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.

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?


Technology In the Classroom?

The Wall Street Journal has a Pros/cons article on this question … which is at the core of Social Impact of Technology in Education.

My son-in-law teaches a university class where students get the “lecture” portion online, and come into class to work on projects/homework. My granddaughter has online assignments regularly, many key tests are done online, and they don’t get ‘snow days’ — in case of inclimate weather they stay home and login. Programs like the Kahn Academy, and a number of Universities offer courses free to “audit”.

At the same time, kids need the real world collaboration, social experience, ideally no bullying, and ideally sufficiently strong (positive) peer groups that help them develop a bunch of skills that are real world based.

What are the key references you find informative on the question of how we educate the next generation?

Enslaved by Technology?

A recent “formal” debate in Australia, We are Becoming Enslaved by our Technology addresses this question (90 min).  A look at the up side and down side of technological advances with three experts addressing both sides of the question.

One key point made by some of the speakers is the lopsided impact that technology may have towards government abuse.  One example is captured in the quote “a cell phone is a surveillance device that also provides communications”  (quoted by Bernard  Keene)  In this case one who benefits from continuous location, connectivity, app and search presence.

Much of the discussion focuses on the term “enslave” … as opposed to “control”.  And also on the question of choice … to what degree do we have “choice”, or perhaps are trying to absolve our responsibility by putting the blame on technology.

Perhaps the key issue is the catchall “technology”.  There are examples of technology, vaccines for example, where the objectives and ‘obvious’ uses are beneficial (one can envision abuse by corporations/countries creating vaccines.) And then the variations in weapons, eavesdropping, big-data-analysis vs privacy, etc.  Much of technology is double-edged – with impacts both “pro and con” (and of course individuals have different views of what a good impact.)

A few things are not debatable (IMHO):
1. the technology is advancing rapidly on all fronts
2. the driving interests tend to be corporate profit, government agendas and in some cases inventor curiosity and perhaps at times altruistic benefits for humanity.
3. there exists no coherent way to anticipate the unintended consequences much less predict the abuses or discuss them in advance.

So, are we enslaved? …. YOU WILL RESPOND TO THIS QUESTION! (Oh, excuse me…)


“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….)

Steve Mann – General Chair Address

My grandfather taught me to weld when I was 4 years old, so early in my life I became aware of what the world looked like when “Seen Through the Glass, Darkly”.  Darkglass (the welder’s glass) diminishes reality.  Diminished Reality is the logical opposite of Augmented Reality.

A childhood vision of mine was to use television cameras and miniature displays, with contrast adjustment, to be able to

see-in-the-dark while still being able to clearly see the electric welding arc without hurting my eyes.

In my childhood, back in the 1970s, as an amateur scientist and amateur inventor, my experiments in contrast reduction became experiments in a general-purpose wearable computer system, using hybrid analog and digital computing equipment.  I also began to add overlays of text and graphics on top of my visual reality.

I started to think of the “Digital Eye Glass” as something to be used to help people see better in everyday life, not just while welding. Around that time others started putting electronics in glass, e.g. 3M’s Speedglas/Speedglass was introduced in 1981.

Wearing “Glass” in everyday life back then scared people — first because it looked strange — which later was to become something people thought was “cool” rather than strange — but ultimately because of the sensors/camera(s).

As I refined the Glass into a sleek and slender eyeglass form-factor in the 1980s and early 1990s the appearance became acceptable to the general public, but I began to find myself harassed by police and security guards afraid that the “Glass Eye” might be recording them.

How ironic it was that the very people who were installing and monitoring surveillance cameras — watching us — were the people most afraid of being watched!

Glass (Digital Eye Glass, GlassEye, Mannglas, Speedglas, etc.) became a metaphor for a fragile and transparent society.  We can learn a lot from a society by how readily its police accept Glass — i.e. how readily the society accepts reciprocal transparency and the mutual vulnerability we share when the “Glass Eye” becomes as commonplace as the surveillance cameras of the authorities.

This year’s ISTAS theme, therefore, is not Surveillance (Watching from above, in a hierarchy, e.g. police watching suspects) but, rather, Veillance (watching in a politically neutral sense).

 Please join us as we explore this half-silvered world of two-way transparency.