Call Me Irresistible (or else)

This new book, Irresistible: the Rise of Addictive Technology, points to a challenge that may be hitting a tipping point.  It is not a surprise that we find various of our tech-toys addictive in various ways.  Nor is it surprising that there is a business incentive to have folks “hooked” on your toy rather than someone else’s.  But … are we moving towards “maximally effective addiction?.”   There is the traditional story of “the wire” that allows rats/people to stimulate brain pleasure centers can result in addictive, potentially fatal activity.  Presumably, to the extent possible from a basis of external sensory input, technology will move towards this point.  With the addition of fairly comprehensive individual analysis, AI driven analysis and expanded virtual reality capabilities will approach the maximally effective endpoint.  The only business constraint may be the loss of a revenue generating consumer as a result.  Is this the direction we are headed? And what might prevent our reaching that point?



Your TV might be Binge watching you!

VIZIO is reportedly paying fines for using users TVs to track their viewing patterns in significant detail as well as associating this with  IP address data including age, sex, income, marital status, household size, education level, home ownership, and home values.

Presumably this might have been avoided if VIZIO had presented the users with a “privacy statement” or “terms of use” when they installed their TV.  But failure to have obtained the appearance of consent put them in this situation.

It has been clear that all “free” media (and many paid channels), for TV, Cable, Radio, Internet streaming, etc. all want to track this information.  On one hand they can use it to provide “a better user experience” (show you the ads/suggested programs that match your demographics) … and of course the flip side is also true, selling your data to 3rd parties (a.k.a. ‘trusted business partners’)  so they can be more effective at interacting with you is part of the game.

Now lets step it up a notch.  Your TV (or remote controller) may use voice recognition, often using the “mother ship’ resources for the AI analysis if what you have requested. That is, your voice is sent back to servers that interpret and respond.  This leads to another level of monitoring … some of your characteristics might be infered from your voice, and others from background sounds or voices, and even more if the recording device just happens to track you all the time.  “Seri are you listening in again?” — and then add a camera … now the fun can really start.

To GO or Not to GO?

Pokemon Go has become a delightful and disturbing experiment in the social impact of technology. This new “Free” software for smart phones implements an augmented reality, overlaying the popular game on the real world. Fans wander the streets, byways, public, and in some cases private spaces following the illusive characters on their smart phone to capture them, or “in world”, or to collect virtual items.  The uptake has been amazing, approaching Twitter in terms of user-hours in just days after introduction. It has also added $12 billion to Nintendo’s stock value (almost double).

Let’s start with “Free”, and $12 billion dollars. The trick is having a no-holds barred privacy policy. Not surprising, the game knows who you are and where you are. It also can access/use your camera, storage, email/phone contacts, and potentially your full Google account (email contents, Drive contents, etc.)  Them money comes because all of this is for sale, in real time. (“While you track Pokemon, Pokemon Go tracks you”, USA Today, 12 July 16) Minimally you can expect to see “Luremodules” (a game component) used to bring well vetted (via browser history, email, call history, disk content, etc.) customers into stores that then combine ad-promotions with in-store characters. Perhaps offering your favorite flavor ice cream, or draw you into a lawyer’s office that specializes in the issues you have been discussing on email, or a medical office that …well you get the picture, and those are just the legitimate businesses.  Your emails from your bank may encourage less honest folks to lure you into a back alley near an ATM machine .. a genre of crime that has only been rumored so far.

The July 13th issue of USA Today outlines an additional set of considerations. Users are being warned by police, property owners, and various web sites for various reasons. The potential for wandering into traffic is non-trivial while pursuing an illusive virtual target, or a sidewalk obstruction, or over the edge of the cliff (is there a murder plot hiding in here?) Needless to say playing while driving creates a desperate need for self-driving cars. Since the targets change with time of day, folks are out at all hours, in all places, doing suspicious things. This triggers calls to police. Some memorial sites, such as Auschwitz and the Washington DC Holocaust Memorial Museum have asked to be exluded from the play-map. There are clearly educational opportunities that could be built into the game — tracing Boston’s “freedom trail”, and requiring player engagement with related topics is a possible example. However, lacking the explicit consideration of the educational context, there are areas where gaming is inappropriate. Also, some public areas are closed after dark, and the game may result in players trespassing in ways not envisioned by the creators, which may create unhealthy interactions with the owners, residents, etc. of the area.

One USA Today article surfaces a concern that very likely was missed by Nintendo, and is exacerbated by the recent deaths of black men in US cities, and the shooting of police in Dallas. “For the most part, Pokemon is all fun and games. Yet for many African Americans, expecially men, their enjoyment is undercut by fears they may raise suspicion with potentially lethal consequences.”  Change the countries and communities involved and similar concerns may emerge in other countries as well. This particular piece ends with an instance of a black youth approaching a policeman who was also playing the game, with a positive moment of interaction as they helped each other pursue in-game objectives.

It is said every technology cuts both ways.  We can hope that experience, and consideration will lead both players and Nintendo to evolve the positive potential for augmented reality, and perhaps with a bit greater respect for user privacy.

It’s 10PM do you know what your model is doing?

“Customers like you have also …”  This concept appears explicitly, or implicitly at many points in the web-of-our-lives, aka the Internet. Specific corporations, and aggregate operations are building increasingly sophisticated models of individuals.  Not just “like you”, but “you”! Prof. Pedro Domingos at UW  in his book “The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World” suggests this model of you may become a key factor of your ‘public‘ interactions.

Examples include having Linked-in add a “find me a job” button that will conduct interviews with relevant open positions and provide you a list of the best.  Or perhaps locating a house, a car, a spouse, …well, maybe somethings are better done face-2-face.

Apparently a Asian firm, “Deep Knowledge” has appointed a virtual director to their Board. In this case it is a construct designed to detect trends that the human directors might miss.  However, one suspects that Apple might want a model of Steve Jobs around for occasional consultation, if not back in control again.

Multitasking vs Focus

Guest Blog from: Chris Fallon

“What do you want to watch on T.V.?”
“I don’t know.  Just put on whatever.”
You fire up the television.  The latest episode of said show begins.  No sooner than the theme music starts your phone comes out.  For the next half hour you sit there looking at your phone checking back in with the program on t.v. every once-in-a-while.  

Sound familiar?

We have become masters of multitasking.  Or, at least, we crave the constant distraction of multitasking.

The ability to juggle tasks is often esteemed in our society.  “Sara is a good multitasker, she can deal with a lot on her plate.”  It seems like an ideal trait for an employee: The ability to effortlessly move from task to task.  Technology is seemingly training us for this ability as it demands and divides our attention.

The problem is that multitasking generally produces worse results for a given task.  Psychology Today has a study summary that looks at how multitasking decreases efficiency.  Additionally there exist studies showing that technology based mutlitasking can harm memory retention and possibly even change brain structure. According to one study out of Wilfrid Laurier University: “[T]hose who preferred to task-switch had more distracting technologies available and were more likely to be off-task than others. Also, those who accessed Facebook had lower GPAs than those who avoided it.”  

I’ve long held a theory that true masters of any field are single-minded. Famed psychologist Martin Seligman calls it being in a state of “flow” which he describes as: “Being one with the music, time stopping, and the loss of self-consciousness during an absorbing activity”  Time and time again I see this state of flow mentioned, if not by name, by the best-of-the-best in their field.

Concentrate; put all your eggs in one basket, and watch that basket...”
Andrew Carnegie

I never could have done what I have done without the habits of punctuality, order, and diligence, without the determination to concentrate myself on one subject at a time…
Charles Dickens

My ability to concentrate and work toward that goal has been my greatest asset.
Jack Nicklaus

Singleness of purpose is one of the chief essentials for success in life, no matter what may be one’s aim.
John D. Rockefeller

That doesn’t sound much like our iPad to iPhone to T.V. back to iPad daily routine does it?

I am of the opinion that the less we crave distraction, the less we mindlessly vacillate between our tech devices, the less we spread ourselves thin, the better.  Concentrate on one task at a time and see if you don’t reap the rewards.

Are you happier or more productive now with the multitasking that technology encourages, or do you prefer a single task focus?

Chris Fallon lives in Raleigh North Carolina and is the marketing director for

Ethics of Virtual Reality

The Jan. 4, 2016 Wall St Journal has an article “VR Growth Sparks Questions About Effects on Body, Mind” pointing out, as prior publications have, that 2016 is likely to be the Year of VR. The U.S. Consumer Electronics Show is starting this week in Las Vegas, where many neat, new and re-packaged concepts will be strongly promoted.

The article points to issues of physical health – nasua is one well documented potential factor. But work has been taking place on residual effects (how soon should you drive after VR?), how long to remain immersed before you ‘surface’, etc. Perhaps the key consideration is degree to which our bodies/brains accept the experiences of VR as real — altering our thinking and behaviour. (Prof. Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab confirms this is one impact.)

All of the pundits point out that every new technology has it’s potential uses/abuses. But that does not excuse the specific considerations that might apply to VR.  A point raised in the article “Scares in VR are borderline immoral”. There is a line of technology from “watching” to “first person” to “immersion” that should be getting our attention.  The dispute over “children impacted by what they watch on TV”, moving to first-person shooter video games, to VR is sure to occur.  But in VR, you can be the victim as well. I first encountered the consideration of the after effects of rape in a video game environment at an SSIT conference some years ago.  Even with the third party perspective in that case, the victim was traumatized. No doubt VR will provide a higher impact.  There are no-doubt lesser acts that can be directed at a VR participant that will have greater impact in VR than they might with less immersive technology.

This is the time to start sorting out scenarios, possible considerations for vendors of technology, aps and content, and also to watch for the quite predictable unexpected effects.  Do you have any ‘predictions’ for 2016 and the Year of VR?


Toys, Terrorism and Technology

Recent attacks on citizens in all too many countries have raised the question of creating back-doors in encrypted communications technology.  A November 22 NY Times article by Zeynep Tufekci: “The WhatsApp Theory of Terrorism“, does a good job of explaining some of the flaws in the “simplistic” – government mandated back-doors. The short take: bad guys have access to tools that do not need to follow any government regulations, and bad guys who want to hack your systems can use any backdoor that governments do mandate — no win for protection, big loss of protection.

Toys? The Dec. 1 Wall Street Journal covered: “Toy Maker Says Hack Accessed Customer Information“.  While apparently no social security or credit card data was obtained, there is value in having names – birthdates – etc for creating false credentials.  How does this relate to the Terrorist Threat?  — two ways actually:

  1. there are few, if any, systems that hackers won’t target — so a good working assumption is someone will try to ‘crack’ it.
  2. technologists, in particular software developers, need to be aware, consider and incorporate appropriate security requirements into EVERY online system design.

We are entering the era of the Internet of Things (IoT), with many objects now participating in a globally connected environment.  There are no doubt some advantages (at least for marketing spin) with each such object.  There will be real advantages for some objects.  New insight may be discovered though the massive amount of data available  – for example, can we track global warming via the use of IoT connected heating/cooking devices? However, there will be potential abuses of both individual objects (toys above), and aggregations of data.  Software developers and their management need to apply worst case threat-analysis to determine the risks and requirements for EVERY connected object.

Can terrorists, or other bad guys, use toys? Of Course!  There are indications that X-Box and/or Playstations were among the networked devices used to coordinate some of the recent attacks. Any online environment that allows users to share data/objects can be used as a covert communications channel.  Combining steganography and ShutterFly,  Instagram, Minecraft,  or any other site where you can upload or manipulate a shareable image is a channel.  Pretending we can protect them all is a dangerous delusion.

Is your employer considering IoT security?  Is your school teaching about these issues?


Eavesdropping Barbie?

So should children have toys that can combine speech recognition, wi-fi connection to capture and respond to them and potentially recording their conversations as well as feeding them “messages”.  Welcome to the world of Hello Barbie.

Perhaps I spend too much time thinking about technology abuse … but let’s see.  There are political/legal environments (think 1984 and it’s current variants) where capturing voice data from a doll/toy/IoT device could be used as a basis for arrest and jail (or worse) — can  Barbie be called as a witness in court? And of course there are the “right things to say” to a child, like “I like you”  (dolls with pull strings do that), and things you may not want to have your doll telling your child (“You know I just love that new outfit” or “Wouldn’t I look good in that new Barbie-car?”) or worse (“your parents aren’t going to vote for that creep are they?)

What does a Hello Barbie doll do when a child is clearly being abused by a parent?  Can it contact 9-1-1?  Are the recordings available for prosecution?  What is abuse that warrants action?  And what liability exists for failure to report abuse?

Update: Hello Barbie is covered in the NY Times 29 March 2015 Sunday Business section Wherein it is noted that children under 13 have to get parental permission to enable the conversation system — assuming they understand the implications. Apparently children need to “press a microphone button on the app” to start interaction. Also, “parents.. have access to.. recorded conversations and can .. delete them.”  Which confirms that a permanent record is being kept until parental action triggers deletion. Finally we are assured “safeguards to ensure that stored data is secure and can’t be accessed by unauthorized users.”  Apparently Mattel and ToyTalk (the technology providers)  have better software engineers than Home Depot, Target and Anthem.

“Reality” Covers it Well

"Reality" Summer cover for Technology and  Society, image by Eran FowlerThe cover for the Summer 2014 issue of Technology and Society demonstrates that a picture can be worth at least a thousand words.   So, in effect this is a guest blog entry implicitly from Eran Fowler the creative artist involved. The piece is titled ‘Reality”.

SSIT often touches on the issues associated with virtual reality, the potential isolation from on-line connectivity compared with human connectivity. There is an irony that the editorial for this issue is on Lifelogging — folks who record their every activity, and in some cases post it online in real time. One can envision the “life log” of the individual in the cover image.  It is possible that he/she is living someone else’s life-log.  I also note that there is no evident form of input device — our subject here is a passive receiver.  A letter to the editor in the issue, from Jim Fifth – a prospective game developer and father (accompanied by a larger copy of this image) observes that in the limited life time any individual has what he “would be taking from these people isn’t their money, but their time, their participation in reality, their relationships, hopes and dreams.”

This image, like many in art, is a commentary.  If presented as an editorial, or a technically-researched, peer-reviewed paper, there would be a dialog on the percentage of individuals in this category, or even out-right refutation.  Art can lie.  That is something that propagandists have known for centuries (I know St. George killed the dragon, I saw the picture) Images can have significant social impact which is why governments censor some images and block photography or recording in various situations. If a simple photography or image can have that impact, consider the potential for motion pictures, or virtual reality.  The issue of how video games or movies affect behaviour is a recurrent topic in academic and  public discourse.  So look at this cover again. Is it a painful truth?  A good lie? Both? What action does it suggest? Is Jim Fifth’s observation that we pay good money to toss away hours, days or even years of our life a social concern?  Or does it placate the masses and keep them from questioning authority, deal with unemployment, and tolerate a declining quality of life?  Or is it an individual choice? Is the subject in this image “living for the moment”, immersed in the “now”,   expending the only real currency they have: their time in the way that seems best to them?

Kicking the Online Habit

The spring issue of Technology and Society (T&S) starts with an editorial addressing Internet Addiction.  Perhaps the most disturbing example is the Sundance premier of Love Child.  This documentary covers the death of a child in South Korea attributed to her parent’s addiction to online gaming. They pled guilty claiming addiction as part of their defense, which is an interesting situation if not a precedent.  In South Korea, drunkenness is a form of addiction that mitigates legal liability, which provides a basis for the couple’s plea approach.  Apparently they also had little or no education on taking care of their premature baby. (One might wonder if a more realistic video game environment, they were raising a virtual child, might have lead to a different outcome.)

This captures the issue in a nutshell.  Video gaming can be an educational tool. But may result in problematic, or apparently, fatal responsibility failures.  The T&S editorial continues to outline other countries and situations that reflect the “Internet Addiction Disorder.”  When you combine gaming, with texting, email, web searches, smart-phone connectedness, and the increasing need to be on-line and/or have  remote access for your job, our screen times are rapidly expanding.  Since 2009 the average screen time for U.S. adults has  doubled.  Of course some of this is folks using their cell phones while watching TV and using their PC, but it is still a significant change in the way we use our time.

How much time is being used by these “brain suckers”? — (Curious that zombies have become a major horror show topic … perhaps there is more to this than we realize.)  To what extent are we losing essential aspects of society such as relationships, mindfulness, personal growth, productivity, etc?

And significantly, what can we do about it?  Your thoughts?  (as you read this online….)