Episode One Hundred and Forty One: Essentially Walking Sensors; Recorded For Your Safety; More 2014

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

Writing this sat at PDX airport again for a family trip this time, not work – spending some time down on the father-in-law’s family farm in Missouri, reuniting with my wife and son who’ve been out there for a week already.

… and now I’m in Boise, Idaho, after what sounds like an amusing weather system has temporarily closed Salt Lake City airport, waiting for our aircraft to be refueled so we can be on our way. Sitting out here on probably-the-apron, with chatter about a new operations flight plan being filed. And a call to Delta, asking what my options are. Air travel feels like a bus right now, a small single aisle plane, sat at a tiny airport, waiting to see what’s going to happen next.

1.0 Essentially Walking Sensors

I think I came across this via a link in my Twitter feed – but news from the 2014 Center for Automotive Research Management Briefing Seminars[1] as covered by Auto News[1] excitedly proclaiming that “new factory technology” will turn workers’ clothes into “data-emitting devices for plant management”.

Perhaps the most off-key quote of all comes from Jason Prater, a vp at Plex Systems, a cloud manufacturing ERP provider, which for the sake of clarity we’ll say is a provider of internet-hosted software that helps manufacturers run their businesses. Prater, in a quote about wearable technology on the plant floor, says:

“Turning people into essentially walking sensors is going to be the future.”

The benefit, of course, is constant monitoring of environmental conditions and the tracking of “employee motions for ergonomics research and safety concerns.” Promisingly, internet-based technologies will “allow all data to be managed automatically, so that factory tooling and equipment can be adjusted without human intervention.”

So, I have to admit I’m not sure what I think about this. There’s your usual reactionary part which is all: “well, perhaps we should think about this sort of thing and derive the right kind of protections and think it through before we deploy it” which makes me feel like I’m being a bit of a luddite. But, I suppose, part of the question is this: how is instrumenting workers in this way – that raises privacy concerns unless explicitly dealt with up-front, like we’ve seen with Google’s roll-out of Glass – making things better? Can someone explain to me what management and plant problems are solved by having everyone on the floor wear Google Glass or wear smart watches?

We’ve heard about how Glass makes a lot more sense in industry verticals than it does in the consumer space (at the moment, at least), so I can certainly imagine situations where being able to access information in your field of view helps. And I can imagine situations where being able to *show* someone something, rather than having to verbally explain it helps, too. But a part of me is suspicious about the potential in having employees wear such devices all the time, and for the ability for the devices to constantly stream. Maybe it’s the journalist’s take on matters and Plex Systems *isn’t* intending to do this, but Chappell, the writer, explicitly calls out continuous monitoring as a benefit.

There’s already a don’t-ask-don’t-tell attitude to personal data in a workplace environment. Your employers can monitor your internet usage, and you have to agree to an authorised use policy. And everyone knows people (well, everyone, really) who bend the rules unless there’s an explicit block (I remember my time as an intern in the then-Lord Chancellor’s Department and the PC in the corner that had external internet access, as opposed to the internal network, and from what I can see on GDS blog comments every now and then, things haven’t improved much in the more non-London parts).

But, you know, it’s data. If you want, you can log all of it. If you want, you can keep all of it and you can track all of it. If you’re really weird, you can even record all of your employees’ phone conversations if you’re using a VOIP system. Because hey, why not!

I know this though: I’m not sure I feel that great about being turned into a walking sensor if I don’t have any say in the matter, or if I don’t know what I’m instrumenting. Or if I can’t turn it off. But, this is the future. So it’s going to happen.

People on Twitter quipped that you’d see this kind of behaviour and language from people who call other people “resources” or “headcount”, and it’s this type of dehumanising behaviour that again makes it feel like there’s a chronic lack of empathy in business. When you talk about people being walking sensors, they’re not people anymore – they’re just mounts for various hardware you want to deploy in a plant.

[1] CAR Management Briefing Seminars
[2] Why auto workers will be wearing their jobs – Auto News

2.0 Recorded For Your Safety

Recording interactions isn’t just for training purposes, it can be for safety as well. A study in Rialto, California showed an 88% decline in complaints filed against police officers when cameras were worn, as well as a 60% decline in the use of force[1], and now we see that New York police officers have been essentially ordered to trial use of the technology to bring a stop-and-frisk program into compliance with the US constitution.

But there’s another kind of recording, or documentation, where there’s a power asymmetry similar to that which has existed in police forces: customer service. We’re used to the prompts that calls are recorded for training purposes, but it’s pretty clear that for most customers, the training purposes are pretty opaque. They’re certainly not accessible to the customers themselves. So we’re starting to see a movement that’s calling for customers to record their interaction with customer service agents to call corporations accountable for what they say, especially in the light of Comcast’s customer retention playbook[3].

This feels like, again, a situation in which transparency is starting to win out. Technology makes it easier for us to record our interactions – no matter where they are – and we can use them for good or ill. It is unclear to the average person on the Clapham Omnibus, for example, why public police officers in the course of their duty should not be subject to having their interactions with the public recorded. Trust must be re-earned. And, ultimately, if a company wants to say that they have good customer service, that claim must be backed up.

Of course, another way of looking at this is to wonder how long it’ll be until companies stipulate in their terms and conditions that customers may not record any interaction with customer service agents. Of course, then the argument becomes the same one that is used (naively, and badly) when surveillance programs are put forward: what do you have to hide? Presumably some enterprising company will issue a DMCA takedown request for recorded interactions.

But then, we have dashcams. We have cars that are starting to have forward-mounted video cameras for fun, but then how long until we have them for our own safety.

It sounds stupid, but Glass – and technology like it – is an example of technology that can be used to threaten an existing power relationship. Anything that can document that asymmetrical relationship is threatening. And the means of documentation are getting cheaper.

[1] Wearable Cameras, For Police Officers – The New York Times
[2] Hundreds of New York Police Officers Ordered To Wear Cameras – The Verge
[3] How To Record Customer Service Calls Without Breaking The Law – The Daily Dot

3.0 More 2014

Apparently you all liked this yesterday, so here’s some more.

The internet, a massive communications network now over 40 years old, reaches tendrils into underground mass transport networks and into passenger planes in the sky, all delivered through wifi networks. Old backbone routers, however, start failing as their tables hit a capacity of 512,000 routes. Email seeps through into most locations now. Sovereign states are buying up land to ensure food security. Air travel hasn’t gotten faster, but it has gotten more efficient. Larger planes, smaller planes, fuel-sipping planes and more point-to-point travel. Moore’s law continues unabated, consumer devices are now manufactured on a 14 nanometer process, slightly smaller than the width of the whip-like tail that some bacteria use to propel themselves. Basic hologram technology starts to make its way into wayfinding and retail applications in one form, in festivals and political appearances in others. Western governments, saddled with social security costs and a particular set of priorities continue to underinvest in transport infrastructure whilst high speed rail is rapidly deployed in China. The Pentagon announces an airstrike over a microblogging network. There continues to be a genuine argument as to whether digital software should look like the physical objects it is displacing, or if it can be forge its own aesthetic. The majority of media continues to fail to reflect the position of women in the world. The US government scans roughly 1.8 million air passengers a day using millimeter wave scanning. X-ray backscatter scanning has been banned from airports. At least three leakers continue to compromise the secrecy of the US national security apparatus. Drones are readily available and cost about $1,000, the same as a Laser printer in 1990, but are restricted from the airspace of Ferguson, Missouri where a black teenager was shot dead by police. Commercial 3D printers cost around $3,000, or about as much as a fax machine in 1985. We are discovering more planets than ever before, and viruses with over 2.5 megabases of DNA.

It’s 2014.

From around 30k high up on the way to Kansas City, good night from me. Look forward to seeing your notes in the morning.