Stalked by the Future

July 2005


Technology happens, whether we want it to or not. Sometimes it is more important to understand what the question is than to know what the answer will be.

In the neighborhood where I work, the city is digging up the old parking meters and replacing them with an electronic gizmo that allows you to pay for your on-street parking with a credit card. Just one kiosk serves each side of the block. You put your money in or swipe your credit card and it gives you a little paper token to put in the window of your car that says when your time is up.

Each of these kiosks is wired to city hall. Somebody can look up that block and see how many cars are allegedly parked there and how much time they have left. This caused me to wonder whether they might also have a link from the parking enforcement vehicles to the base that would tell them where to go to write the most tickets. Ain't computers wonderful.

It reminded me of the technology pundit who was waxing poetic about the brave new world capabilities of modern computers. He was talking about smart cars. In this scenario, you are driving to somewhere, following the directions your car is feeding you. Your smart car has your medical history and can also monitor your vital signs, so it sends you to the hospital instead of your intended destination. In this way you can have your heart attack in the emergency room. He didn't say that you wouldn't have had a heart attack if your damned car hadn't sent you in the wrong direction.

Another scary scenario is known as pre-emptive marketing. You go to your computer for directions to a store. Knowing your buying habits, the search engine sends you by a route (a little out of the most direct route, but not too much) that will take you by stores that sell things you like to buy. The stores pay the search engine folks to drive you by their stores -- so this passive recommendation doesn't say anything about how good the stores or their products are.

Going a few years further into the future, we have the patrol routes of public safety personnel (police, fire, and ambulance) programmed to fit the highest probability of an event happening as they pass by. Just imagine the city computer, hearing about cut backs in city funding, overloads the wiring in a couple of buildings while a fire truck is parked out front -- just to keep the statistics favorable and its own funding secure.

Or what if a criminal gang hacked into the computer and sent all the cops off to the back of beyond at 4pm on Friday, just so they could pull off a couple of big robberies downtown? Ecoterrorists hack into the computer and give everybody with a car downtown a $200 parking ticket. The possibilities are endless.

What about the future and the march of progress? I like watches that wind up and neighborhoods where what I do is nobody's business but my own.

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