Wednesday, March 3, 2004

What do we do with technologies beyond our control?

So, the BBC reports that some 30,000 children in Scottish schools will be affected by a camera phone ban.

Despite no reports of misuse, camera phones are seen to be a nuisance around school, as well as potentially contributing to the circulation of child pornography ("If you can capture the image you can distribute it ... Once the image is out it can be used and misused.").

But here's the social clincher:

Carol Bartholomew, the council's convenor of children's services, said: "We have a responsibility to protect people. I think one of the problems with mobile phones is that when you have an ordinary camera you can see someone taking a photograph. With mobiles you can be totally unaware of someone taking a picture."

Frankly, I'm not all that interested in whether their actions are appropriate or not. But I am interested in how people actually react to potential risks. This is how some people are engaging new technologies and the increasing interconnectedness of people and information - whether we think it is reasonable or not. And I'd like to try to understand their concerns - before camera phones are ubiquitous and surveillance is no longer limited to the powers that be.

In this case, the objection seems to involve not knowing if we are interacting with technology - something intimately related to notions of the disappearing computer and invisible interfaces. If you can't see the camera, then you can't react to it. Technology risks becoming something done to you, rather than something done with you. The importance of social agency - or people's ability to act and take action - cannot be overstated. And before people say that technology is either good or bad, or that camera phones are both good and bad because they help people topple oppressive governments as well violate our privacy - I think that we should consider what people are enabled and supported to do with new technologies, and what they are not.

Who has what kinds of control in which situations? How does the design of an application or device help create these power relations? I don't have all the answers, but these are questions I ask every day as I write my dissertation.

And while we're on about technologies and control, Biella reports that her research on The Re-localization of Intellectual Property Rights and the Rise of Expressive Rights among Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) Hackers is going really well. You should be able to find me and Biella hanging out at the HOPE conference in July in NYC - more on the last one here - chatting up hackers about social ethics and technology :)


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