I guess when paper was invented it was a rare, precious, and costly thing. And probably for hundreds or thousands of years after that.
It was probably both hard and costly to make, and not the kind of thing you used lightly.
Now we engage daily with mountains of inexpensive paper, whether it’s in the book we’re reading, wrapping products we buy, or drying our hands.
Cheap as chips
A similar thing is happening with computer chips. At first costly and scarce, they’re now becoming ubiquitous. They show up in cameras, cellphones, washing machines, perhaps medical bracelets, swipe cards and elsewhere.
The cost of computer chips is almost low enough to start using them in all kinds of objects.
A computer chip can be very specialised. For example, it would be easy to imagine a chip that could be attached to a rubbish bin on a public street. The chip could detect if the bin was full, or if the bin had been pulled away from its support.
Now imagine that chip could report back over the Internet, to alert the Council to empty or repair the bin.
If computer chips are really cheap, and easily networked, perhaps we’ll start to use them in many more places, for many more purposes.
This is a scenario that Adam Greenfield explores in his 2006 book: Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing.
Greenfield also spoke at the Webstock conference recently. I was fortunate enough to participate in his ‘walkshop’. That was a workshop where we walked around a couple of blocks of Wellington streets, considering some of the technology around us.
I have to say I was astonished at how many surveillance cameras Greenfield pointed out. Have you noticed them in your nearest town or city?
I’ve never been entirely sure what the small blue ‘flying saucers’ attached to walls or poles were. Now I know that they are often cameras, claimed to ‘keep the streets safe’.
But do we know who is collecting the recorded images? What they’re doing with the images? How long they keep them? Is there any data to prove the cameras do keep us safe?
Why not add a chip?
If computer chips are sufficiently cheap, and easy enough to network, Greenfield suggests we may start adding them to things, just in case they’re useful. It’s a kind of ‘Why not?’ approach; for another $5 why not add a networked device to track ‘something’.
We might track temperatures, air quality, rainfall, visitor numbers, traffic flows, who runs red lights, who breaks the speed limit, how many tall redheads use a particular intersection.
Living in a world of data
Of course, the data may be totally benign: if we understand traffic flow, perhaps we can reduce pedestrian injuries from vehicles.
But there are obvious worrying implications too, such as when we detect that Person X always buys a bottle of wine on Fridays before visiting a certain address.
An inevitable progression
It seems inevitable that networked computer devices will become ubiquitous in our lives. It also seems obvious that they may be used for good or ill.
Written by Miraz Jordan for, and reproduced from CommunityNet Aotearoa Panui, March 2010. This article has been modified for publication here.