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Big Brother is watching (well, listening actually)

March 22, 2010

I'm really not much of a gadget person. Honest. Particularly for someone who works at a design firm I'm damn near a Luddite. That being said I recently picked up a gadget that has me thinking about the pace with which technology has infiltrated my life. Said gadget is a Pulse Smart Pen by LiveScribe. Looking essentially like a slightly oversized fountain pen this nifty device is able to link your written words with an audio recording so that by merely tapping anywhere in your written notes you can hear what was being said while you were writing. Pretty cool and actually an amazing piece of technology. I hope to use it when interviewing clients - with their permission of course!

I was first introduced to the smart pen by a colleague who uses it for note taking and recording of research interviews - a fairly ideal application. It occurred to me that if such a device been available during my college days I probably would have… well I probably would have spent the money on beer instead but it's nice to think I would have used it for taking notes in class and studying harder.

We were visited by a client the other day who I noticed was writing in the SmartPen notebook but wasn't using the pen. When I asked him why he commented that he wasn't willing to record people without asking their permission (good man!) and didn't like the dynamic of asking permission before every meeting. I can totally relate and wonder how many people don't have his morals.

My new gadget pen did get me thinking about monitoring ethics and how many different ways we are now being suspiciously recorded, videoed, photographed and generally monitored either with or without our explicit knowledge or permission. The digital age combined with low- cost mass storage now mean a veritable explosion in the manner and density with which our lives are now captured for posterity and otherwise.  

The digital age and low-cost mass storage now mean an explosion in the manner and density with which our lives are captured for posterity and otherwise.

I remember some years ago being amazed when the Oklahoma City bomber - Timothy McVeigh was captured in part due to surveillance footage taken when he rented the truck. More recently I was flabbergasted that a camera captured the crash landing of US Airways flight 1549 into the Hudson. What were the odds? Well probably not so remote after all.

Recently a group of New York Civil Liberties Union volunteers walked the streets of Manhattan in search of video surveillance cameras and found more than 2400. And that's just the ones they saw. Tiger Woods is amazed his embarrassing text messages surfaced???? Hello??? What were you thinking??? We probably don't even stop to think about - and frankly probably aren't even remotely aware how much of our lives is being digitally archived. Emails, text messages, video recording at the ATM or Drive through… some guy with a weird recording pen…

I suspect that arguing the relative merits or ethics of this juggernaut is academically interesting but functionally ineffectual - we're certainly not going to stuff this particular genie back in that particular bottle. Never the less I have found myself wondering about this a lot more lately. Oh and if you see me you have my word I'll ask you before turning my pen on.