Navigating private life in a public world

Samuel Miles is a PhD student at Queen’s Mary University of London.

Sam Miles

His piece ‘Navigating private life in a public world’ finished in the top 10 of the ESRC’s writing competition, The World in 2065 – in collaboration with academic publishers, SAGE.  You can read it below:

Navigating private life in a public world

Walking down a city street, you feel a buzz from the phone in your pocket. Looking at the screen, you read a message from the coffee shop on the next block. ‘We’ve got a new batch of that Javanese coffee you said you liked last week. Come and try it now and we’ll upgrade you to a Grande for free!’

This is not a vision of the world in 2065, it’s what the world could look like this year. Locative technology – that is, the GPS system in your smartphone that can track your location – is now sophisticated enough to link your position in space with corporations who could cleverly use the data to nudge you towards their products, all as you walk down the street in real-time. The only reason we haven’t seen this targeted mobile marketing on our high streets yet is because the extent to which our online data is shared between developers, governments and corporations would unnerve us – unless introduced in a way that benefits us as consumers.

My research will change the world by 2065 because digital technology and location-based services will be central to how we chart space, how we connect with people, and how we use the services, shops and social venues around us. I study the ways that gay men – to focus on just one population group – use locative dating apps in their everyday lives. I ask how these products affect social and sexual encounters, and how mobile dating apps mixes the concepts of virtual and physical space. But I also explore how dating app users consider privacy, surveillance and commodification.

In 50 years the idea of being locatable in space won’t be new, and it might not even raise any concerns: it will simply be a fact of life. We won’t need to ask where our friends or family are, because our devices will pinpoint them on maps projected onto our kitchen counter or our spectacles. Rather than mobile phones, we may communicate with wearable technology – not just the digital watches being developed today, but also tiny complex microchips worn as jewellery or even implanted into the skin. These devices will map our movements, our health, and even our appetites to others – including, in all likelihood, private corporations. After all, what better way is there to attract customers into your restaurant than by engineering conversation with someone nearby who you know is hungry and has been on their feet for several hours? Combine this knowledge with their credit card transactions – a penchant for Italian food, a recent holiday to Tuscany – and the restaurant can make the customer feel like the only thing they want to eat is a stonebaked pizza. In this way, corporations will know as much about us as we know ourselves – and maybe more.

If this sounds dystopian, we should consider the positives too. In 50 years, mobile technologies will help ambulances reach medical emergencies even more efficiently than they do now. A phone app was released this year that maps off-duty doctors onto your local city, so that if one is nearby, they can dash to your pinned location even quicker than paramedics. This kind of crowdsourced community may develop in beneficial, altruistic ways that we cannot even imagine. Friends and family will feel closer than ever, despite a growth in migration and global networking. Crime and security will be streamlined, with criminal activity mapped even before it happens by aggregating the locational data of known hotspots.

But crime and punishment raise some of the biggest questions, too. Many baulk at the idea of an electronic tag monitoring offenders today, but 50 years from now the whole population might be tracked in a similar way. The argument ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear’ will sweep aside the valid objections of civil liberties in the same way that app developers currently sell users’ personal data to corporations. After all, as a dating app user you share incredibly personal data not just with potential dates, but with third parties to whom your statistics, behaviours and likes are highly valuable. And you sacrifice this data because you get something out of the exchange too – a convenient social networking tool.

Mobile and pervasive digital technology, like the radio, the phone, and the television before it, is the future. It is therefore vital that we consider the questions these technologies raise. What do we lose when we lose our privacy?

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