“Creepiness” is not a bug, it’s *the* feature

by on March 4, 2013 · 2 comments


Yesterday I explained why I’m not too worried about Silicon Valley’s penchant for “solutionism,” which Evgeny Morozov tackles in his new book. Essentially I think that as long as we make decisions about which technologies to adopt via market processes, people will reject those applications that are stupid or bad. Today I want to explore one reason why I’m optimistic that, in the long run, the public will get the technology it wants, despite the perennial squeamishness of some intellectuals.

The problem some thinkers and pundits have with my sanguine let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom approach is that inevitably the public will embrace some technologies that the thinkers don’t like. The result is usually a lot of fretting and hand-wringing by public intellectuals about what the scary new technology will do to our brains or society. Eventually, activists take on the cause and try to use state power to limit the choices the rest of us can make—for our own good, rest assured.

Today it seems that the next technology to get this treatment will be life-logging and personal data mining, as I discussed in my last post. Squarely in the crosshairs right now is Google Glass.

In this CNN op-ed about Glass Andrew Keen waits only seven words before using the adjective “creepy”—the watchword of nervous nellies everywhere. His concern is that those wearing Google Glass will be spying on anyone in their line of sight. Mark Hurst expresses similar concerns in a widely circulated blog post that also frets about what happens when we’re all not just recording but also being recorded.

This time around, though, I think the worrywarts face an uphill battle. That’s because in the case of life-logging and personal data mining, the “creepy” parts of the technologies are one in the same with the technologies themselves. The “creepiness” is not a bug, it’s the feature, and it can’t be severed without destroying the technology.

The promise of Glass is that one day you’ll be able to quickly get an answer to a questions like, “When was the last time I had coffee with James?” or “What was the name of the woman I met with the last time I visited Sen. Smith’s office?” This doesn’t work, though, unless you can record everyone you see.

When privacy activists turn their attention to Google Glass and other life-logging technologies, I’m not sure how they will argue for a limitation short of an outright ban. And I don’t think the public will stand for that as they will likely appreciate the benefits of these technologies more than they will lament the costs.

“Creepiness,” after all, is not a tangible harm; it’s an emotional appeal. The video below from Memoto—a company making a life-logging camera that I’m hoping to get next month—is also an emotional appeal but in the other direction. Which one do you think will win out?

Memoto snaps two five-megapixel shots every minute and stamps them with your GPS coordinates. The product is something of a proto-Glass and still a bit primitive, but imagine adding facial recognition to it and maybe tying it to all the other data one captures throughout the day as a matter of course, including one’s calendar, email and social networks. I’ll never forget (as I very often do now) who I’ve met and where and what about.

Creepy? No. Useful. Does this make me less human? Not in any meaningful way. In fact one could argue it’s my very human impulse to integrate well into society that I will be serving.

And we are already getting used to these personal data mining technologies, long before we’re all photographing everything we see.

Cue is an app I’ve been using on my iPhone for a little while that mines the gigabytes of data that I already have lying around, including my eight-year archive on Gmail, my Dropbox account (which is essentially my hard drive), my calendar, my social networks, and more. If I have a meeting coming up in my calendar, it knows contextually who the meeting is with and presents me with the emails related to the meeting without any intervention on my part. If I have to call someone but don’t have their number in my contacts, Cue searches my email archive and finds the number because it’s no doubt in there, usually in an email signature. Pretty creepy stuff!

And now comes Tempo, which looks like a much more capable version of Cue. It’s from SRI, the folks who made Siri. Check out this video of Tempo’s CEO talking about what can be deduced from access to your calendar (starting around minute 17):

We can tell from his frank tone that he’s obviously talking to a fellow Valley traveler, not a professional pessimist from the ivory tower or a self-appointed “consumer advocate” from D.C. The thing to note, though, is that if you remove the “creepy” parts of what he’s describing, you destroy the technology altogether, and I don’t think the public will stand for that.

This is all not to say that we won’t have to confront serious ethical and political question as we do with all radical new technologies. Kevin Kelly points out a few obvious ones:

  • What part of your life is someone else’s privacy?
  • Is remembering a scene with your brain different from remembering with a camera?
  • Can the government subpoena your lifelog?
  • Is total recall fair?
  • Can I take back a conversation I had with you?
  • Is it a lie if a single word is different from the record?
  • How accurate do our biological memories have to be?
  • Can you lifelog children without their “permission”?

But the fact that we’ll have to wrestle with these questions doesn’t put me off from the technology. I fear that others, though, might want to avoid them altogether and the only way to do that is to avoid the technology itself. But I’m not worried.

“I believe we’ll invent social norms to navigate the times when lifelogging recording is appropriate or not, but for the most part total recording will become as pervasive as text is to us now,” Kelly says. “It will be everywhere and we won’t even notice it – except when it is gone.”

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