Last night I had an interesting conversation at a small industry dinner. Talk turned to Google Glass, in the context of Snapchat and other social photo sharing apps.
Everyone at the table agreed: it was inevitable – whether it be Glass, GoPro, a button in your clothing or some other form factor – personalized, “always on” streaming of images will be ubiquitous. Within a generation (or sooner), everyone with access to mass-market personal electronics (i.e., pretty much everyone with a cell phone now) will have the ability to capture everything they see, then share or store it as they please.
That’s when a fellow at the end of the table broke in. “My first response to Glass is to ask: How do I stop it?”
The dinner was private, so I can’t divulge names, but this fellow was a senior executive in the banking business. He doesn’t want consumers streaming video from inside his banks, nor does he want his employees “Glassing” confidential documents or the keys to the safe deposit boxes.
All heads at the table nodded, as if this scenario was right around the corner – and the implications went far beyond privacy at a bank. Talk turned to many other situations where people agreed they’d not want to be “always on.” It could be simple – a bad hair day – or complicated: a social pariah who just wanted to be left alone. All in all, people were generally sympathetic to the notion of “the right to be left alone” – what in this case might be called “the right to not be in a public stream.”
But how to enforce such a right? The idea of banning devices like Glass infringes the wearer’s rights, and besides, it just won’t scale – tiny cameras will soon be everywhere, and they’ll be basically imperceptible. Sure, some places (like banks, perhaps), will have scanning devices and might be able to afford the imposition of such bans. But in public places? Most likely impossible and quite possibly illegal (in the US, for instance, there is an established right to take photographs in public spaces).
This is when my thoughts turned to one of the most powerful devices we have to manage each other: the Social Contract. I believe we have entered an era in which we must renegotiate our contract with society – that invisible but deeply powerful sets of norms that guide “civil behavior.” Glass (among other artifacts) is at the nexus of this negotiation – the debate laid bare by a geeky pair of glasses.
Back at the table, someone commented that it’d be great if there was a way to let people know you didn’t want to be “captured” right now. Some kind of social cloaking signal*, perhaps. Now, we as humans are damn good at social signaling. We’ve built many a civilization on elaborate sets of social mores. So how might our society signal a desire to not be “streamed”? Might we develop the equivalent of a “robots.txt” for the real world?
For those of you not familiar with robots.txt, it’s essentially a convention adopted early in the Web’s life, back when search became a powerful distributor of attention, and the search index the equivalent of a public commons (Zittrain wrote a powerful post about it here). Some sites did not want to be indexed by search engines, for reasons ranging from a lack of resources (a search engine’s spiders put a small tax on a site’s resources) to privacy. No law was enacted to create this convention, but every major search engine obeys its strictures nevertheless. If a site’s robots.txt tells an indexing spider to not look inside, the robot moves along.
It’s an elegant solution, and it works, as long as everyone involved keeps their part of the social contract. Powerful recriminations occur if an actor abuses the system – miscreants are ostracized, banned from social contact with “good” actors.
So might we all, in some not-so-distant future, have our own “robots.txt” – a signal that we can instrument at will, one which is constantly on, a beacon which others can pick up and understand? Such an idea seem to me not at all far fetched. We already all carry the computing power and bandwidth on our person to effect such a signal. All we need is a reason for it to come online. Glass, or something like it, may well become that reason.
The instrumentation of our new social contract is closer at hand than we might think.
*We already have deeply a meaningful “social cloaking device” – its called our wardrobe. But I’ll get into that topic in another post.