Friday, February 18, 2011

Exhibitionist Heaven

A couple of weeks ago some of us at Real Change were talking about how the rise of internet background-check services has hurt poor people. Years ago it was a pain to run background checks. If someone wanted to rent an apartment from you, you had to take their application materials to an agency run out of a trailer and hand it over to a guy named Rocky. You didn’t do it because Rocky smelled like cigarettes, stale peanuts, and three day old fish, and he charged too much.

But now, Rocky has a website so you don’t have to smell him, and his work is automated and uses semi-public internet resources, so the price is down around $30. The way the poor would-be renter gets screwed is that, with the background check affordable at all, it’s the renter who’s made to pay!

Good news! This intolerable situation will only last a few more years! Thanks to improving technology, the price of background checks will plummet so far, they’ll be given away free to anyone who has a computer and knows how to use Google!

“But Wes, how is that possible?” my detractors ask. Sneaky detractors always questioning me. Well, I’ll tell you. It’ll all be done with cameras, wires, connections, and computers, with some math thrown in.

By the time this column is printed, you’ll have had an opportunity to watch a massively parallel IBM computer named Watson play Jeopardy. I don’t know how well Watson will do, but I know he’ll outdo grandpa’s computer. He may not win against the human contestants, but he’s going to do better than a lot of people watching at home could do. Yet, Watson is self-contained. He’s not hooked up to an internet.

Meanwhile, the European Union, the United States of Europe, is funding a project to create a “robot” internet. I put the word robot in quotes because Watson is defined as a robot for the sake of this thing, called the RoboEarth project. Computers all over the world who are equipped to learn from experiences, like Watson, will be able to link up and share their growing knowledge about the world, and the humans in it, on their very own internet geared to their special interests and needs.

Meanwhile, face identification software is improving. It will soon be possible to upload a picture of someone, and tell your favorite search engine to retrieve all pictures that feature only that person and people who look just like them.

Finally, more and more cameras are being installed in public places, Several states are setting up their linked networks of surveillance cameras. But there’s nothing in the law preventing businesses and private citizens from connecting their own surveillance cameras to each other on the net, and every reason for companies that would like to track us all to support them doing so. So, got a surveillance camera? Earn some money just for leaving it on 24/7!

Put it all together, and you realize that it’s inevitable. The cost of the systems that track you will be paid by advertisers wanting to tailor ads to you.

Unless there are major legal barriers put in place (a constitutional amendment guaranteeing privacy would be a start in this country) you can expect as early as ten years from now that if you don’t remember where you were a week ago last Thursday at 3 PM, you’ll be able to able to find out by googling yourself. Switch to image search, and see what you were wearing. Modify the subject, and find out where the spouse was.

Computers will track you from one camera to the next. If you try to trick the computers by ducking into a port-a-potty and switch into a disguise, it won’t work, Superman, computers can count. “Duh-uh, where’d da other human go? Someone’s trying to trick me. Alert, alert! Oh there he is, with the red pantsies.”

And the good news is, it will all be free!

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