Several months ago, I saw Dr. Rosalind Picard give a talk on Affective Computing. I took notes and thought a lot about what she said but let my thoughts fester rather than follow up on them. Then last week, I read Emotional Design by Donald A. Norman, which reminded me of Dr. Picard’s work and my initial thoughts about affective computing.
There are two elements to affective computing:
- People interact with technology and devices as though it has a personality (and devices and interfaces without personalities can be distasteful to use).
- Cameras, wearables, and other technology can be used to determine the emotions and affective responses of a person using technology with surprising accuracy.
Websites and applications are personalized by tracking your browsing history, collecting advertising preferences, device usage, and demographic data. Using affective computing, they could soon be personalized by tracking your emotions.
Shortly after the Boston Marathon bombings occurred, and once police identified the accused bombers, the manhunt began. The police and other teams scoured Boston and the surrounding area for the Tsarnaev brothers. Meanwhile, the rest of the country scoured the Internet for their Internet presence. However, this had a new effect in light of the tragedy of the bombing:
The social media droppings the Tsarnaev brothers left behind not only attest to their own immersion in the interactive, electronic world, but they have also provided everyone else with plenty of digital data from which to try to extract patterns and possible meaning — fulfilling that very human need to try to make narrative sense of the tragic and the overwhelming.
(Unraveling Boston Suspects’ Online Lives Link by Link, New York Times)
With the continuing revelations surrounding the extent of NSA surveillance of, and indeed, spying on, Internet traffic and cell phone transmissions, the reality becomes that a more sinister narrative could arise. With the “social media droppings”–combined with location data provided by cell phone metadata, the content and recipients skimmed from our email messages, and decrypted VPN and SSL traffic–a very new, and more elaborate pattern and meaning could be constructed. As Sarah Kendzior points out in her most recent piece for Al Jazeera:
The greatest danger of data collection lies not in the information, but in its interpretation. With billions of pieces of intelligence stored in a given month, the ability to gather data has exceeded the ability to analyse it. The trail supersedes the target. Data becomes its own context.
She goes on to elaborate:
The greatest threat of online surveillance is not that they know us, but that they think they do, and we are hostage to their interpretation. They will spy until “something happens”, and what we naively called “life” will be spit back as evidence.
Jill Lepore, in her excellent examination of the current state of surveillance that we languish in, made this remark in reference to Jeremy Bentham’s essay On Publicity:
““Without publicity, no good is permanent: under the auspices of publicity, no evil can continue.” He [Bentham] urged, for instance, that members of the public be allowed into the legislature, and that the debates held there be published. The principal defense for keeping the proceedings of government private—the position advocated by those Bentham called “the partisans of mystery”—was that the people are too ignorant to judge their rulers.”
To paraphrase, according to Bentham, it wasn’t previously that that citizens should know what their government was doing because they wouldn’t be smart enough to understand and evaluate the decisions made by their leaders.