Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Photo of Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Who is Tracking You?

In previous posts I have ruminated on topics like metrics, big data, and decision-support.  How far will this go? One thing that strikes me is just how much we are all being “tracked” and who is doing the tracking.  By tracked I mean the passive (and sometimes active) collection of data related to where you are, what you are doing and who you might be doing it with.  The data does not have to be specific and might for example be something like person X ate lunch at restaurant Y on a given date at a given time.  The specifics of what you ate might not be part of this tracking but the general pattern of what you did is being tracked.  Mix and match a few databases and a pretty granular picture of your daily life emerges.


How Big is Your Electronic Footprint?

Stop for minute and think about how often check in electronically. How many footprints or electronic crumbs do you leave; and how easy would it be to “reconstruct” your life?

  • When, where and what you do can be tracked every time you use a computer.
  • When and where you use your cell-phone can be tracked as well as who you call.
  • Every sort of electronic transaction from using your “parking card” to routine credit card transactions can be tracked.
  • Every time you swipe something it is being recorded.
  • In some places facial recognition programs and closed circuit video monitoring are increasingly being added to the mix.
  • Plenty of us also divulge and confess to all sorts of things voluntarily on social media via the process and cultural phenomenon of Oprahization.


Think again about how hard it would be to live an electronically invisible life?  Essentially it would be a non-electronic, all cash life.   While it might be possible have a minimal electronic footprint in a very local way, how about making a plane or hotel reservation?  Who really wants to live without a cell phone?  A lot of life today has obligatory electronic component and anything electronic can and probably is being recorded and tracked.


The Tracking of Malte Spitz

Below is to a TED talk by the German politician Malte Spitz whose movements were tracked by his cell phone company for 6 months.    Here is a link to a longer article on this incident and also an interactive map of where exactly Mr. Spitz was over the time period he was tracked.   Why was this done?  Who approved it and why was he targeted?  Or did he just sort of get on a list and it was off to the automated data collection races?  To me the potential mindless elements of this, where no one is responsible and it is all merely a matter of “policy” is perhaps the scariest part.


click here for video


Tracking vs. Innovation

All of this tracking might lead to so-called innovations like making “electronic prisons” for certain offenders.   Is this a real innovation or merely a way to do things more efficiently at lower costs?  On a larger note are tracking, metrics, and decision support the pathway to innovation or merely the pathway to efficiency?   Is the real solution to crime prevention fixing the social conditions that seem to breed it, or is the solution simply more and better ways to incarcerate people?


The Minority Report is Prophetic

In the novel the “The Minority Report” by Phillip K. Dick a future society exists where crime can be predicted and prevented using techniques that are similar to those discussed above.    Such techniques are already being developed and perfected to predict consumer behavior and who knows what else.


The Electronic World: Another “Tool” or Something Different?

The electronic world has many, many positives that do in fact make things more efficient and easier.   As a tool (or set of tools) it allows us access to information and insights that used to be in hard copy only in a few places like University libraries.   Complex scientific and engineering problems can be solved quickly.   It is politically powerful as shown by the efforts of authoritarian governments to tightly control internet access and social media to suppress dissent.   However, like most tools the electronic world is changing how we live and challenging assumptions about life as we mindlessly get more and more addicted to it.  I am not arguing for the good old days, just asking how routine we want the voluntary, passive, and active invasion of our privacy to become.   Every wave of technology has intended and unintended consequences and in the long run we spend a lot of time and energy as a species dealing with the unintended consequences of our technical innovations (suburbia and urban sprawl came with cars for example).   Are the changes coming with the electronic world just another cycle of technical change and unintended consequences?  Or, are we moving from humans the tool makers and users who manipulate the environment to a world where the tools are manipulating us?


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