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August 26, 2005

X-ray ayes

What are the dark scenarios for Ambient Intelligence (AmI) ? Five threats are identified in a report from a powerful European consortium: Surveillance of users; spamming; identity theft; malicious attacks (on AmI systems); and a cultural condition they describe as 'digital divide'. The research consortium - whose members include the Fraunhofer Institute, the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (IPTS), and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel - has been asked to investigate 'Safeguards in a World of Ambient Intelligence' (hence its embarassing acronym, SWAMI). In a 200+ page interim report, the team reviews the state of the art in AmI. Their initial conclusion is that 'ambient intelligence technology violates most of currently existing privacy-protecting borders'. This is not just a matter of spooks recording email. Our psychological assumption that 'If I can not see you, then you can not see me' seems to dissolve in contexts where video cameras render walls and doors transparent. We quickly forget they are present, and adapt to a new normality.
Tucked away in the references is an impressive and, I think, important text by a philosopher, Ira Singer, called Privacy and Human Nature. Singer writes: 'Increasing manipulativeness, decreasing intimacy, and self-revelation in a dehumanizing context, all sound like substantial harms. But do these apparently trivial intrusions really do such damage?'. His conclusion: yes, they do. 'An accumulation of intrusions does ...moral and conceptual damage...even apparently trivial and 'harmless' violations of privacy depend on a reductive and unappealing picture of human nature, and promote the diminishment of human nature in accord with that picture'. The Swami report also acknowledges (page 181) that many of the application scenarios prepared by the AmI industry 'present people (children particularly) as passive consumers happily accepting increased dependability on AmI systems'. In this context I think Swami is wrong to name its fifth dark scenario 'digital divide'. If it is true that 'AmI visions are often extremely individualistic, not recognising people as members of a family or social groups' - then we face a a cultural and moral challenge, not an infrastructure access one. A better word would be anomie.

Posted by John Thackara at August 26, 2005 07:51 AM


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