians who survive drunk pictures and sex tapes because we've woken up to the fact that in a world of ubiquitous cameras those things happen.
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