Today, you can go to Helsinki, Finland, to catch a glimpse of the future of the “mobile surveillance” playing field. An erudite ex-Nokia researcher by the name of Jyri Engeström has recently assembled a small team to develop a mobile social software startup: Jaiku.
Jaiku takes over your phone’s buddy list and default screen and presents unprecedented levels of personal mobile disclosure. Seated on a blanket in the grass during a rural picnic, Engeström excitedly demonstrates a working prototype—his buddy list, with greatly expanded information: “By glancing at my phone, I know a lot of things about my close friends.” Engeström begins to read from his screen: “I know Teemu is on his way home from work in a part of Helsinki called Haaga.
He’s probably on the bus because there are many people around him.” Engeström knows this because Jaiku reads local Bluetooth device signatures to see if other people (friends or strangers) are in the vicinity. He continues: “Mika has been home from work for about an hour and his girlfriend is out. And they can see that I’m working on my laptop at our summer place in Fiskars.”
Keeping tabs on your friends is, in a way, a more intimate parallel to government Big Brother surveillance: “sousveillance,” researcher Steve Mann calls it. Engeström explained the appeal of this level of personal information sharing: “I think rich presence is a good thing because it makes you feel closer to the people you care about. For instance, I don’t see my mom as often as I’d like, but now she knows that I’m OK, and I feel good knowing she can see what I’m up to even if I don’t call her every day.”
With this software, your buddy list knows where you are—they might join you if they’re able. Friends might ask you to run errands for them as you’re on the road. Your location and status provides a constant performance, and a constant invitation to others.
Everyone in your buddy list knows where you are, and even a bit of what you’re doing: that’s the sort of awareness present in today’s massive multiplayer online games. In environments like World of Warcraft, players can see their list of friends, where they are in the world, what their immediate status is. With a layer of fiction added on top, software like Jaiku could turn all of mobile life into that kind of virtual environment: a multiplayer online game you play—just by living. Instead of waiting in line at the pizza parlor, you are preparing to do battle for the liberation of Hibernia. Instead of driving home from school, you are carrying an important telegram for the galactic trade ministry.
Why bother? Because without that layer of fun, real-time information disclosure could seem invasive, or even creepy, at least at first. Abstraction and metaphor would allow people to experiment with their personal data trail without being too specific. If the game takes place as you’re using your device, then you accrue experience and items just from moving and communicating. If the game caught on, you might find yourself going out of your way to boost certain statistics—“I’m showing up as a member of the Santa Monica gang; I better put some more time in Echo Park.”
Or maybe your avatar isn’t you, but your pet instead. Picture a Tamagotchi in your mobile device where your creature is fed passively through the data you consume and process. If you frequent a certain restaurant, your data pet would be fed that food, and so it would dress like that cuisine (a sombrero, lederhosen, salwar kameez). If you attend a Mos Def concert, your data pet would be seen listening to his hip-hop collection. As these data pets take on your characteristics, you can send them out into the world to mingle with other avatars. Picture your souvenir-laden data pet bumping into other data pets: checking out someone’s data pet to see where they had been, and doing a bit of surrogate data pet show and tell.
So much of what we do with technology is social. That time people spend on MySpace, e-mailing, chatting—it’s become the primary way in which we stay connected. And the level of intimacy is constantly evolving. Already you can see a kind of casual exhibitionism on photo-sharing sites and social networking sites: “Here I am eating this crazy food.” “Here I was so drunk visiting our mutual friend.” With systems like Jaiku, and the games that could be built on top of this type of surveillance, moving around and making calls could literally be transformed into a type of performance piece.
It may be awhile before we are technically able to share all this real-time data through our mobile devices. Some services still seem to have enough trouble with picture messages, let alone constant status updates. Besides, this kind of active online life drains batteries and eats through data-plan megabytes. And it’s not clear that all folks will be comfortable with this level of personal disclosure, at least not without some strong privacy controls that take time to learn and deploy. Technical and privacy barriers aside, software like Jaiku shows us what mobile phones are for. Remember when phones used to belong to houses? You called someone’s house and hoped they were there. Then there were phones in cars! Now we have phones on people, and we’re likely only to become more connected.
The result? With a mobile device, you are already part of a braintrust: one of many experts scattered around the globe, waiting to solve problems. Think about it—you can contact so many other people who have their phone in their pockets: priests, politicians, performers, professionals. Some farmer in the Philippines could drunk dial you right now and ask for relationship advice. What good can that do? Warren Ellis had an idea: he wrote the comic book Global Frequency, where all manner of folks around the world carry special mobile devices so they might be called in to solve global problems.
You might not be a nuclear physicist, ready to defuse a bomb, but you could play one on your mobile phone. Using technology like Jaiku, we can build Global Frequency-type games: shared objectives for teams of people. With these kinds of games, we learn to solve problems, and prototype the collective future: where we are plugged in to each other wherever we are.