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March 30, 2014
You Are On Exhibit
by M.W. Burns

Consider all the ways you are monitored, the streams of information being collected about you. Your geo-location can be tracked via your cell phone, your purchases and shopping habits are analyzed and your daily errands are captured with surveillance cameras. Metadata is collected on your phone activities, your credit card purchases, your Internet use, your electricity consumption, political donations, and library records. All of this can be combined to generate a very complex profile of your behaviors, interests and values.

The topic of privacy invasion is hot these days and there is no doubt why. But increasingly the gathering and display of our personal information is not simply the result of someone else invading our privacy. We do much of it ourselves. There is a growing array of ways to display and analyze our own existence. Beyond our profiles, tweets and status updates that we curate and scatter across social media platforms, mobile and wearable devices allow us to display "ourselves” to ourselves.

Many of these small devices fit around the wrist, or ankle, or clip to clothing tracking things like heart rate, distance walked, calories burned, and slept patterns. Other devices come in the form of clothing like smart shoes, smart shirts and more unexpected products like Microsoft’s smart wig that reads the wearer’s brainwaves, or Sony’s smart bra that is able to detect emotion.

Patent designs for Sony's Smart Wig and Microsoft's Smart Bra
Patent designs for Sony's Smart Wig and Microsoft's Smart Bra

Emotion detection will soon to be embedded in a wide range of applications. The camera built into your devises can already use facial recognition software to sense your mood (or at least the mood you are communicating, intentionally or unintentionally, through your expression).* And personal monitoring devices don’t just cover our exterior. Some operate from the inside.

Specialized ingestible microchips, developed by Proteus Biomedical in collaboration with Novartis AG, are activated by stomach acids and can send information on our internal physiology to a dermal patch via Bluetooth that transmits this data to a growing electronic medical record. One can imagine wearable and ingestible devices supporting exhibits about ones own microbiome.

Ingestible event marker by Proteus Biochemical

But this somewhat private, ultra-localized notion of exhibiting yourself to yourself can also involve the places you occupy, the things you like and identify with as material and ideological extensions of “you”.

If we think about all of the social media profiles we’ve created and displayed for the world to see, there are a LOT of data there about us. And if we allow access to more personal information, food allergies for example, or real time data like our emotional response to our environment, this can be used as a resource for feeding back highly personalized experiences.

Some may recall the scene from Minority Report where Tom Cruise enters a GAP of the future and a virtual “greeter” immediately recognizes him and welcomes him (or rather welcomes his alternate identity). The technology to do this is not science fiction. I recently visited Brivo Labs, in Bethesda Maryland, with two colleagues from the Corcoran College of Art and Design, Clare Brown and Jonathan Healey. We met with Lee Odess who explained how Brivo is pioneering “concierge experiences” based on data drawn from our social profiles. Brivo refers to this as SAM, Social Access Management.** Public spaces, museums, retail environments and dining spots will be far more cognizant of, and reactive to the personal data we make publically accessible. Where traditionally we have been “visitors”, “guests” or "customers" (aka "welcomed outsiders") in public spaces that present a prescribed set of conditions, we may soon find that many places accentuate features and opportunities in response to our personal interests, preferences and affiliations. In this sense we become the "topic" of the places we occupy.

People will obviously find pros and cons to all of this. On one hand there can be all kinds of efficiencies that can grow from experiences tailored around us. It not only can help us maintain and expand our social connections, but cut through distracting or personally uninteresting "stuff". On the other hand, some of our most memorable and important experiences seem to come out of nowhere and critics will feel that the magic of serendipity may be lost.  Of course randomization can introduce "wild card" experiences. And there is always the alternative of going rogue and switching off your 'tracking" functions. We may begin to see there are far more benefits than not.

Imagine generating personalized educational environments, framing subject matter in ways that can appeal to an individual's age, learning style, comprehension and aptitudes. This ability to frame the way “you” relate to “place” can also address things in the abstract, transforming spaces from their intended functions and meanings to alternative ones. If places can be customized in how we think about and use them, a grocery store can be re-framed as a hands-on learning environment, a city street can become a history exhibition, a beach can be framed as a math puzzle, or engineering challenge.

Technology is becoming increasingly aware of both where we are and who we are. The rise of smart spaces and what has been called “the internet of things” will only increase the granularity of how technology is involved in our relationship to “place” physically, psychologically and socially, blurring the distinction between ourselves and the world we inhabit.

There is undoubtedly the need for better policies to protect us from the otherwise inevitable abuses that will occur with so much of our information being processed. Principles are needed that give us the power, beyond simple opt-out check boxes, to protect our privacy and control how our data is used, where, when and why. Beyond being free from advertising at every turn these principles will help us preserve the ability to inform, inspire and personally connect people to the world around them in ways that can be far more efficient and accessible than traditional methods. Without such policies, the benefits of personalized technologies will remain suspect and never reach their full potential as experience enrichment tools. To help guide the use and application of these technologies our teaching institutions (schools, universities, museums) need to develop and promote principles relevant to their purposes and intentions, not simply adopt those built around commercial interests.

* Emotion detection applications currently being developed by companies like the MIT Media Lab spinoff, Affectiva, or companies like Emotient are working to deploy such technology in retail settings in order to understand the customer’s response to products and experiences within the retail environment.

** Stay tuned for an upcoming feature on a recent workshop conducted between the Corcoran College of Art and Design and Brivo Labs called “Hack the Box: Re-programming the museum experience”. This three-day event challenged students to conceptualize re-visiting the Corcoran's collections using Brivo's social access management technology.

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