Clicking and scrolling through the Web today in my usual morning/midday/evening ritual, I came across two items that caught my eye—separate items on different sites that essentially ask the same question: "What is this thing?".
The first was a piece from tech site The Verge, posing a little game of "identify the function of this wearable". The Web loves quizzes, so why not? From the post:
"A lot of wearables have even gotten good enough now that you can't tell that they're a wearable — or, at the very least, that you don't have any idea what they're doing.”
As the post points out, just because a wearable (or any connected object) claims to perform a particular function doesn't mean it does that, or does it well. So we've gone from one end of the design spectrum—clunky, large or aesthetically or socially displeasing chunks of circuity to svelte, non-descript or even camouflaged shapes. An object may look like a ring, but it may both send and receive data, like a contact information, payment data, or, hypothetically, allergy information or openness to dating. We probably don't know what it is, and its function isn't legible. Design has achieved a kind of invisibility while diminishing legibility.
The second item was a little more concrete: a Reddit thread asking for help identifying a small, black plastic object sitting behind a restaurant sign. It turned out to be a beacon, if the group was correct in its assessment. There was a bit of idle speculation, combined with a little human flesh search engine work:
"Looks like light of some sort. Could also be a random noise maker. Based on the fact that I see no memory-like modules, it's harmless."
If you're reading this blog, chances are good you could spot a piece of wireless technology hiding out in public, stuck to a wall, behind a sign or strapped to a light pole. You may not know what it is or does, but you have a sense that it's there to detect, measure, or communicate something, and is probably talking to a network, device or system somewhere.
This is probably not the case for the vast percentage of the public impacted by a device like a beacon. If you're perceptive enough to notice it (assuming the device is in plain sight), chances are good you wouldn't be able to identify it by any external information. For an industrial object, you may get little or no information on the object. For a personal or consumer device, you might get a brand or serial number (the latter being helpful in allowing the Redditers to identify the beacon here). And this is if you can see it.
Depending on where you are in the world, such an object may be interacting with you or technology on you, or collecting data about you or the environment you are impacting. It may be a sensor, a beacon, a tag of some kind or a discretely worn personal device. Do we have a right to know what's in sensing our proximity. Is there even a standard way of making this possible, beyond scanning for them?
So, how will we know what "thing" this is? Setting aside issues of data privacy, do we have a means of knowing who, when, where and by what we are being measured or monitored? Or do we take the stealth of design and placement as an indication that we shouldn't know? How do we balance aesthetics and (some designers' goal of) seamless experience with awareness of sensing around us? What new social behaviors might emerge that intentionally conflict with the goals of these technologies?
Perhaps ad blocking behavior is one metaphor we can look at. As advertising and trackers that feed them (sometimes seen as the same thing from the users point of view) are perceived as becoming more intrusive, means of blocking both have become more widespread, and ad blocker usage has risen to such a point that it's creating serious concern in the media industry. This rise in blocking is happening in large part because the tracking is often seen as non-consensual—a given page of content from a major Web property can inject a fistful of tracking scripts and, among other things, degrade the digital experience significantly.
We may not feel it as much right now, but as the data collected about us is converted to more changes to the communications we receive (ads, deals, warnings, prompts etc), or to the environments around us, the more we may adopt new behaviors of avoidance: not going to that mall, driving a different route, not taking a phone with us, visiting another gym, or not going to a friend's home for coffee. Objects like RFID-blocking wallets are the weak signal of this behavioral shift, as crazy as these might seem right now.
It's worth considering how we might avoid an escalating game of hide and seek, and just make plain and accessible information about the presence and purpose of devices around us. Otherwise, it may be left to the Reddit mobs of the world to figure it out, something which history tells us doesn't work so well.