Monday, October 10, 2011

Desperate Housewives of the future?

I've been reading too many technology articles lately. The death of Steve Jobs has "inspired" a lot of people to write about the bright future of personalized computing, of smart phones, tablet computers, and dreams about what we'll get when we combine mobile computing with GPS localization and social networks. We can even throw in some medical devices, like a heart rate monitor.

Recently I was in a meeting in Paris with a gentleman from India. We chatted politely, he told me he had brought his wife and daughter with him on his trip. I asked what they were doing while he was stuck in that meeting, and he pulled out his iPhone. He had an app that showed his wife and daughter as colored dots on a map of Paris, located by their own iPhones. I didn't say anything, but I couldn't help but thinking how much I would have hated if my parents had had me on electronic surveillance like that.

Add in those heart rate monitors and social networks with "timelines", and I smell trouble. How long until a housewife happens to check her social network and find that both her husband and her best friend have been in the same location, a motel, at the same time, and both had strongly accelerated heart rates?

Come to think of it, many people's lives have two distinctive parts: One large and extremely boring one nobody wants to know about, and sometimes a more interesting part which they desperately want to keep secret. Neither of which makes good social media material. Just imagine an episode of Desperate Housewives where all the actions of all the characters are logged onto a social network: All what makes the series interesting is the secrets the characters keep from each other, and the layers of deception. While that TV series certainly isn't an accurate description of real people, it might well be an accurate description of the small, interesting bits in real people's lives.

So after reading all those articles about the ubiquitous computing and social networking of the future, I'm not convinced. Basically my observation is that mobile computing still has extreme problems at the moment: I can't even get a 3G connection everywhere in Belgium, and am often stuck at a data transfer rate of the EDGE protocol of 236.8 kbit/s. That's not quite as fast as an old 256 k modem. And in Europe you can be hit with data roaming charges up to $3.22 per megabyte. And due to frequent business travel I know all about the frequently horrible internet connections in hotels.

But once all these technical problems are overcome, we'll just run into the far more serious problems of privacy and who controls what rights over data on the internet. Today the story might be how Twitter helped the Arab spring, but tomorrow the story might well be how some revolution failed and the regime struck back at the would-be revolutionaries by tracking them down via their social networks. It already happened after the London riots. Sooner or later people will realize that it is not a good idea to put anything REAL on the social networks, and will limit themselves to exchange photos of cute kittens and similar fluff.

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