An Experiment in Ubiquitous Surveillance


I just returned from the First International Conference on Anticipation in Trento, Italy. The conference was a multi-disciplinary gathering of scholars, practitioners, and thought leaders with the same concern: the future is happening faster than we could ever have imagined. The foundational principles of our disciplines that have anchored us since their inception are no longer sufficient to deal with a future that is increasingly unpredictable. The conference featured experts in economics, the environment, biology, architecture, city planning, design, future studies, foresight, political science, psychology, sociology, and anthropology just to name a few. Each has deep concerns about how to model the future of their disciplines and their relationships with the world around them when our existing frameworks no longer fit and complexity and technology are increasing exponentially.

I presented a paper as part of the Design and Anticipation panel entitled, Ubiquitous Surveillance: A Crowd-Sourced Design Fiction. I began by painting the landscape of change and borrowed (as I have often done in this blog) from Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns. He states that “We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).” The uncertainty is compounded by the reality of technological convergence; the merging of cognitive science with genetics and nanotech or biotech, infotech, robotics, and artificial intelligence. All of these fields are racing toward breakthrough accomplishments. Of course, they cannot be isolated and so the picture changes, in a dynamic and unpredictable way. The reverberations will be sweeping. As I discussed in my paper, there is a natural compatibility between design and future studies, since, “…all design concerns itself with some future, preferably better, whether physical, environmental, or conceptual. Design is creative and iterative. So it is with futures.”

I explained the notion of design fiction as a hybrid of science fiction narrative, critical design, conventional design and foresight studies. The objective is to provoke interdisciplinary conversations and reflect on the significance of innovation for societies, governments, culture, and individuals. My methods include The Lightstream Chronicles and my newest area, guerrilla futures. In both cases the aim is,

“…to draw a larger circle for these conversations extending beyond academia, governmental inertia, and commercial influence. And to include those who will be affected most by these changes to lifestyle and behavior: the public-at-large.

In storytelling, the focus is on people and drama; there are interactions, and sometimes things go wrong. The fictional story becomes a way for us to anticipate conflict and complexity before it becomes a problem to be solved — a kind of thought problem to engage critical thinking. However, surrounding these issues with the expected, as utopian, or idealistic they risk losing force. Thus, for the story to have the potential of moving beyond merely an entertainment, the ideas must be disruptive enough for the individual to take pause.”

All of this is a lengthy set-up for my current experiment to generate discussion about the future: Ubiquitous Surveillance. The following is a direct lift from my presentation.

“Imagine if you will that the year is 2020. Political and commercial influences have convinced global society that not only our security, but our convenience and fulfillment will be enhanced via ubiquitous surveillance, e.g., cameras everywhere. Let us pull some plausible threads of existing technological advances: It is now possible to have cameras the size and thickness of a postage stamp. These PaperCams can be “posted” anywhere and are available to everyone for no fee. Once distributed, (ideally 1/3m3) imagery and location data is networked into a massive database. A smartphone app can locate and link to any PaperCam and allow users, positioned in front, to transmit a still or video image to anyone at any time from any place—no selfie required. GPS metadata verifies location and group photos take on a new significance. It is touted as both a communication convenience and a security benefit. Imagery can employ facial recognition, and predictive algorithms to identify criminal behavior, potential terrorist events, Cameras can be used to locate disaster, accident, crime victims or for emergency visual anywhere.

Cameras are always on. They do not require our permission. To mitigate the potential adverse reaction to an invasion of privacy, only computers/artificial intelligence (AI) evaluate the images to identify potential threats. The increasing mass of big data enables facial recognition, predictive algorithms for body language, gestures, sounds, voice analysis and other cues. The AI can observe situations and determine whether they are dangerous or benign. Since other humans are not seeing the imagery, personal moments are not in danger of being perniciously viewed and would not be logged unless the AI detects threatening behavior.

A global security corporation, VisibleFutureCorp., has been retained to monitor the cameras.”

Where will the camera show up next?
the cam card

If you want to jump into this future scenario, I have developed a do-it-yourself camera that you can print out, place around your environment, office, (every room in your home) so that it is impossible to go through the day without noticing one of the cameras watching you. After this experience, visit the VisibleFutureCorp. website and get a bit deeper into the experience and it’s believability. There is a link on that site to join in the conversation.

I hope you will try it out.

Bookmark and Share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.