Little Brother is watchingMobile devices are convenient and useful, but they also harbour a darker side.

In George Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother is larger than life. He comes uninvited into everyone’s homes and workplaces on large two-way telescreens. He follows them unrelentingly wherever they go, trying to probe their minds to ensure they aren’t indulging in unauthorized thoughts.

But the Big Brother of tomorrow may come in a more subversive and outwardly benevolent form. He may come invited, offering conveniences and immediacy while slowly and covertly stripping us of our privacy and free time. In fact, we might elect to carry Big Brother around with us because the very technology which facilitates this type of monitoring also eases our lives, making it simpler for us to do our jobs and personal chores.

Mobile computing devices such as handhelds and smart phones are becoming more popular every day, and they are only the advance guard of the legions of applications that may follow. These will be mobile devices that we not only carry around but perhaps wear on our wrists, or even embed under our skin. They may allow us to do our banking, access e-mail and exchange information at the touch of a button or through a handshake.

Mobile devices allow us easy access to anything, anytime, anywhere. But like most things, they come with a price and the possible costs could be physical, personal and social.

Fitting technology to humans

Anyone who’s ever worked for a long period of time at a computer workstation knows it can be tough on your body. A long stint in front of a computer can lead to neck, shoulder and back pain. And staring at a monitor can lead to eye irritation, fatigue and blurry vision.

Mobile computers are a little less taxing, according to some experts, but they may still take their toll.

With the computer terminal, “you have to adjust to the computer, it doesn’t adjust to you,” said Kent Daum, who is studying the effect that electronic books have on eyes and is a professor at the school of optometry at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Because mobile computers, such as handhelds and palm tops, allow users to position them wherever it’s most comfortable, users don’t have to strain to see a monitor, which can lead to neck and shoulder tension. Those who wear bifocals will also find it easier to view the monitor on a handheld at a distance which is optimal for their glasses.

But, Daum warns, many of the problems users face with traditional terminals still apply to handhelds. Strong glare or reflection off of a screen can still lead to eye strain. In fact, most users are careful to place computer terminals in a position where their monitors are less likely to encounter glare, but when using mobile computers in places such as an airport users have less control over the lighting quality around them.

“You need to be concerned about where lights are – you don’t want bright lights right behind you that are going to be reflecting off the screen,” said Greg Good a professor of clinical optometry at Ohio State University in Columbus.

The higher the resolution and refresh rate, the easier it is for your eyes to focus. And screens with white backgrounds and dark letters are also easier on the eyes, since your eyes have to adjust less when they switch from the screen to paper.

“Any sort of repetitive strain injury can result from holding a position for a long time, or gripping something tightly,” said Colleen Shubaly, an occupational therapist at the Orthopaedic and Arthritic Institute of the Sunnybrook and Women’s College Health Science Centre in Toronto.

When holding a cell phone between your shoulder and ear, for example, it’s important not to maintain that position for too long. Gripping a skinny stylus tightly can also lead to hand fatigue. The larger the diameter of the stylus, the better.

But the problem with most computing devices is that they are “built by engineers for engineers,” said Robin MacKay, the head of emerging technologies at NCR’s Knowledge Lab in London. MacKay wants to design technology to fit human beings, rather than force people to fit with technology. The lab is currently working on a computerized bracelet that will let people exchange information through a handshake. The unit, which can be fitted with different modules carrying a variety of information, such as banking information, is known as the M-Bracelet.

“I think it makes the technology more human in that you start to develop (the) same sort of relationship with technological objects as you do with objects that you really like,” he said.

But devices we carry in our pockets or strapped to our wrists are only the beginning. Scientists working away in labs around the world are inventing things that science fiction writers long-ago dreamed up.

“Hello, Professor Warwick”

Anyone who’s seen Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 isn’t likely to forget the homicidal computer HAL’s composed voice as he calmly went about murdering his crew members. So it’s not easy imagining a computer that talks to you being entirely benevolent, but Kevin Warwick’s computer greeted him with, “Hello, Professor Warwick” every time he entered his workplace, and he wasn’t worried by it.

Warwick, a professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading in Reading, England, had a silicon chip transponder implanted in his forearm on Aug. 24 for a nine-day experiment. Every time Warwick entered the intelligent building he worked in, the computer would greet him and let him know how many e-mail messages he had.

The building would also track his whereabouts so that his secretary or anyone else viewing the monitor in the foyer could find out where he was at all times. Doors would open and lights would go on as he made his way around the building.

Warwick’s goal is to help invent an implant that will give human beings extra capabilities and make them “superhuman.”

He realizes that his experiment conjures up images of Big Brother.

“That was one of the reasons we did the experiment -the Big Brother issue. But, to be honest, it didn’t worry me at all – far from it. Maybe because positive things were happening – doors opening and lights coming on. Maybe if it had been the opposite – doors closing and lights coming off – then maybe I would have felt differently. It didn’t worry me that my secretary or whoever (was) looking at the screen would know where I was,” he said.

But the idea of everyone being connected and always reachable at all times worries Bill Wilkerson, president of the Canadian Business and Economic Roundtable on Mental Health.

He worries that as people get connected through electronic devices, they will feel a growing sense of isolation.

“Body language is one of the most powerful forms of communication we have, and it’s completely lost [in] electronic communications. The ability to make eye contact is completely lost,” Wilkerson said. “I think the idea that we are connected is true in a technical manner, but it’s not true in a human manner.”

Although electronic communication lets us reach more people from more locations, the nature of that communication is significantly different.

E-mail messages are different from hand-written letters. There tends to be less concern about grammar, said Paul Hoffert, who directs the CulTech Research Centre at York University and Sheridan College in Toronto and is the author of The Bagel Effect. People writing e-mail messages tend to use less capitals, less punctuation and more sentence fragments, making Internet-speak closer to conversation-speak, Hoffert said.

But Wilkerson thinks that the conversational style of e-mail messages is not enough to replace the human interaction that is lost.

“The idea that face-to-face conversation can be replicated faceless-to-faceless through chatty kinds of e-mail messages I think is an empty promise,” Wilkerson said. “It’s one-way communication twice, as opposed to two-way once.”

The result, Wilkerson said, is that people will feel isolated. And even though they will be overloaded by an avalanche of data sent through dozens or, in some cases, hundreds of e-mail messages per day, they will feel starved for clear and open communication in their workplace. Since most of the information they get will be sent in an electronic format, they won’t know how to gauge it. They will no longer be able to use body language, for example, to judge content.

Along with creating a sense of isolation, the sheer volume of e-mail messages also raise mental health concerns, Wilkerson said. And mobile devices don’t help the matter because with them people are never really away from the office.

“I think there is growing evidence that the 24 by seven work day cycle is creating a level of intensity that rolls over people’s sense of being able to manage what’s in front of them,” Wilkerson said.

“The medium is the message”

If Marshall McLuhan’s often-quoted words have any merit, then the mobile computing devices we use may have some far-reaching effects.

Because people can now be constantly connected, the amount of exchange between people is intensifying and speeding up, according to Ron Deibert, a professor of politics and technology at University of Toronto. This accelerates social forces that are already going at such a rapid pace, he said. And when people are moving at such a rapid rate, they don’t have time to sit back and think about the direction in which they are headed. They are simply carried forward by inertia.

“When you have people so caught up in the empire of speed, there’s very little time. In fact it acts against the whole idea of having time to reflect on where we’re going as a society and what the consequences are in the long run of what we’re doing today. So it almost acts as an environmental constraint against that type of, ‘Hold on a minute, is this the right choice that we’re making here and here,'” Deibert said.

Once we create a technology, it becomes a part of our natural environment, Deibert said, and all environments constrain some forces and facilitate others.

This means that the new landscape which we are constructing, a landscape populated by smart phones, handhelds, wearable computers and networked human beings, will encourage certain types of social forces while discouraging others.

For his part, Deibert believes that today’s landscape of distributed communication lets global corporations and global financial forces, as well as civil society networks, thrive. Authoritarian states no longer able to control the flow and acquisition of information, however, are not doing well in the current environment, and mobile devices will play a part in this.

But the flip side of this, Deibert continued, is that it threatens our privacy.

Hoffert of CulTech agreed.

“A lot of [our] private time is no longer private.” People eating in a restaurant can now be interrupted by a cell phone or pager. Time spent away from the office is no longer really time spent away, because people now carry a part of their office with them. And people will always know where you are and be able to track your every move.

But, Hoffert adds, this lack of privacy is neither good nor bad, just different.

“We’re becoming more communal and more connected and less private people than we were,” he said. “I don’t think that it’s necessarily an unnatural condition, but it’s technology bringing a change to the amount of privacy and space that we’ve come to expect, especially as epitomised in North America and the new world.”

But along with the possible benefits, mobile computing technology brings with it certain dangers.

“There are possibilities of different businesses using it to monitor employees – when they’re at their desks and when they’re not. It’s perhaps not so sinister as government monitoring, but is perhaps a lot more likely,” Warwick said of his implant technology. “A lot of manufacturing now for Western countries is actually carried out in the Third World, where it might easily be the case that an employee would work for a company at a nice salary subject to having an implant.”