Day: January 10, 2007

Imity

I just signed up for the beta version of Imity. I’m still not sure what to make of it, except that it is freaky.

The idea is a form of augmented reality, or embodied virtuality, or whatever you want to call it. It takes the idea behind social networks like Friendster et al and attempts to replicate them in meatspace (in fact, I suspect they are going to try to tie into existing social networks, so that you don’t have to re-enter all your friends yet another time).

Ok, that’s still pretty vague. Let me try again. You need to have a fairly snazzy cellphone for this to work: the phone is your “presence marker.” You sign up on their website, download a little java app to the phone, and whenever the phone gets in range of another bluetooth device, it logs that event. If that bluetooth device happens to belong to someone you know, maybe your phone will beep at you or something. And later, you can go back to the imity website, and see all the bluetooth-contact events that you logged, and you’ll slap your forehead when you realize your best friend was at the same movie as you, even though you never saw each other.

But the freaky thing is, your phone logs all bluetooth contacts. I went to a coffee shop and logged eight contacts while I was there. Several of these were clearly people using Macs (which all have Bluetooth as well), as they were identified by Apple’s default computer names, “John Doe’s Computer” and the like. So now I can take an educated guess at the names of several complete strangers in a coffee shop. And it will count every time you’re around John Doe’s computer, so that perhaps after you’ve been in the same place at the same time enough, you’ll break down and introduce yourself—”Hi, John Doe. You and I have shown up at the same place at the same time on 37 occasions, so I thought I’d introduce myself.” I don’t know. Maybe not. Like I said, it’s freaky.

It gets even freakier when you imagine matching these bluetooth events against a GPS breadcrumb trail. It’s one thing to look at your imity log after the fact and note “at 17:23, I was near John Doe’s computer” and then try to figure out where you were at that time. It’s another when you know “at 17:23, I was at Clementine coffee shop, and was near John Doe’s computer.” Super-freaky. Then you’d push all that data into Google Earth and develop a model of where people hang out.

Or maybe not you. Maybe Starbuck’s installs Imity-like Bluetooth sensors at all their doors, or better yet, a consortium of retailers that all share this data, so they can work out where people go and when. Even if they spend cash, or don’t spend anything, they can track you via your bluetooth device. Of course, you can also track that they’re tracking you.

We have nothing to fear but the absence of something to fear

I don’t respond to other people’s blogs often, but a post by Matt Haughey got me thinking. He begins When I was a kid, the future was filled with optimism. The year 2000 was 10-20 years away and it was this magical goal we were working towards.

I have a very different recollection of the 80s. After a decade of an unwanted war, domestic malaise, and the hostage crisis, we had an apocalyptic president, with his finger on the button of a nuclear arsenal that could wipe out human civilization. I didn’t see any way out of Mutually Assured Destruction except through it. The Reagan era gave us punk rock and a depth of nihilism I don’t think American culture had seen before.

The implosion of the Soviet Union, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, and the hanging of Nicolae CeauÅŸescu marked the end of that era. It was the 90s that was the era of optimism, at least for me. The economy was going like gangbusters, we had an intelligent and competent Democrat in the White House, and most importantly, we were not on the verge of blowing ourselves up. The millennium was near, and I approached it optimistically (many, of course, did not).

That spirit ended on 9/11, of course. And as I’ve lived long enough to have a chance to watch some history happen, I wonder if this country doesn’t have a hunger for bogeymen. After the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, which had served in that role so reliably for so long, it was clear that the country was hunting for a new one. Oh, we had (and still have) the War on Drugs, and Clinton himself became the target for much of the country’s paranoia and loathing (remember Whitewater? Vince Foster? Travelgate?). But these were poor substitutes for the menace of International Communism, and I think everyone knew it and at some level was waiting around for something better to get worked up about. We have found a truly worthy successor in International Terrorism: the threat has been played up and used to justify government malfeasance to an extent not seen since the 50s, if ever. Not because of the gravity of the threat (which cannot seriously be held comparable to MAD, though whether MAD itself was a legitimate doctrine is another question), simply because of our own need for something to fear. Part of this may be genuinely wrapped up in the national mood. Part of this may be cynical business manipulation, after all, Rule of Acquisition #34 states War is good for business. I don’t know how much to attribute to which.