getting to know your ghost in the machine

We each carry a digital ID in our smartphone. This ID is a key that grants access to voice, data, location, acceleration, and other information both in the net and in our devices.

These handshakes occur almost continuously in some form, the most common being the regular polling our mobiles make of our surroundings to determine if we’re in range of a cell tower. Not only do our mobiles contain our digital identification, they also hold rich profiles of our interests, our habits, our journeys, our transactions, and our networks. These elements are forming the core foundation upon which our experience of the networked world is constructed.

Smartphone manufacturers are integrating near-field communication (NFC) chips that enable our devices to manage transactions. At the check-out counter on the corner market you wave your phone to make payment. Your mobile knows who you are, it has access to your checking account, and it makes the handshake on your behalf with the trusted vendor. Whether or not NFC becomes the de facto coretech underneath this mechanism, the usability is very sticky. All sorts of lock-and-key relationships like home & vehicle entry, gym membership, library or lab entrance, and network access become a natural characteristic of your presence. Just as your face & voice provision you with access to your parent’s home and induce birthday parties in your name, mobile identity confers digital membership and can initiate personalized experiences around you.

One of the light bulbs that really went off in my head was lit by Ben Cerveny‘s talk at ARE2011. In the course of discussing his data exploration instrument, Bloom, Ben illustrated an example of this type of personal digital provisioning by considering the modern, networked home entertainment system. Imagine you have a dinner party and as your friends arrive their mobiles make the handshake with the local network. The system queries their devices for music likes, recent social network sentiment, and checks their calendars to see how hurried they may be. It then constructs a playlist on-the-fly, adjusts appropriate lighting, and tailors the home to fit the mood. If they like, they can engage the system from their mobiles by sharing media and driving the environment. It’s a simple example that illustrates how we’re sharing a lot more information about ourselves with the computational networks in which we swim, and how those networks can become more aware of us and tailor experiences to fit the context.

Greg Tran has a really great concept video that explores these ideas of local networks and provisioned experiences by looking at augmented reality as a mediating layer. Here’s the video:

Mediating Mediums – The Digital 3d [Short Version] from Greg Tran on Vimeo.

Tran postulates a near-future where some form of native augmented reality is ubiquitous, then considers the kinds of experiences that might be possible. He explores how local networks could push such experiences out to provisioned individuals based on profile & location. For example, as you enter a building it reads your digital ID and passes an access profile to your device. This local profile invokes experiences as you move through different areas of the structure. Perhaps virtual walls are rendered to offer smaller meeting rooms within a larger space. Planar blinds covered in motion graphics rise up to obscure areas or to convey pertinent information. Real walls are rendered transparent to reveal HVAC systems (for ID:HVACRepair), or network lines (ID:CablingContractor), or the floor below you (ID:Bankrobber). The concept video is slick & compelling and suggests a sort of techno-magic that feels only just beyond our fingertips.

The concept work of Keiichi Matsuda serves to illustrate the inevitable tensions likely to rise in such a data-saturated and dynamic media landscape. He explores the somewhat-uneasy co-mingling of our traditional needs & expectations as humans with the growing presence of push media bombarding our every waking moment. There is a suggestion that perhaps traditions will eventually fall as the older generations withdraw from influence. The new young are better fit to parse & move amongst what we might consider a slightly-terrifying visual information overload. It is said that Descartes considered the pineal gland as the reducing valve of the Soul, keeping us from seeing the whole of Creation so we can focus on the more pressing biosurvival tasks at hand. Keiichi’s work, particularly Domestic Robocop, imparts the sense that we’re steadily opening that valve back up.

Augmented (hyper)Reality: Domestic Robocop from Keiichi Matsuda on Vimeo.

These examples are really just frameworks within which we can explore the relationship between digital identity and ubiquitous computing. More specifically, they show how we are deputizing our mobile device as legitimate cognitive prostheses and proxy selves. The social landscape is increasingly occupied by machines and so we need machine ambassadors to manage these relationships on our behalf. And as we move en masse into social networks we get closer to the machines and share more and more minutia about our lives. Social networks are incredibly fertile ground for getting to know complete strangers better than they even know themselves. Especially if you’re a data crawler crunching billions of analytics per cycle. Pretty quickly this becomes a surreal sort of digital intimacy that for most people never even registers.

This relationship will become more visceral as we hire a growing array of scripts & cloud agents to do our bidding, initialized and left to run, watching and learning about us, and mediating our needs & expectations to innumerable and often-invisible third-parties. There is a reasonably convincing argument that considers the Greek & Roman pantheon to be the early psychological complexes of the awakening human mind. The young ego wasn’t quite able to recognize the emotions & voices as being local and instead ascribed to them an external embodiment in the form of anthropomorphic deities. We seem to be at a similar junction where we’ve yet to fully internalize and integrate our digital pieces. But it’s our mobile devices that bring them closer and invite them to join us.

Rolling forward with personalized ubicomp we can see a possible world where cloud agents flit about enacting our will, communicating with us, transacting with other agents, invoking local experiences & remote actions. We can imagine a more responsive and amorphous physical world that shifts to meet our needs, to persuade us, and to contain us. How does the individual understand itself when embedded in such a fluid & personalized world? How does cognition and psychology change as it distributes and becomes more & more disembodied? What are the powers of crowds as machine intelligences scan & summate them, customizing group experiences to the common denominator? Will distributed intelligence relate to crowds better than individuals?

Suffice it to say that the near-future will really get interesting once digital identity is fully integrated as the core component of the ubicomp landscape. The current effort to move payments into the mobile phone is a major step in this direction (and should serve as a hint when looking at the present identity challenges & goals of Facebook, Twitter, and especially Google Plus). Your social networking is painting a rich profile about who you are. Your credit card is arguably a stronger & more universal ID than your driver’s license or passport. And though we may resist sharing so much of ourselves in such a broad way, it won’t matter. Our devices will identify us and our digital ghosts will betray us to their friends.


  1. Shock

    This kind of tech scares and amazes me at the same time. I’m excited about the things we’ll be able to do that have never been done. At the same time I am fearful of how much power will be abused in these kinds of systems.

  2. Sling Trebuchet

    “Social networks are incredibly fertile ground for getting to know complete strangers better than they even know themselves.”

    Sounds absolutely wonderful. I presume that this is a one-way process? Like me knowing *everything* about you, but not the reverse?

    “This relationship will become more visceral as we hire a growing array of scripts & cloud agents to do our bidding, initialized and left to run, watching and learning about us, and mediating our needs & expectations to innumerable and often-invisible third-parties.”

    Oh brave new world! We’d be like pampered goldfish. We would strut about, ministered to by our benign environment.
    Alternatively, this is the nightmare world so familiar from dystopian sci-fi movies and Huxley’s 1984.

  3. Janet Greco

    Great stuff, Chris. We need more thinking like this around the pay-TV ecosystem, and more participants like you in regulatory conferences addressing privacy issues. I´ve reposted links on my site.

  4. chris arkenberg

    Thanks, Janet. I’ll have to think a bit more about the possible relationships between content data and human data wrt VOD & IPTV.

    Sling, I deliberately took an agnostic approach for this article but there are obvious challenges that arise around privacy, intimacy, relationships, commercial exploitation, etc… I welcome any well-formed thoughts you’d like to share on the subject.

  5. Pingback: Ghosts in the Machine: Digital Identities & Online Privacy | Broadcast Projects - Independent Consulting Network
  6. Pingback: URBEINGRECORDED » Blog Archive » Top Post Round-Up: OWS, Ubicomp, Hyperconnectivity, & Transhumanity

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