Technology gets up-close and personal

Can technologies be intimate? Just how close do we want them to get? Those were among the questions posed at the Intimate Technologies/Dangerous Zones conference held recently at the Banff Centre ( Participants from around the world saw, live and on video, just how far you can stretch technology in the service or disservice of humanity.

Sometimes the stretching was literal. Joanna Berzowska of International Fashion Machines ( in Cambridge, Mass., demonstrated both smart and electronic textiles, many of them derived from work at MIT’s Media Lab. For example, The Musical Jacket is “a wearable musical instrument made from a Levis jacket, a patented embroidered keypad, a fabric bus, a mini-MIDI synthesizer, speakers and batteries.”

Fickle fashion

If you don’t want to play music on your clothes, perhaps you’d like the eInk creations, another MIT spin-off ( These are flexible plastic sheets filled with charged black and white particles. Under computer control, they change almost instantaneously between black and white. This allows just about any surface to become a display screen. So, for example, you can vary your T-shirt’s message to suit your mood.

A basic premise of the Banff Centre’s New Media Programs, as orchestrated by executive producer and artistic director Sara Diamond, is to break down the barriers between scientists and artists. The list of attendees ranged from Arnold Smith, senior research scientist at the National Research Council, to Perry Hoberman, a New York-based artist famous for works like Bar Code Hotel.

Professor Steve Mann (, definitely has both the artistic and scientific brains all rolled into one. He’s the author of the book Cyborg and now a University of Toronto Professor. Mann has a sort of cult status with this group since he’s the acknowledged pioneer of wearable computing. While he wasn’t in Banff, he provided a Webcam tour of his house, and (I missed this part) apparently went through his wife’s lingerie drawer.

Mann has probably worn a Web camera a lot more than most of us. Perhaps because of this, he’s acutely concerned about personal privacy and digital freedom. He’s cooked up an idea called “sousveillance” which is really the opposite of surveillance (oversight from above). In Steve Mann’s ideal world, ordinary people would use wearable cameras and other technologies to keep watch on companies and governments. Examples include citizens videotaping police brutality and sending the tapes to news media, and 1-800 number on the back of transport trucks inviting you to report “How’s My Driving?”

These artists and scientists seem to have a love/hate relationship with their technological tools and toys. Montreal based researcher Marc Tuters and his colleagues have created an open-source database ( to collect position-based data. With it, you can leave any information you want, tagged to a specific location, for others to see. Type in Calgary’s co-ordinates (Latitude: 51 degrees, 06 minutes North, Longitude: 114 degrees, 01 minutes West) and you will get the exact location of a nice bridge on Prince’s Island Park as well as a local drag racing track.

Tuters loves the idea of people freely posting information tied to precise locations. But he also sees potential for misuse of GPS-based systems. People could put disinformation into the database. Governments could decide to turn off the satellites that make GPS work. “If the U.S. military ever decided to,” says Tuters, “they could selectively block a region from the GPS system, which could cause all sorts of havoc.”

He notes that thousands of Japanese who relied on a positioning service for driving directions were left wandering the roads of Tokyo when a Y2K problem hit. At its recent summit in Barcelona, the European Union decided to proceed with its own satellite system, as an alternative to the U.S.-run GPS. Marc Tuters also speculates that data on our position in space and time will become a valuable commodity, of interest to everyone from theme park designers to governments.

Made you blush

Artist and Curator Nina Czegledy also has concerns about where certain technologies may be taking us. She studies biometrics, and points to some frightening misuses of that technology. For example, your blushing pattern can now be used to determine, with some accuracy, if you are lying. This technology might be applied to screen for potential terrorists at airports. But it could also be used clandestinely in day-to-day business dealings, with frightening implications for personal privacy. “It’s already evident how you can be tracked,” Czegledy says, “not only physically, but by all your interactions, even your medical tests. There are networks that share information about you and all of these data can be pulled together.”

One of the most captivating discussions at the conference related to the idea of public and private space. Increasingly, we use our private techno-toys like cell phones and PDAs in public places. One artist reported riding on the train to Heathrow Airport and overhearing the intimate details of a corporation’s tax evasion scheme. Others argued that we are developing an “anthropology” for using technology, such as turning away from our companions to create a “cone of privacy.”

All this might become moot if we move down the road paved by U.K. Professor Kevin Warwick. He’s the “human cyborg” who received a computer chip implant in his body several years ago. In March, 2002, he upped the ante, having a more complex 3mm wide chip surgically implanted into his left wrist. It contains 100 electrodes that link directly into his median nerve. Warwick hopes to help people who have been paralysed, and also to be able to control devices, such as robots, directly from his body.

If that happens, the question of where and how you use your technology may well become irrelevant. Your body and your cell phone and your PDA will be one. It’s a good thing we have places like the Banff Centre to discuss not just the technology, but also the implications of such nerve-tingling research!

Dr. Keenan, ISP, is Dean of the Faculty of Continuing Education at the University of Calgary, and teaches a course called Hot Issues in Computer Security.