I made a cameo appearance in Business Week’s article about our NEC C&C Innovation Lab entitled NEC’s “Big Brother” Lab
(Aug. 16, 2007). It follows the inauguration day of the lab on July 12, when the press and officials came to visit the building and were shown prototypes of different projects happening here.
It is remarkable that most journalists, this one included, focused their interest and questions on the privacy concerns related to the ubiquitous monitoring of our lab. There were many other interesting projects shown that day (read the press release for a more abstract summary), but they hardly captured as much interest. (And note that the visualization part of the supposedly “proprietary mapping system” was implemented using the rather neat prefuse open source library.)
What is remarkable about the focus in this article is the lack of depth and context. First, the issue is not whether you’re being filmed, but by whom and why. Are you aware of it, and did you give your consent? The question of ownership and purpose of this data is premium, yet it’s barely hinted at by the author.
In addition, the article fails to put its arguments into the broader picture of our contemporary society: everyone is constantly tracked, whenever you use your credit card, your grocery store discount card or your RFID transport ski pass; whenever you buy books from the Internet or get filmed by a security camera in an elevator. More alarmingly than being spotted picking your nose at your desk, there are 400′000 CCTV in London, and 4′000′000 in the whole UK. There are thousands in Japan as well. And for all of those, you never signed any agreement and usage conditions.
The closing quote, “it would be a real hard sell in the [Silicon] Valley”, comes as a rather hypocritical remark in a country where the government gets increasingly more freedom at invading its citizens’ privacy without their knowledge.
This project would fail as a panopticon prototype, because it would lack the uncertainty of whether the participants are being observed or not. In the excitement of linking it with trendy topics such as privacy, the author confuses the danger of ubiquitous unapproved and unlimited surveillance with a circumscribed experiment.
Furthermore, it fails to capture a more important philosophical questions that underlines this project: inspiration, much like feelings, are traditionally credited as impalpable human traits; yet can you formalize, quantify, analyze innovation and inspiration? Are there patterns that can be exploited to stimulate and, eventually, simulate inspiration?