Quick Thought on Glass and Our Slide Down the Slippery Slope

With Glass shipping the technophile absolutists are out in force. This early access special release was a genius move by Google. We very well may be finding ourselves waking up in “Ghost in the Shell”, with absolutely zero regulation or controls, before we realize what happened. The technorati are wired to focus on the latest gadget on their personal stock; their retweet and click count ambitions drive them to evangelize the heck out of the latest “gee-whiz” release for free on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and a myriad of blogs. In the meantime Google can quickly solidify the back-end linkage to near infinite storage and on demand big data analytics (GCE), and potentially even prepare to sell access to the content to the highest bidder.

You can expect the technology to evolve and miniaturize quickly.  We are at the very beginnings of wearable computing and, far down the road, it is my belief Glass will be viewed as the “genesis event”.  Make no mistake, but this latest shift will have a profoundly transformative effect on technology.  And while I do think this will be a net positive, there is a real danger of the defaults for information sharing ending up “store infinitely in the cloud with access set to “public” and content rights set to “anyone can use” for any purpose”.

What I would like to see are controls and systems put in place to empower end users with entrepreneurial style control of their privacy.  If privacy is to become a commodity to be traded (already happening), it stands to reason that the end users being monetized should be in on the transaction.  Unfortunately it is difficult to even get the conversation started around what cautions we should be exercising without being shouted down by one camp or another.  On the one hand are folks who refuse to see any possible benefit and are in denial about the inevitability of these trends.  On the other hand are the folks for whom any cautionary discussion is viewed as nothing more than empty cynicism.

The former camp are most likely to simply be proven wrong as has happened to the denial crowd through pretty much every major advancement in technology.  The latter, however, should know better.  From what I have gathered so far, most of these folks seem to feel that all of the potential worst case scenarios will simply expedite the transition to whatever they personally view to be the utopian state.  In other words potential abuses are ok as long as the result is an outcome they like.  This is the most dangerous type of rationalization, in my opinion, and is actually the definition of the slippery slope.  As an example of this, lately I have been using the (very real) potential use case of insurance adjusters scanning a crowd with facial recognition and, upon recognizing policy holders at McDonald’s, clandestinely upping their risk profile and, subsequently, their insurance cost.

It is troubling how many take this bait.  The response has overwhelmingly been “good! we need to end obesity!  Ban McDonalds! It is poison!”  To these folks I would suggest that, absent controls, the possibility of police using a technology like Glass, linked to facial recognition and big data, to identify “high risk” individuals and “stop and search” at will is just as likely.  The “ban McDonalds” crowd doesn’t like this one, and rightly so.  Not surprisingly, their natural sociopolitical opponents very much do.  Hey, “if you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about!” would be their mantra.  Personally I find both scenarios equally troubling.

In any event we may very well be taking the first steps towards the real end of “privacy” (some would argue it is already gone, but I am not so sure).  In the near Orwellian worst case scenarios outlined above though, we really can say “farewell privacy! We hardly knew ye!”   My fear is that future generations may look back, as they live a life completely controlled by the influence of institutions with intimate knowledge of their every move, and ask “how did people allow this to happen? Why did this seem like a good idea?”

We must not squander this opportunity to proactively have an important societal conversation and end up only reacting once it is too late.   “Too late” would be once the technology has miniaturized to the implant or  contact lens level and is ubiquitous with permanent high speed uplinks and unbreakable legal, and technological, hooks to deep analytics.  At that point, much like with the gun control issue we will want a reasonable conversation but will be unable to have one.  For once let’s do things the right way and chart a sane way forward first.  This is a call to action to both the deniers and evangelists to unite!

Image courtesy of ZDNet
Image courtesy of ZDNet

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