New York, Aug. 24, 1964–A Queens housewife today was the first person to be arrested thru use of a new electronic computer. Mrs. Gloria Placente, 30, was the first victim of a system which the New York police department and the Univac division of Sperry Rand corporation tested today. She was apprehended by chance.
Police and Univac officials were escorting 200 reporters in four buses to a demonstration area to show how Univac’s 490 computer could be used to apprehend automobile and license plate thieves, scofflaws, and drivers whose licenses or registrations had been suspended or revoked.
Enroute an observer patrol car phoned in the license plate of the car being driven by Mrs. Placente. Within five seconds, the Univac brain, located in the United States Pavilion of the World’s Fair, recorded a “hit.” Immediately the police cars escorting the buses stopped and forced the driver to a curb of the Grand Central Parkway. Mrs. Placente had been issued a moving violation on May 5, 1964, and had not paid the fine, ignored notices and was issued a warrant. She was arrested and brought to a Queens Precinct station and then to a Manhattan Traffic Court.
European officials have considered requiring all cars entering the European market to feature a built-in mechanism that allows the police to stop vehicles remotely. Speaking earlier this year, Jim Farley, a senior Ford executive, acknowledged that “we know everyone who breaks the law, we know when you’re doing it. We have GPS in your car, so we know what you’re doing. By the way, we don’t supply that data to anyone.” That last bit didn’t sound very reassuring and Farley retracted his remarks.
Apple recently patented a new technology – smart phones equipped with sensors that can judge a situation: whether the operator is in a motor vehicle and whether they are operating that motor vehicle. If the smartphone analyzes the situation and judges that the operator is in fact driving, the system will shut-down immediately. In tandem with advancements in automobile automation, the smart phone and vehicle will be immobilized if the technology overides a user’s impulsive behavior.
Even public toilets are ripe for sensor-based optimization: the Safeguard Germ Alarm, a smart soap dispenser developed by Procter & Gamble and used in some public WCs in the Philippines, has sensors monitoring the doors of each stall. Once you leave the stall, the alarm starts ringing – and can only be stopped by a push of the soap-dispensing button.
Consider a May 2014 report from 2020health, another think tank, proposing to extend tax rebates to Britons who give up smoking, stay slim or drink less. “We propose ‘payment by results’, a financial reward for people who become active partners in their health, whereby if you, for example, keep your blood sugar levels down, quit smoking, keep weight off, [or] take on more self-care, there will be a tax rebate or an end-of-year bonus,” they state. Smart gadgets are the natural allies of such schemes: they document the results and can even help achieve them – by constantly nagging us to do what’s expected.
Italian bureaucrats have experimented with the redditometro, or income meter, a tool for comparing people’s spending patterns – recorded thanks to an arcane Italian law – with their declared income, so that authorities know when you spend more than you earn. Spain has expressed interest in a similar tool.
In June, Microsoft struck a deal with American Family Insurance, the eighth-largest home insurer in the US, in which both companies will fund startups that want to put sensors into smart homes and smart cars for the purposes of “proactive protection”.
An insurance company would gladly subsidize the costs of installing yet another sensor in your house – as long as it can automatically alert the fire department or make front porch lights flash in case your smoke detector goes off. For now, accepting such tracking systems is framed as an extra benefit that can save us some money. But when do we reach a point where not using them is seen as a deviation – or, worse, an act of concealment – that ought to be punished with higher premiums?
Whether the next Occupy Wall Street would be able to occupy anything in a truly smart city remains to be seen: most likely, they would beout-censored and out-droned.
To his credit, MacBride understood all of this in 1967. “Given the resources of modern technology and planning techniques,” he warned, “it is really no great trick to transform even a country like ours into a smoothly running corporation where every detail of life is a mechanical function to be taken care of.” MacBride’s fear is O’Reilly’s master plan: the government, he writes, ought to be modeled on the “lean startup” approach of Silicon Valley, which is “using data to constantly revise and tune its approach to the market”. It’s this very approach that Facebook has recently deployed to maximize user engagement on the site: if showing users more happy stories does the trick, so be it.
Algorithmic regulation, whatever its immediate benefits, will give us a political regime where technology corporations and government bureaucrats call all the shots. The Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, in a pointed critique of cybernetics published, as it happens, roughly at the same time as The Automated State, put it best: “Society cannot give up the burden of having to decide about its own fate by sacrificing this freedom for the sake of the cybernetic regulator.”
— Evgeny Morozov, excerpted from The Rise and the Death of Politics
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