UFOs (Ubiquitous Findable Objects)
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To make this global panopticon a reality, unique identification tags are necessary but not sufficient. As we know from library science research, known-item searches account for less than half of total demand. Most users will also want to perform exploratory subject searches.
So, in a world of UFOs, personal metadata that describes our interests, histories, possessions, and relationships will be very important. We'll require a balance between factual data (e.g., credit rating, medical history) and descriptive metadata (e.g., personality, politics) to support multiple ways of finding.
And, to assure the veracity and authority of this personal metadata, our body tags should reflect a sociosemantic balance between the controlled vocabularies of experts and the folksonomies of the masses. Each of us will require a bibliographic record, like a product page in Amazon, that connects the formal hierarchy of trees with miscellaneous piles of leaves.
Fortunately, we're already accumulating body tags like barnacles on a ship. Every article, blog post, and comment is indexed by Google. Every email we send or receive is tagged by Gmail. Google Desktop tracks the contents of our computers and every website we visit. And Delicious Library has begun to inventory the contents of our homes. When you combine these public sources of personal metadata with the massive databases of Acxiom and Wal-Mart, we're well on our way towards the Memex vision of MyLifeBits.
Of course, we'll need roll-back capabilities to manage reputation vandalism, AI filters, and challenge-response systems for limiting body-tag spam, and some means of recourse for Googlebomb attacks on our personal aboutness. Hopefully, the lessons being learned now by del.icio.us, Flickr, Wikipedia, and the Memetic Web will inform our approach to body tag management.
The Truth Is Out There
There are conspiracy theorists, like the authors of Spychips, who fear a complete loss of privacy and view RFID implants as the "mark of the beast." And while their fear of Big Brother and his Patriot Act is understandable, I'm not yet ready to join the neo-Luddites in their fight against IPv666.
How can we decide how we want to use technology, before we've even figured out how we can or might use it? I agree with the EFF's stance that we should proceed cautiously, given the enormous potential for unforeseen consequences. But in the long run, I would prefer not to choose between privacy and freedom, and I'm inspired by David Brin's vision of a Transparent Society:
"The cameras are coming. You can rail against them, shaking your fist in futile rage at all the hovering lenses. Or you can join a committee of six billion neighbors to control the pesky things, making each one an extension of your eyes."
Brin argues that "people of bad intent will be far more free to do harm in a world of secrets, masks, and shrouds than in a realm where the light is growing all around, bit by steady bit." And he asks probing questions:
"Will average citizens share, along with the mighty, the right to access these universal monitors? Will common folk have, and exercise, a sovereign power to watch the watchers?"
I certainly hope so, and I have a practical suggestion. Just as the government has historically purchased private land to establish national forests and public parks, the government should now purchase, on behalf of the public, the rights to access a vast swath of databases and data streams currently accessible only to those with power and wealth.
As we wander down this path paved with silicon chips and findable objects, give us all the eyes and ears, so we may know what's going on. The next-generation internet of objects will require billions of networked sensors that stir our senses and enrich our collective intelligence. It will make the world a better, more interesting place. It will prepare us for The Singularity. And it will help us all when the real UFOs arrive.
- The Catalogue (QT Video)
- Family Finder (watch the "Seek and Find" demo)
- ACLU Pizza (Flash Movie)
- RFID position statements of consumer privacy and civil liberties organizations
- The original Spychips rebuttal (PDF)
- The Electronic Frontier Foundation
- "All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace"
Peter Morville is president of Semantic Studios, an information architecture, user experience, and findability consultancy. For over a decade, he has advised such clients as AT&T, IBM, Microsoft, Harvard Business School, Internet2, Procter & Gamble, Vanguard, and Yahoo.
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