October 5, 2013 at 8:52 PM
The Age of Context: When technologies understand us, will we understand them?
Clothing stores that know what you like. Self-driving cars that know where you’re going. Sensors that warn you’ll have a heart attack days before you have it. Bars that serve your favorite drink minutes before you sit down.
This isn’t fantasy. It’s the future.
It’s described in “The Age of Context,” the second book by tech enthusiast and former Microsoft evangelist Robert Scoble and business journalist Shel Israel. The book is a parade of newborn technologies and an analysis of trends in mobile, social media, data, sensors and location technology that all lead to one compelling conclusion: The world we’re headed to is a world that knows us. One where commerce, transportation, health care, service and learning are transformed by technologies smart enough to not just meet our needs but anticipate them. It’s a world where we are safer, stronger and more powerful than we ever dreamed.
But there’s a cost: For the world to open up to you, you have to open up to the world. You have to share more and more of all those trackable, quantifiable behaviors we’ve come to call your personal data.
Scoble returned to Seattle last week to attend a privacy conference where one discussion asked what the sign should say on the door of a “smart” grocery store that tracks customers’ movements.
Sporting the wearable computing device Google Glass over his prescription glasses — he was the 107th person to receive one and is rarely seen without it — Scoble told me, and later a gathering of techies in South Lake Union, that he sees a new digital divide coming. This one will be “between people like me, who jump into this, and people who resist it and turn it off.”
Tell a group of geeks that Scoble has a reputation for enthusiasm and you’ll get some knowing smirks. After he used Google Glass for two weeks, Scoble said he’d never go a day without a wearable computing device for the rest of his life.
An early adopter by trade, he immerses himself in a world that’s five steps ahead of mainstream technology and looks back at the rest of us with a little kid’s glee I know I’ve felt myself. If that doesn’t put you on the defensive — “Goodness, Scoble, get down from there!” — it can really make you think.
Scoble believes that the technologies that need to know us in order to serve us will become as ubiquitous as credit cards. Opt out of them, he says, and you opt out of modern times.
If, that is, you have that choice. “Trying to stop your personal information from being collected at this point,” Scoble and Israel write, “is tantamount to trying to stop a tsunami by standing on a beach and punching it.”
I want to live in a context-driven world. But I don’t want to live in a confused one. What bugs me about Scoble and Israel’s vision isn’t the automation — by all means, car, drive yourself — or even the personal data cost. I’ve traded plenty of data in already for the utility of Facebook, Gmail, personalized search, location-driven apps like Foursquare, tracking devices like my Nike+ Fuel Band, everything I use my Facebook or Twitter account to log in to and, heck — my whole smartphone.
What bugs me can be illustrated in two ways.
One, my use of the traffic-monitoring app called Waze. Waze finds the fastest routes around traffic in real time and saves me countless minutes on every rush-hour ride. It is able to do this because it gets location and velocity data from its users. I have no idea how that works. When I signed up, Waze made little effort to tell me. And I, still using it, apparently don’t care.
Two, the fact that almost all iPhone users accept iTunes’ 50-page terms of service without ever reading them. You’ve probably heard this before. It’s been reduced to a joke, a funny observation, but it’s one of the most revealing shames of our digital life.
Now imagine a world where every store, every vehicle, every appliance and every service comes with its own 50-page terms of service you didn’t read. A world where the sign that goes up at your grocery store notifies you of the tracking technology inside and reminds you, every time you enter, that as much as you love the benefits of a world that caters to your every whim, you don’t know what the hell is happening.
Tracking doesn’t scare me. Data doesn’t scare me. Resignation is what scares me. I want the powers I can buy with my data. But I don’t know how much longer we can justify not understanding how that exchange works.
We’re a society of smart, watchful people. Yet privacy, in technology, remains this dense, insecure little bomb at the middle of everything. We haven’t defused it. I don’t know how we will.
Scoble and Israel call for a more effective conversation about privacy I hope we’ll have. But even they seem to speak in two voices about it, voices that may as well be the id and superego of our entire techie culture. It’s clear enough when you meet them: While Scoble is all in all the time, Israel, by his nature, sits back until he sees good reason to move forward.
A digital divide, indeed.
We’re making amazing progress with technology. It’s in understanding that technology that I fear we’re falling behind.
I can’t wait for the Age of Context. But if it doesn’t come hand in hand with an Age of Clarity, we may find ourselves in a world that knows us, but we no longer understand.
Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.