4.3. Findable Objects
My favorite artifact from the future is the Wherify Wireless GPS Personal Locator for Kids, shown in Figure 4-9. It's a watch, clock, pager, and tracking device all in one. You can buy it on Amazon. It's available in Galactic Blue and Cosmic Purple. With a special key fob, you lock it on your kid's wrist. And then, from the comfort of your home or office, you track your child's location via the Internet, as shown in Figure 4-10. Features include:
Is this the greatest product ever or what? As Wherify explains, "Now you can have peace of mind 24 hours a day while your child is the high tech envy of the neighborhood!"
Of course, knowing where they are and knowing what they're doing are very different things. The latter will require video and audio surveillance. Don't worry. That's coming.
Are you freaking out yet? Do you find this product disturbing in a profound Orwellian sense? Or, are you on the other side of the fence? Do you see it as yet another miracle of modern convenience? Perhaps you're already on Amazon, placing your order.
That's what I love about this product. It forces us to think about how we want to use technology. As parents, we go to great lengths to protect our kids. In an imperfect world, we use the available raw materials to craft solutions that work for our families. One size does not fit all, as illustrated by this amusing confession of George Brett:
We've been improvising in this fashion for millennia, making tough decisions that balance freedom and privacy with safety. But never before have we had so much choice. For when it comes to toddler tracking, the diversity of technologies and applications is amazing. Invisible perimeters or "geofences " alert you if your child leaves the house or yard or campsite. Radiofrequency leashes sound the alarm if they wander too far in a shopping mall or at the beach: you set the "safe distance" from 15 to 75 feet. And if visiting an amusement park, why buy when you can rent? At Legoland in Denmark, parents can pay three euros to have their child tagged for the day. The locator, attached by disposable wristband, lets the park's 2.5 million square foot Wi-Fi network track the child anywhere in Legoland. Since approximately 1,600 children are separated from their parents in Legoland each year, this promises to be a seriously useful service.
Personal locator devices are also used to help care for people with Alzheimer's disease, a progressive, irreversible condition that robs victims of their memory, cognitive abilities, and social skills. Alzheimer's patients tend to lose track of time and become disoriented, so wandering can be a huge problem:
Applied Digital Solutions sells a device called the Digital Angel , which is worn as a watch and comes with a clip-on pager. Using GPS mapping software and cell phone networks, the Digital Angel alerts caretakers by email (sent to a cell phone, computer, PDA, or text pager) when a patient has wandered out of a designated area.
This intertwingling of GPS with cellular communication is an increasingly popular tracking solution. It is the foundation of vehicle location and management systems such as OnStar and Networkcar . GPS-enabled cell phones are used by law enforcement agencies to keep track of officers, and by parents to monitor the location and velocity of their teenage children:
And if you don't want someone to know they're being watched, a wide variety of covert tracking devices are sold at web sites like spyville.com. One "satisfied" customer explained, "My husband was saying he was working late and it turned out he was going to the Holiday Inn. Now he's living at the Holiday Inn." These devices are also used for high-tech stalking. In a recent case, a man who attached one under his estranged wife's car was ordered by a judge to wear a GPS device himself as part of his sentence for felony menacing by stalking: a punishment to fit the crime.
So, which of these location-sensing applications are acceptable? Some can be lifesavers while others are just plain spooky. Stalking clearly crosses the line. But what about tracking your teenager? Is that okay? Should you inform them of their status as findable object? Legally, you can track without telling, but you'll have to work out the ethics yourself. These are decisions well have to make as individuals, corporations, and societies. And before we have time to decide, our relationships to findable objects are going to get a whole lot weirder thanks to the wonders of radiofrequency identification.
RFID is a disruptive technology poised to shift paradigms by transforming our ability to identify and locate physical objects. Initially, RFID is being sold as a next-generation barcode system on steroids that enables real-time supply chain visibility. Major retailers such as Wal-Mart and Tesco are in the midst of high-profile RFID rollouts designed to streamline logistics, reduce costs, stop theft, and improve demand forecasting accuracy. Key advantages of RFID over traditional barcode systems include:
It is this combination of advantages that compels RFID to migrate far beyond the supply chain. Consider this astonishing hodgepodge of applications :
Clearly, radiofrequency identification is not your grandfather's barcode. RFID represents a big step towards ambient findability. We're talking about an Internet of Things without precedence in human history. Products, possessions, pets, and people all rendered into findable objects: cataloged, searchable, and locatable in space and time. The future exists today, and we're just waiting for the world to catch up. As Adam Greenfield notes:
But before we presume the ability to find anyone or anything from anywhere at any time, it's worth evaluating the limits of today's technology. After all, RFID is subject to the familiar tradeoffs of size, range, power, and cost. Weakness in a single area can rule out a whole suite of potential applications. To understand these tradeoffs, it's important to distinguish between active and passive RFID. While both technologies use radiofrequency energy to communicate between the tag and reader, the method of powering the tags is different.
Passive tags have no internal power source. They depend on signals from the reader for activation. In passive systems, the tags are small and cheap, but the readers are expensive, their range is constrained to roughly three meters, and they're unable to read multiple tags at once. This limits passive tag systems to scenarios in which tagged items move past readers (through a doorway or along a conveyor belt) in single file: great for supermarket checkout but mostly useless for nonlinear applications beyond the supply chain. In other words, you shouldn't worry about Victoria's Secret tracking your underwear, unless you're being tailed by a suspicious operative wielding a bulky RFID reader.
Active tags, on the other hand, rely on internal batteries to continuously power their communication circuitry. With active RFID, the tags aren't as small or cheap, but the systems can track thousands of items moving at more than 100 mph with operating ranges of 100 meters or more. Additionally, active tags can support read/write data storage, thereby enabling a hospital wristband or badge to store a patients complete, editable medical record. So, active tags have some great advantages, but they're too costly for most retail applications, and too big for many covert operations. For now, you wouldn't want a subdermal active tag implant. It would be quite lumpy and changing the battery could be a real pain in the neck or arm or wherever. In any case, you get the picture. When it comes to ambient findability, RFID is as much promise as product.
But, it would be a shame to allow these due diligence findings to obscure our foresight and dim our curiosity. These barriers will not stand. The future that exists today will spread and mutate like a virus into tomorrow. Location-aware mobile computing devices. Ubiquitous high-speed radiofrequency networks. Active tags that are smaller, cheaper, and more abundant than postage stamps. We will have the technology. But how will we use it? To find our missing keys, socks, and remote controls? To locate our pets, kids, and spouses? To track our own movements through space and time? What small apparent oddities of today are destined to become commonplace? This question is asked and answered by science-fiction author and futurist Bruce Sterling, who describes a new class of self-revealing, user-configurable objects called spimes:
Sterling notes that books are well on their way to becoming spimes, for a book on Amazon is far more than the words between its covers. We can learn its cost and publisher; what other books the author has written; what readers think about the book; what other books those readers have bought; and we can keyword search the full text. Data and metadata intertwingle with patterns of purchase and use:
How will we handle that leap from class of product to individual object? The possibilities are intriguing. Let me Google my own bookcase. Show me all the books my friends own and where they're located. Figure 4-11 shows one implementation. Does anybody in my neighborhood have this book? Where are they right now? But these imaginings also invoke questions about metadata and trust. What (and who) will we tag, and with whom will we share that information?
Already mobile social software services such as AT&T's Find People Nearby are moving beyond the binary presence management of instant messaging by
Figure 4-11. Delicious Library, a personal, networked, location-aware, multimedia, personal lending library that exists today
enabling us to share our location within trusted networks of friends, family members, and colleagues. Participants are learning to manage the intricacies of their own privacy. How much detail should we divulge? Will we store and share our location history, as Joi Ito has done in Figure 4-12? And when do we choose to be totally unfindable?
Figure 4-12. Joi Ito, a blogger and venture capitalist uses IndyJunior maps on top of Plazes data to chart and publish his travels
Conversely, we must define acceptable levels of metadata awareness. How much do we really want to know about the locations of our acquaintances? How wide are our circles, socially and spatially? Open the gates too wide and we'll drown in sociospatial metadata, victims of virtual claustrophobia. And as we turn our products, possessions, pets, physical objects, and places into spime, we risk information overload and metadata madness. How will we choose the right tags? How will we find what we need? Location is easy, but what about aboutness? Can the folksonomies of Flickr and del.icio.us survive in the wild? Will free tagging deliver a physical world of findable objects, or will we find ourselves lost in the chaos of spime synonymy? This is the paradox of ambient findability. As information volume increases, our ability to find any particular item decreases. How will we Google our way through a trillion objects in motion? We're staring down the barrel of the biggest vocabulary control challenge imaginable, and we can't stop adding powder.