Saturday, December 02, 2006

Everything, Everywhere...

The implications of ubiquitous computing on historical practice provide researchers of the future with a massive, if not overwhelming, amount of data. Declan Butler’s '2020 Computing: Everything Everywhere'[1] describes a future of scientific research – particularly earth science research – where computers become our field operators, taking the form of networks with multitudes of censors with data processing so scientists can acquire real-time data from the world for the first time on such a large scale. While the creation of censor webs at present requires extensive (and expensive ) customization, the rapid evolution of technology means that this may and probably will not be the case in the future. First, however, the development of new standards and operating systems that allow all networks to understand each other needs to take place, a challenge that’s already slowing down the field.

While the implications of ubiquitous computing are obvious in the realm of science, its benefit to historians is less obvious and more frightening. A world where computers could identify any object, anywhere, instantly – an Internet of Things [2] – provides consumers with a wealth of information about the products they purchase. But it seems unwise to ignore the possibility of a future where this sort of technology would remain used for these harmless purposes.

Radio frequency identification tags (RFIDs) are the global successor to the barcode[3]. A future of ubiquitous RFIDS, beyond the end of inventory counts or lost merchandise shipments, would have widespread advantages: monitoring the location of children and pets would keep them save, government officials – like Mexico’s attorney general [4] – could be held accountable, shoplifting could be eradicated, prison populations could be closely watched; the possibilities are endless.

But the move to tagging individual products -or even people- is a possibility with very few barriers. Tagging individual products could provide historians of the future with an enormous amount of material from which to study trends in consumerism and material culture. And tagging a population would obviously also provide a wealth of resources related to societal trends of every sort.

A future with the common presence of RFIDs appears not too distant. Walmart has already notified its top supplier that RFID tags for inventory tracking must be attached to all cases and pallets [5].Tesco supermarket in Great Britain has implemented smart shelves to take pictures of patrons who remove (frequently stolen) razors from their Gillette shelves but asserts that products are tagged with RFIDs, not people [6].

Dodson raises a very important question: will industry police itself or is outside regulation needed? With the potential for privacy invasion that RFIDs pose, and the lack of regulation surrounding there use it seems dangerous to allow the industry to regulate itself. At the same time, there already appears a lag in government legislation related to the Internet and other technology advances. Laws related to Internet crime are and have been slow in coming about and in many cases remain inadequate. With trends like these it seems obvious that while outside regulation is necessary it’s going to be slow, if not too late in developing, while industry remains free to place RFIDS where they want.

[1] the article has become gated since I first read it
[2] Dodson, Sean. “The Internet of Things,” The Guardian (9 Oct 2003).
[3] Dodson, Sean. “The Internet of Things,” The Guardian (9 Oct 2003).
[4] Sterling, Bruce. “Dumbing Down Smart Objects,” Wired 12, no. 10 (Oct 2004).[5] Meloan, Steve. “Toward a Global ‘Internet of Things’,” Sun Developer Network (11 Nov 2003).
[6] Dodson, Sean. “The Internet of Things,” The Guardian (9 Oct 2003).

** I've come to regret switching to Blogger Beta, and it seems I can't switch back. There's some sort of page error message this weekend and I don't have the toolbar of options that allow me to insert hyperlinks or see the html version of the blog entry, so I apologize for using footnotes.

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