Wednesday, March 15, 2006

When does "That's cool!" become "Holy S*#t!"?

Do you know where your dog is right now? Or your cat?

Or, more to the point, where's your car? Your laptop? Son? Wife? Husband?

Soon, (for some people, perhaps it's already happening) you'll be able to track virtually anything, anywhere, anytime.

Not sure what the heck I'm talking about? Consider this excerpt from UFOs (Ubiquitous Findable Objects) by Peter Morville, posted on the Oreilly Network:

The term ambient findability describes a world at the crossroads of ubiquitous computing and the internet, in which we can find anyone or anything from anywhere at any time. It's not necessarily a goal, and we'll never achieve perfect findability, but we're surely headed in the right direction.

A clear sign of progress is the emergence of ubiquitous findable objects (UFOs). GPS, RFID, UWB, and cellular triangulation enable us, for the first time in history, to tag and track products, possessions, pets, and people as they wander through space and time.

Morville goes on to cite all kinds of examples of how the "brave new world of UFOs" is playing out. Of course, there are two sides to the issue, and not everyone thinks this kind of thing is a good thing.

The arguments for and against are thought-provoking and not nearly as clear-cut as we like to think. I tend to be a bit flippant in my comments about serious topics (oh really?) but this is pretty serious stuff. I recommend you read Morville's whole article, and explore some of the links in it. He goes into a lot more detail than I do here.

Many of us are opposed to giving out personal information on principle, but we willingly relinquish it every day, through the use of cookies on our computer, loyalty programs, credit cars, ATM activity, security cards at work, applications for all kinds of thing, etc. There is a lot of information about all of us out there, and by and large, we enjoy the benefits that come with that.

But how far is too far? I carry a cell phone, which can be used to track my movements. That might be a good thing if I'm lost, but what if I'm playing hooky from work? Who decides which is which?

A while back, I posted an item on social bookmarking (for example, those tags at the end of this article) that is fast becoming a popular way for people to share interests with each other, as well as track down all kinds of information.

The success of social bookmarking depends on all of us giving up a certain amount of our privacy in exchange for the benefits of getting access to a wider community. I'm willing to let you see my photos on Flickr and I'm hoping that you won't use them for a bad purpose.

I'm also willing to put you on my buddy list, so you can see whether I'm at my computer or not. But I think I'll draw the line at letting you track my movements via my GPS collar, or something like that. At least, I will if I know about it. My point is that it's starting to look more and more as though I won't know about it. The RFID tag on the collar of my shirt might provide a signal that those who know what they're doing can match to me and follow the shirt's progress throughout the city. Sounds crazy, sure. But I don't think it's out of the question.

As with so much of today's technology, we latch on to the cool stuff and all the neat things that we can do. But there's always two sides to every story. And sometimes we get carried away before we've fully considered all the facts. By the time we do, it's often too late to get the genie back into the bottle.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating for putting the brakes on any of this new technology. I think it's great stuff and I firmly believe it's going to make the world more interesting for all of us. But we need to have free and open discussion about how we all benefit from this stuff, not just a few. And we have to make sure that we don't cede control over our lives to some "Big Brother" type of group, or company, without ensuring we have the means to follow what they're doing.

I know these issues will keep coming up. In the meantime, I'd love to hear what some of you think about UFOs. Or anything else I've touched on. While I like to hear myself type, I'd love to get a conversation going with a bunch of you. Feel free to comment anytime on anything.

Thanks to grockwel for pointing me to this topic

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