Friday, January 09, 2015

Don’t do thousands of wrong

There’s lots of technology that can track stuff and people. You can stick a dongle to something then find out where it is. You can stick the same dongle to a person and find out where they are and where they’ve been. Perhaps you’re worried about your children or your elders. This kind of technology could – in some sort of universe that isn’t a great deal like this one – help to protect those loved ones.

One thing that’s automatically wrong with attaching devices like this to people is that they aren’t the ones in control of what those devices report. Another thing that’s automatically wrong is that location and sensor data generated by these devices is going to be stored somewhere and can and will be abused by employees of that somewhere and hacked by people somewhere else.

Being responsible for someone doesn’t mean you ought to control them.  I think it means the exact opposite, in fact: if you don’t control someone but are responsible for their actions anyway, then you’re probably doing it right, even if it bites you on the arse now and then. Loved ones will make mistakes. Let them. It’s none of your fucking business.

Let me pick an example I know a little about (why not be novel?) A few years ago I worked for a project that monitored the activity of elderly people in order to alert appropriate others if something was deemed to be wrong. For example, an alert might be triggered if a person didn’t get out of bed one day or didn’t weigh herself or didn’t turn the kettle on or meet up with friends. You get the idea. The alert might go to the caretaker of sheltered accommodation. to a doctor, to relatives…

This sort of thing can be useful only if it isn’t imposed. We don’t get to decide whether the things our youngers or elders do are mistakes. Our part of the project tried to make sure that decisions about what was reported to whom and why was always in the hands of the people generating the data, but we were always fighting government departments who felt they were better able to make those decisions.

Fuck that noise. Let’s by all means build devices that can collect all kinds of data about us. And let’s build an ecosystem in which we can each share whatever data we like and change what we share from moment to moment. Let’s not impose the collection, storage and sharing of data on anyone. It ought to be their decision, not ours.

When I was a kid I took myself away across the fields for many hours at a time.  I found places I knew I could be absolutely alone.  I mostly read and slept; even then I didn’t sleep too well and lying in grass by a river was more conducive to sleep than lying in a bed. No doubt my parents thought I was up to all kinds of horribleness.They’d sure as shit have tracked me if they could.

Kids need to learn how not to be tracked, how not to be observed. They need to carry this through to old age, learning all the time. They need to know what data to give up and what it costs. Hardly any shit purporting to help supposedly vulnerable people does that. Is it news that young and old people aren’t actually all that vulnerable?


  1. You too, huh? I spent my childhood doing that too. (Except the sleeping part.) When I was 0-3 and 8-15 we lived in the country and I was free to wander, and by god I wandered all day long. It was meat & drink to me.

  2. I knew the country within about 20 miles of my house probably like nobody else ever had. I knew where the foxes and badgers lived. I knew where the herons lived and where they liked to fish. I knew when and where to find newts and snakes and frogspawn and pike and all the other things I assumed everyone else was interested in but wasn't. I knew when the river was safe to canoe in, what were the warning signs of a flood and where the trouble spots were likely to be in a flood. I knew which drains were going to back up in a flood, in what order and where the runoff was likely to go. I knew where escaped animals were almost certain to go.

    It turns out that these are not particularly transferable skills for someone who has spent most of his working life in IT and academia, but I think those experiences were my most important influences. Working out how things work by looking at them over a period of years, lying in the shit (literally) and watching badgers when I was supposed to be in bed, knowing full well how much trouble I'd be in when I got home, lying on a riverbank reading until it got too dark... I talked to farmers and gamekeepers who initially told me to go away but eventually trusted me to tell them when fences were broken or something else was amiss.

    These... these are things my parents would have stopped me doing if they knew I was doing it. I wouldn't have ended up me - for better or for worse - if they could have tracked me.

    There were a few risks. I was badly bitten by a fox once and got stuck, quite dangerously, in various bogs. I fell out of a lot of trees and got stung by many nettles, chased by an assortment of bulls.

    Risks to most other children are enormously worse but I still doubt that tracking those kids will mitigate the perceived risks, let alone the actual ones.